Stress is an inevitable part of life. The stressors most of us face in our day-to-day (toxic work environments, relationship troubles, money stress, and so on) are very different from the stressors our ancestors faced; our body and brain still experience those stresses as real threats. Our body is hard-wired to respond to stress in order to protect us from threats to our safety (outrunning a predator that wants to eat us, for example), but in the context of modern life, where those kinds of threats are far more rare, we still have a strong stress response.
When faced with what it perceives to be a threat, our brain (specifically, a tiny region at the base called the hypothalamus) sends out a series of nerve and hormonal signals to alert the adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys to secrete hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is what amps up our energy and quickens our heart rate. Cortisol—aka the stress hormone everyone loves to hate—increases the concentration of glucose in our bloodstream and enhances availability of substances our brain and body tissues need for repairs. Cortisol also shuts down functions that aren't essential during that "fight or flight" situation, which is why you may feel momentarily invincible or numb to physical or emotional discomfort as you push through. It's also why you might experience the urge to run to the bathroom—your body is too focused on dealing with the stressor at hand to care about controlling your bowels.
Though cortisol levels are supposed to go back down once that episode concludes, when the stress continues, cortisol can stay elevated, leading to inflammation. Because cortisol also suppresses the immune system and can also affect our reproductive system (again, things that are "nonessential" in the face of a threat like a lion that wants to have you for dinner), chronic stress and chronically elevated cortisol levels can negatively affect our health. Long-term stress response activation has been linked to such conditions as:
- Cardiovascular problems
- Digestive problems
- Impaired cognitive function
- Sleep disturbances
- Weight gain
The good news is that even if we can't directly control the things that stress us out, we can develop coping mechanisms to help us regain a sense of calm—and more normal cortisol levels. What we eat can greatly improve our stress response so we can feel more grounded. Certain foods can also help counter the effect of cortisol.
For starters, you want to make sure you're eating balanced meals and snacks that provide a combination of protein, fat, and complex carbs in order to support stable blood sugar and energy. If you've ever tried to deal with a stressful situation through a cloud of hanger, you'll understand why this is important! It's also important to go slow with foods that have been shown to trigger inflammation, especially sugar and simple carbs like chips and white flours.
Human and animal studies have also looked at stress-induced changes in preference for food—namely, a leaning toward highly palatable comfort foods, especially high-fat and high-sugar foods. It's thought that increased levels of cortisol, insulin, and/or hunger hormone ghrelin may be at work there. If you notice a craving or an increase in overall appetite, ask yourself what's up and whether there's a non-food way to address what you really need or if there is a more nourishing option to help you feel stable and satisfied.
Also worth noting: Skipping meals or letting yourself forget to eat until you've reached that "game over" point is something to guard against. If you're going through a stressful time, practice good self-care by making sure to eat three meals a day and have a snack or two through the day if needed. If numbers are helpful, aiming to eat something about every four hours is a good ballpark.
By the way, even dietitians struggle with this stuff sometimes. To share a personal example, the winter my dad was very ill with cancer, I felt like my nervous system was short-circuiting. I was so overwhelmed with helping take care of him and worrying 24/7, I couldn't think straight, much less sleep. My immune system took a total nosedive, and let's not even talk about the hit my personal life took. My heart was racing all the time.
Interestingly, I found that all I wanted to eat was eggs, avocados, radishes cooked in butter, whole milk yogurt, and giant arugula salads with sardines packed in olive oil. I also developed a weird new habit of eating sauerkraut straight from the jar.
When I dug into the science behind these strange cravings, almost everything pointed to cortisol—specifically, foods that temper the effects of that stress response. Not so strange after all. A few key nutrients to put on your must-have list are:
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA from fish oil, have been shown in numerous studies to counter the inflammatory effect of stress. Both probiotics and prebiotic-rich foods have been shown to help reduce cortisol levels. Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi provide these beneficial gut bacteria, and consuming prebiotic-rich foods like onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, apples, and bananas provides foods for those probiotic bacteria, so to speak.
All carbs prompt our brain to make more serotonin, but choose wisely. Complex carbs like whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, and starchy veggies will help support more stable blood sugar levels. Fiber is important for stabilizing blood sugar as well, so working in plenty of veggies, and including other high-fiber foods like nuts and fruit are also helpful for taming stress-related spikes in blood glucose.
Vitamin C helps support immune system function while also helping fight stress-related cell damage. Citrus and berries are two especially potent sources.
Potassium-rich foods like avocado, leafy greens, and tomato also help keep blood pressure in check, which is important because that's something that also tends to spike when stress hormones are released.
Here are some recipes to help you reap the benefits of these stress-fighting foods in a delicious way. While eating this way for one day won't magically reduce your cortisol levels for good, incorporating these foods as a regular part of your diet and taking steps to manage stress in others ways (just a few ideas: prioritize sleep, pet a cute dog, enjoy gentle movement and mindfulness) can make a big difference.
