Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt stressed. Yep, same. But have you ever been so stressed you can’t sleep, are fighting brain fog, or have heart palpitations? If so, you might have chronically elevated cortisol levels.
Stress triggers the production of cortisol—also known as the stress hormone—which can leave you in a constant state of alert. “Cortisol is great in small amounts and at the right time of day, but when elevated chronically for long periods of time it can wreak havoc on various aspects of your health including gut health, hormone health, and overall energy,” says registered dietitian Anna Brown, M.S., R.D.
Think you might be stuck in perpetual “fight or flight” mode? Before you stress out about being stressed, here’s everything you need to know about cortisol, including how to keep it in check by eating cortisol-lowering foods.
Why Natural Spikes in Cortisol Are Good
High cortisol isn’t always harmful. In fact, cortisol spikes can sometimes be a good thing. According to Brown, cortisol is one of two key diurnal hormones involved in your circadian rhythm, alongside melatonin—which helps you relax.
“When in balance, we want to see a sharp rise in cortisol within 30 minutes of waking to help give you that jump out of bed and seize the day kind of energy, then a slow and steady decline throughout the day with the lowest amounts of circulating cortisol while you’re falling asleep and sleeping,” she explains.
In appropriate amounts, cortisol regulates almost every system in your body, and plays a key role in regulating everything from metabolism, to inflammation and immune response (1). Your adrenal glands also produce cortisol to adapt and respond to acute emotional, physical, and environmental stressors, like giving a presentation at work, getting stuck in traffic, or gearing up for a grueling sprints session.
Why High Cortisol Levels Are Harmful
Dealing with repetitive or chronic stress—from financial troubles to losing your job or relationship issues—can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels. Prolonged high cortisol is bad news for your well-being. In the long term, too much cortisol flips the switch on all of the good things it typically does in the short term. Think: poor sleep, weight gain, high blood pressure, and a weak immune system (1, 2, 3).
One of the most prominent side effects of elevated cortisol is weight gain, explains Brown, especially visceral fat (the type which surrounds organs) and adipose tissue around the midsection. Too much visceral fat is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Prolonged high cortisol levels negatively impact your gut in two ways, per Brown. “Chronically elevated cortisol has been shown to increase the permeability of our gut lining, leading to what’s become known as “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability. This is due to cortisol’s catabolic nature (meaning it breaks down tissues). It literally pokes holes in the gut,” she says. The holes in your gut provide an exit strategy for toxins and bacteria to leech into your body, causing systemic inflammation (4)—which can cause your body to double down and release even more cortisol.
As if that wasn’t enough, when cortisol is elevated, your body shifts into “fight or flight” mode. During which, blood is diverted away from your digestive organs in favor of your muscles and brain. “This can then lead to digestive issues like bloating, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), and constipation,” Brown adds.
HEAL YOUR GUT
Sure, “fight or flight” might have you feeling high-strung, but that eventually fizzles into fatigue. “When cortisol is left chronically elevated for long periods of time, it can result in a miscommunication between your hypothalamus, your pituitary, and your adrenal glands, known as HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis dysregulation, or as some like to call it: adrenal fatigue,” says Brown.
Typically, your HPA axis picks up on stress and releases cortisol, but in a dysregulated state your sensitivity to stress drops and your adrenals don’t receive the message from the pituitary gland to release cortisol (5). “It’s often shown that when patients are in this state, their body deactivates cortisol to cortisone (the inactive form of cortisol) as a self-protective mechanism. This can lead to that feeling of dragging all day long,” she explains.
When living in a chronic state of “fight or flight”, your body shuts down non-essential functions like reproduction (6). “Evolutionarily, it was harmful to reproduce when in a crisis or being threatened,” says Brown. “Today, this means chronically elevated cortisol can lead to hormonal imbalances and decreases of sex hormones, especially testosterone (7).” Unfortunately, testosterone levels naturally decrease with age; keeping your stress levels in check is one way to fight the dip.
22 Cortisol-Lowering Foods For Balanced Hormones
Want to lower cortisol levels, quick? While no food can instantly reduce cortisol levels, certain foods can help support various systems in your body that regulate the release of cortisol. “The main mechanism by which foods can lower cortisol is by decreasing inflammation, balancing blood sugar, and supporting adrenal gland function,” says Brown. Here’s how she breaks it down.
