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A Dietitians Approach to Decreasing Cortisol

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN

Managing stress is the number one treatment for lowering cortisol levels, which most of us know that this starts with the basics: adequate sleep, self-care, and exercise.

What Does Cortisol Do?

Cortisol has multiple functions in the body such as:

  • Reducing inflammation

  • Increasing blood sugar

  • Regulating use of carbohydrates, fats, and protein in the body

  • Controlling blood pressure

  • Regulating sleep cycle

Cortisol is most commonly known as the stress hormone. This is the hormone that is released by your adrenal glands when you are in a stressful situation and when your body is under physical stress (ie. exercise, inflammation). This hormone signals the fight-or-flight response, which is a good thing for a short period of time; it gives you the energy you need to respond to stressful situations. However, this is meant to be a short-term response.

When cortisol is chronically elevated it creates inflammation in your body. Inflammation is the root cause of chronic illness such as elevated blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, etc. Essentially, chronically high cortisol is not beneficial.

A Dietitian's Approach

So, what if you have already tried improving sleep, self- care, and exercise and are still not seeing a drop in cortisol levels? Nutrition is another way to decrease chronically high cortisol. This is best done through an anti-inflammatory diet approach, or the Mediterranean diet. Some foods included in this meal plan are fish, poultry, veggies, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats.

The goal with this nutrition plan and lifestyle approach to eating is to reduce overall inflammation, thereby, decreasing cortisol. Nutrients of importance in decreasing inflammation:

Omega -3 Foods

The best form is from fatty fish as it is in an activated form. Meaning, it is best absorbed and able to be used by our body. However, you may also get omegas from plant sources:

  • Anchovies

  • Herring

  • Mackerel

  • Oysters

  • Salmon

  • Sardines

  • Tuna

  • Avocado

  • Chia seeds

  • Flaxseeds

  • Olive oil

  • Walnuts

Vitamin B Foods (especially vitamin B12)

These foods help with the metabolism of cortisol in the body:

  • Lean beef

  • Chicken

  • Eggs

  • Fortified cereal

  • Organ meats

  • Nutritional yeast

Magnesium Foods

These foods are great for relaxing the body and mind and are good for our digestive health:

  • Pumpkin seeds

  • Avocado

  • Banana

  • Broccoli

  • Spinach

  • Dark chocolate

Protein Foods

Proteins are the build blocks for repairing and restoring our tissues. They help improve satiety at meals and balance blood sugar levels.

  • Lean beef

  • Turkey breast

  • Chicken

  • Salmon

  • Tuna

  • Shrimp

  • Eggs

  • Lentils

  • Legumes

  • Quinoa

  • Almonds

Gut Healthy Foods (aka Probiotics)

The good bacteria in our gut help fight infection and keep us healthy. Up to 80% of our immune system is dependent on our gut health. These probiotic-rich and fermented foods feed the healthy bacteria in our gut and promote diversity so we can stay healthy:

  • Unsweetened greek yogurt

  • Kefir

  • Kimichi

  • Sauerkraut

  • Kombucha

Steer Clear

On the contrary, there are foods that can exacerbate the stress response in the body. These include:

  • Alcohol

  • Caffeine

  • High- added sugar foods

  • Simple carbs (pastries, cakes, cookies)

  • Soda

Limiting these in your daily nutrition can help decrease the stress response in your body as well.

Another factor that can heighten the cortisol response is skipping meals. Eating on a regular schedule (about every 3-4 hours) will help with blood sugar balance as well as avoiding eating some of those foods listed above. Being in a chronic state of low blood sugar increases cortisol. By eating on a schedule and balanced meals, regulates blood sugar and decreases cortisol.

De-stress Quickly

The one nutrient you can rely on for a more immediate fix is magnesium. Magnesium is known to relax the body, reduce stress, keep blood pressure managed, and decrease risk of overall chronic disease. Try including magnesium-rich foods as a normal part of your nutrition. One of my personal favorite treats is having plain greek yogurt (probiotic) with 90% cacao powder (magnesium-rich) with frozen berries as a dessert in the evening. You may also try having some roasted pumpkin seeds with olive oil and cinnamon.

In Conclusion

Addition of these anti-inflammatory foods, limiting the foods that exacerbate the stress response and eating on a schedule are a great start to combating stress! Keep in mind that changing your nutrition does not happen overnight. Just as with any new habit or behavior change, this is a long-time game of balancing your nutrition to decrease cortisol.

The key to stress management is a whole body approach. Including the well- known practices of sleep, self-care and exercise in addition to this anti-inflammatory nutrition approach is KEY to success.

Be consistent in your intake during the day.

Move your body in a way you love.

Love yourself and hone in on what YOU need in a day.

Make colorful, nutritious meals.

Control the controllable factors in your life.

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