A critical deadline is looming, your Uber is stalled in traffic (again!), or your child’s soccer team has a last-minute chance to win the league championship. Your heart pounds and your palms turn clammy: the visceral effects of stress that occur as your adrenal glands produce a surge of adrenalin and, more slowly, cortisol. Following the highly-charged event, cortisol levels should fall. However, for those experiencing chronic stress, the body’s balance can be derailed, significantly impairing physical and mental health.
So, what is cortisol? Without too deep a dive into the complexities of the endocrine system, cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone (a steroid hormone) released by the adrenal glands to suppress inflammation and regulate metabolism, along with your blood pressure and blood sugar. The adrenal glands sit on top of each of your kidneys, and as part of the endocrine system, regulate the body’s response to stressors, monitoring cortisol levels to maintain homeostasis.
Cortisol changes cell metabolism and alters the activity of DNA. In the brain, cortisol binds to neurons, impacting normal thought processes – including how a stressful event is stored. This may explain why emotional or anxiety-inducing events are so vivid in memory—and why the effects of stress may linger.
In the short term, cortisol can be helpful. But exposure to cortisol for a long period of time can contribute to high blood pressure, an impaired immune system, and a higher chance of diabetes and heart disease, as well as depression and anxiety. On the upside, sleep, exercise, and healthy eating habits have a profound effect on cortisol.
The foods promoted on what we know as the Mediterranean or anti-inflammatory diets, are essentially the same foods to eat when feeling stressed—whole grains, healthy fats, a colorful assortment of fruits and leafy greens, and high-quality protein. While you can supplement some nutrients (Vitamin B-12 for example, if you are vegan or vegetarian), you’re almost always better off eating whole foods that are nutritionally dense – in part, because gut health depends on fiber from vegetables, nuts, beans, and other plant-based foods.
The dietary choices most often recommended for balancing cortisol levels are those that are rich in essential fatty acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6):
In addition to the above, it’s important to eat foods that supply protein and B12, plus high-fiber fruits and vegetables like berries, bananas, broccoli and spinach, and fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, kefir or sauerkraut. Dietitians recommend
eating lots of different types of plants to provide plenty of vitamins and minerals (especially magnesium) and to help keep the healthy bacteria happy in your gut.
What does this diet look like on your dinner plate? How about grilled salmon with toasted almonds, a salad of leafy greens and avocado dressed with olive oil, yogurt with raspberries for dessert and a cup of green tea or chamomile tea for a nightcap. And it’s good to remember that a stress-free life is neither possible nor wholly desirable. Like exercise it can help build our strength and resilience. But rising to the challenge requires the right fuel.
Cortisol: What It Is, Function, Symptoms & Levels, Health Library, Cleveland Clinic
“Eat These Foods to Reduce Stress and Anxiety,” Health Essentials, Cleveland Clinic, June 16, 2021
Sharon Feiereisen, “Stressed? Here Are 8 Cortisol-Reducing Foods to Stock Up On Next Time You’re in Need of a Sense of Calm,” Healthy Eating Tips, Well + Good, December 7, 2022