Foods that reduce inflammation
Inflammation is linked to everything from heart disease to erectile dysfunction. To keep it at bay, Brown recommends these anti-inflammatory foods:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: like fatty fish, chia seeds, and flax seeds
- Colorful fruits and vegetables: like berries and broccoli
- Herbs and spices: like turmeric and ginger
- Teas: like green tea
Foods that balance blood sugar
Balancing blood sugar is less about the specific foods you eat (although, avoiding sugary soda and cereal will help) and more about how you pair foods together to avoid major blood sugar spikes (8). A concept biochemist Jessie Inchauspé (aka the Glucose Goddess) has coined “clothing your carbs.”
The idea is simple: To reduce blood sugar spikes, eat carbohydrates with protein, fat, and/or fiber. “This means having your rice with chicken and broccoli, adding avocado and an egg to your toast, or eating a banana with a tablespoon of nut butter,” says Brown. Want to know exactly how your blood sugar is responding to the food you eat? Get a continuous glucose monitor.
Foods that support adrenal function
Your adrenals are a key player in a normal stress response, but studies have shown they take a hit from aging and excessive stress (9). “Our adrenals need a few key micronutrients to support their function and those include vitamin C, magnesium, b vitamins, and zinc,” says Brown.
Turns out vitamin C can do a whole lot more than protect your immune system. Brown recommends a daily dose of vitamin C to support your adrenals, and keep cortisol levels balanced (10). Her go-to’s include vitamin-C rich:
- Bell peppers
Neuroscientist Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D., leans on magnesium supplements to promote relaxation and support quality sleep (11), but Brown points out magnesium-rich foods support your adrenals, too. To get more eat:
- Dark chocolate
- Legumes: like beans and chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds: like Brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, and pumpkin seeds
- Leafy greens: like spinach and Swiss chard
“B vitamins like B1, B5, and B12 directly affect your adrenal glands’ response to stress, while vitamin B3 and B12 play a key role in regulating your sleep/wake cycle,” says Brown. She aims for a full panel of B’s in a balanced diet. The best sources are found in foods like:
- Whole grains
- Nutritional yeast
When anxiety is running high your body burns through zinc stores fast (12). Bolster your stores with zinc-rich foods like:
- Oysters and mussels
- Nuts and seeds: like pine nuts, pecans, cashews, and sunflower seeds
Avoid These Foods to Reduce Cortisol
“Some foods raise cortisol like caffeine, while other foods can indirectly raise cortisol through other mechanisms like inflammation and blood sugar imbalance which stress the body and cause it to produce excess cortisol,” says Brown. That doesn’t mean these foods are always bad, but it’s a good idea to be more mindful about how you indulge.
Brown’s rule: Avoid caffeine immediately after waking and within six hours of bedtime. “You want to allow cortisol to rise naturally in the morning from sunlight and movement. If you drink caffeine within an hour of waking, you’re elevating cortisol levels unnaturally which can lead to circadian rhythm disruption,” Brown explains. “On the flip side, if you drink caffeine within six to eight hours of bedtime, it can impede your ability to fall asleep and get deep restful sleep.”
Ultra-processed carbs—like chips, candy, and cookies—cause a blood sugar high, followed by a big blood sugar crash. “Low blood sugars overnight can trigger the release of cortisol to tell the liver to make more glucose in order to balance blood sugar levels. This is a common but hidden cause of insomnia and middle-of-the-night wakings,” says Brown.
Alcohol can lead to elevated cortisol as your body works hard to break down and excrete the toxins from alcohol. “We’ve all experienced the 4 a.m. wake up, covered in sweat with your heart pounding after a night of one too many drinks. That’s cortisol doing its job to help your body metabolize the alcohol,” says Brown. This isn’t necessarily reason to give it up, that said when it comes to alcohol, longevity experts claim the less, the better for overall health.
Other Ways to Naturally Reduce Cortisol
While foods can be a great way to lower cortisol, they aren’t the best way. Brown recommends identifying the root cause of your stressors (emotional physical or environmental) first and fixing it upstream. “For example, if you have a gut infection or dysbiosis, this can be a physiological stress on the body that you may not be actively aware of and by healing your gut you can lower your cortisol levels,” she says.
The question is: how? Reducing stressful situations and latching onto stress management techniques that work for you is a good place to start. According to Brown, simple lifestyle changes like meditation and reconnecting with nature can help lower cortisol (13, 14).
Can’t get outside? Try Hinoki cypress oil. “The scent made famous by Japanese Forest Bathing, has been shown to reduce perceived stress by 53 percent (15),” she says. “Diffuse it in your home anytime you’re feeling stressed.”