Stress seems to be a common state of mind these days. With COVID-19 still very much present, and with solutions and future plans still unknown, stress is hitting us harder and more frequently now than ever before. And with stress comes cortisol. While not always bad, too much cortisol can cause a number of negative side effects - weight gain, high-blood pressure, diabetes, lethargy, and insomnia. The good news is that we are not powerless to our stress -- our diet can be our ally to help combat these issues.
Our mundane tasks throughout the day have all of a sudden become fraught with stress. It used to be fun to pick up groceries, get a package in the mail, see a friend or go shopping. Now our anxiety rises: did we touch anything? Has anyone sneezed recently? Were they wearing a mask? Should I take a shower when I get home? Did I clean the mail well enough? What about the package my son touched? Did he wash his hands? Are my family members not in my household okay? The list seems to grow and grow. And each worry brings on stress, and stress brings – you guessed it – cortisol.
What is cortisol, exactly?
Cortisol, often called “the stress hormone,” is released by our adrenal glands, which are located right above our kidneys. Although its nickname may infer that it’s a negative hormone, cortisol is not always bad. It functions to control your fear, motivation, and mood. It also triggers our “fight or flight” response or as a signal to when your brain should be on high alert — a function that serves to protect us. Cortisol also helps manage how our body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, regulates inflammation and blood sugar levels, as well as controls our wake and sleep cycles.
Cortisol is activated when there is an outside threat or stressor. Once the threat is gone, your body will naturally lower your cortisol levels and assume regular processes and activities. Or at least we hope that is what occurs.
But what happens if regulation doesn’t occur and cortisol levels remain high? Sometimes, when cortisol is activated too frequently for too long, it can create a long-term stress response that perpetually disrupts bodily functions and puts you at risk for many other health problems.
To illustrate cortisol’s benefits, let’s consider a parallel to inflammation. Anyone who has broken a bone or sprained an ankle knows that feeling when our bodies immediately become inflamed or swollen around the affected area. This occurs as a protective mechanism, or otherwise known as acute inflammation to protect the area and signal to the body that something is wrong and to be on high alert.
Similarly, the body releases cortisol during a stressful situation to help the body handle an issue in the short term. For instance, if a spider drops down onto your shoulder, your body signals your heart to beat faster, and you quickly shoo it off of you. Once the bone has healed, the swelling goes down – once the spider is gone, the cortisol levels decrease and your heart rate slows back to a normal pace.
Alternatively, chronic inflammation, or inflammation that lasts for too long like heart disease, and obesity, can be harmful. Cortisol works the same way! When the levels of your stress hormone do not regulate, and don’t decrease after a stressful event has occurred, they remain too high. And if this happens for too long, it can be damaging and stressful on the body.
But you are not a victim to cortisol.
While it is challenging to regulate during stressful periods or when anxiety rises, you can take charge of your body by how you fortify it. Eating the right foods can help protect you from hypercortisolism (too much cortisol) and the negative effects that it brings, while mitigating potential long-term damage.
How does Cortisol work?
While the adrenal gland releases cortisol, it first “talks” to the pituitary gland. This is a tiny, pea-sized gland located at the base of your brain that reacts to your bodies’ actions. It will send signals to the adrenal gland to release more or less cortisol, based on what you are experiencing at the time.
Once the pituitary gland signals the adrenal gland to release cortisol, your cells get to work! There are cortisol receptors in almost all of our body’s cells, but each cell will use the hormone differently. For example, have you ever had a stomachache right before a public speaking engagement or that cold sweat feeling when you see that huge spider? This visceral feeling is called a “gut reaction” for a reason. Ingrid Kohlstadt, President and Founder of Ingredients, Inc., Associate at Johns Hopkins University, and Former Medical Officer and Commissioner at the FDA, explains:
“Have you ever heard of the term, ‘gut-reaction’? That’s referring to the feeling of raised cortisol levels in the gut. However, the ‘reaction’ portion of that phrase is indicating the inability of the body to regulate its basic digestive and bowel functions because it is overcome with the stress-hormone cortisol, which has taken your body’s attention elsewhere.”
Health problems from raised cortisol levels
For over a decade, studies have shown that moderately high cortisol levels can cause health issues. High blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis are all chronic health symptoms that can be a result of cortisol levels being too high. Furthermore, hypercortisolism can increase ones’ appetite via a hormone called ghrelin. This can cause you to seek comfort foods, like sugary, salty and fatty foods that trick your body into thinking it will help calm you. But instead, your metabolism slows, fat storage begins to occur, and eventually you gain weight.
