Several blogs and websites claim that with the right diet, you can eat your stress away. So, is that true? Well, not exactly, although good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle can reduce levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone that the body produces in response to stress. The more life stresses you experience, the more cortisol your body produces. It’s a natural response, but a constant release of cortisol can have dire health consequences, including weight gain, elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal problems. Seniors, athletes, and people who are overworked are most at risk for exposure to high cortisol. While diet isn’t a cure for high cortisol, research suggests that nutrition may play a role in managing levels in the body.
Carbohydrates. Research has found that dietary changes, if maintained over the long term, can have a direct effect on the metabolism of cortisol. Specifically, a low-carbohydrate diet can cause spikes in cortisol to linger in the blood and negatively affect health. Any diet that counts carbs could affect cortisol levels. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that it didn’t matter if the diet was high-fat or medium-fat—it was a low-carbohydrate count that caused cortisol levels to stay high.
Calorie Counting. Another study found that cutting calories increased cortisol levels, no matter the source of the calories. The researchers suggest that dieting and calorie counting are stressful in themselves, which can cause cortisol levels to go up and promote weight gain, as opposed to the desired effect of weight loss.
Other Dietary Factors. A number of foods and nutrients have been studied for their potentially beneficial effects on cortisol levels, including phospholipids, vitamin C, boron, magnesium, B vitamins, omega-3s, and tea, to name a few. However, the research is unclear as to how much and in what combination these might actually help minimize cortisol’s effects on health.
—Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Controlling Cortisol Through Diet
While diet affects cortisol, the exact dietary prescription is unclear. But the findings so far suggest these recommendations for a healthy diet fit the bill:
- Include a lot of vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables in your diet.
- Eat fish rich in omega-3s at least twice a week.
- Eat whole grains, such as brown rice in place
of white rice.
- Eat more beans and lentils.
- Don’t diet; strive for a healthy, balanced dietary pattern.
- Limit caffeine intake to no more than 400 milligrams (mg) per day (200 mg maximum per drink), especially if you’re not a regular caffeine consumer.