Breakfast: Eggs and Greens With Roasted Sweet Potato
This meal provides a combination of protein, fat, and complex carbs. It uses olive oil as the main source of fat. Olive oil, another staple of an anti-inflammatory diet, has also been shown to be helpful for reducing inflammation, so it's a great food to work into your routine. Eggs, which provide some omega-3s, also are a good source of choline, a nutrient that's important for proper brain function. The onion and garlic in the greens provide some prebiotic fiber.
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, scrubbed and chopped into ½-inch cubes
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 4 cups Swiss chard, spinach, or other dark leafy greens, rinsed and chopped
- Himalayan pink sea salt and pepper to taste
- 4 eggs
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Toss sweet potato with 1 tablespoon olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Roast until potato is soft and beginning to caramelize, about 30 minutes. Shake the baking sheet a few times to prevent sticking and burning.
- Meanwhile, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add onion. Cook until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute or until fragrant. Add the greens to the pot and saute until greens have cooked down and begun to wilt. If needed, add a few tablespoons of water and cover the skillet with a lid to steam the greens a bit. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside.
- Divide the cooked sweet potato and greens between two plates. Top each plate with two eggs. You can use the remaining olive oil to fry the eggs or prepare them another way you enjoy, such as poached, scrambled, or boiled.
Notes: The sweet potato and greens can easily be made ahead of time. For a plant-based version, skip the eggs and enjoy a baked or steamed sweet potato with tahini on top and a generous sprinkle of hemp hearts. The healthy fat and plant protein will stabilize your blood sugar and give you energy for your morning.
Hate savory breakfast? If sweet breakfast is more your thing, try a comforting bowl of oats with berries and a generous spoonful of nut butter on top.
Lunch: Baby Kale Salad With Baked Salmon
Salmon offers up the same healthy omega-3s you'd get from sardines or other oily fish but is a little more approachable if sardines seem intimidating. Dark leafy greens like kale are also rich in folate, a B vitamin that's important for supporting stable levels of feel-good brain chemical dopamine. Sauerkraut makes a delicious garnish that provides some plant-based probiotic bacteria.
- 2 6-ounce fillets of wild salmon
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil or oil spray to grease baking sheet
- 2 tablespoons tahini
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon white miso paste
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 1 to 2 tablespoons water to thin out, if needed
- 5 cups baby kale
- 12 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 medium ripe avocado, peeled and sliced
- ¼ cup sauerkraut
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a baking sheet with olive oil or spray and place salmon skin-side down. Bake salmon 12 to 15 minutes or until opaque, depending on the thickness. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Meanwhile, make the dressing by whisking together tahini, apple cider vinegar, white miso paste, turmeric, and water, if needed. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, toss baby kale and tomato with dressing. Divide between two plates. Top each plate with avocado slices and one salmon fillet. Garnish with sauerkraut.
Notes: For a plant-based option, top your salad with roasted chickpeas, as they contain tryptophan, an amino acid that's a precursor to mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin.
Dinner: Chickpea or Lentil-Based Pasta With Roasted Broccoli & Walnut Pesto
Chickpea and lentil-based pastas are rich in both protein and fiber, making them a delicious healthy carbohydrate option. While pesto is often made with pine nuts, swapping in walnuts amps up the plant-based omega-3s.
- 1½ cups chickpea or lentil pasta, dry
- Water for pasta
- 1 medium head broccoli, chopped into florets
- ¼ cup olive oil, divided
- The juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 cup basil leaves, trimmed
- ½ cup walnut pieces
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Toss broccoli with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt to taste. Spread on a baking sheet. Roast until broccoli is crispy, about 25 to 30 minutes. Shaking sheet a few times to prevent sticking and burning.
- Prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving a small amount of starchy cooking water in the pot and set aside.
- Meanwhile, prepare the pesto by pulsing remaining ingredients (olive oil through Parmesan or nutritional yeast) in a food processor until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Return pasta to the pot and add broccoli. Pour in pesto and toss well to coat. Divide between two bowls.
Snack: Chocolate Yogurt With Frozen Berries
Aside from being a great source of fiber and vitamin C, berries are also rich in antioxidants that have been associated with anti-inflammatory benefits to help protect the body from the damage caused by chronic stress. Of course you can use fresh, but I love using frozen because they're frozen at peak freshness, which locks in all that nutritious awesomeness. Plus, it can make it much easier to find berries in your price point in the off-season. Cacao powder is one of my favorite ways to sneak a little extra fiber into the day, about 2 grams per tablespoon. The garnish of cacao nibs on this is optional but delicious. As an added bonus, research has suggested that chocolate may help reduce perceived stress levels and temper the effects of cortisol.
- 1½ cups whole milk plain Greek yogurt or unflavored nondairy alternative
- 2 tablespoons cacao powder
- 1½ cups frozen mixed berries
- 2 teaspoons cacao nibs (optional)
- Mix together yogurt and cacao powder until smooth. Divide between two bowls.
- Top each bowl with half the berries and garnish each bowl with cacao nibs.
The bottom line?
Dietary changes can be a powerful part of a stress-reducing routine. Incorporating foods that help offset the cortisol as part of our regular eating pattern can help us get a handle on the effect stress has on our brain and body, even when we can't control those things that stress us out.
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