Chronic tiredness and lethargy are also side effects of hypercortisolism. Your body is unable to regulate its sleep-wake patterns due to the hormone disruption. Lack of sleep can cause impaired brain function and memory.
Chronically high cortisol levels also have a direct effect on our gut microbiome. When digestive and endocrine processes are disrupted, so is our microbiota. Furthermore, cortisol and insulin have an inverse relationship – when there is more cortisol, there is less insulin, which means too much cortisol for too long can negatively impact your blood sugar levels.
All of these things contribute to a weakened immune system, and greater risk of infection – something that a lot of us cannot afford to have right now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
But what do we do? We cannot just tell our bodies to stop secreting cortisol. In the same way, we cannot tell our hearts to beat slower when giving a speech, or not to perspire when a large spider crawls on our arm.
What we can control are the foods we put in our bodies and how we fortify our system to support the glands regulating our stress hormones.
How to aid cortisol regulation
A combination of sleep, exercise, and diet all play a role in regulating hormonal patterns, including cortisol. These are luckily all things that we can consciously control. Specifically, our nutrition plays a lead role in supporting or hindering our triggers for cortisol release.
Things to limit:
Sugar. Sugar intake is a primary trigger for cortisol release. Excessive sugar intake can cause an increase in cortisol secretions and alter the bodies’ ability to properly respond to stress. This inhibits the body from reacting “normally” to stress. According to one animal study, sugar acts in the periphery to negatively-activate the metabolic-brain feedback pathway:
“In rodents, drinking sucrose beverages were shown to inhibit stress-induced CRF mRNA and peptide expression in the brain. These inhibitory effects of sugar on CRF and HPA reactivity may be linked to sugar-induced increases in central opioidergic activity. Sugar consumption promotes elevated opioidergic tone in the brain, and opioids inhibit synthesis and release of CRF and stress-induced HPA reactivity.”
In other words: sugar inhibits the brain from receiving cortisol, and expressly it properly.
Caffeine. Studies have shown that caffeine consumption can stimulate cortisol secretions, as well. With this increase of cortisol secretions, correlated to caffeine intake, your body can begin to develop a tolerance for cortisol response. It can inhibit the absorption of iron which is a key mineral in the synthesis of hormones in the body. Furthermore, caffeine can ultimately recreate stress conditions in the body. As put by Precision Nutrition:
“Caffeine impacts whether certain chemicals are available; how receptive our brains are to them; and whether we’re even making those chemicals in the first place.”
Try to keep your caffeine intake to under four cups a day, to avoid any negative effects.
Alcohol. Much like the ghrelin hormone that can trick our bodies into thinking that foods high in fat and sugars will decrease the stress effects of cortisol, alcohol plays tricks in our bodies, too. Many people seek alcohol as a way to relax or blow off steam. However, chronic alcohol consumption can actually increase cortisol production, and thus is counterproductive in the relaxation process.
It is recommended that women attempt to keep consumption to 1 drink a day and up to 2 drinks per day for men. So don’t feel like you have to give up that end of the day glass of chardonnay — just enjoy in moderation!
Things to regularly consume:
Fruits! Blueberries, kiwis, oranges, pears, and bananas have been shown to reduce cortisol levels, especially in athletes. You can use these as a way to self-regulate. Because these are high in vitamin C, research has shown that these may help slow the production of cortisol.
Omega-3s! Fatty acids, especially DHA and EPA from fish oils, have been shown to counteract inflammatory stress effects. Not to mention, fermented foods containing fatty acids, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, all offer probiotics and prebiotics that help offset any gut microbial disruptions caused by cortisol increases. Other prebiotic rich foods include onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, apples, and bananas. These prebiotic foods provide fuel for your probiotic bacteria.
“Cortisol is real and present during stressful times as these. The foods we eat can change how our bodies react to raised levels of cortisol. Chronically raised levels of cortisol can damage your gut microbiome. Consider fiber as a way to offset negative effects of cortisol on the microbiome. Not to mention Americans are only getting about 10% of the fiber they need daily, so any increase would be beneficial.”
– Ingrid Kohlstadt, President and Founder of Ingredients, Inc.
Good carbs! As mentioned earlier, cortisol and insulin have an inverse relationship. When cortisol is high, insulin is low. Carbs, however, prompt our brain to secrete more of a hormone called serotonin, which is often stunted by high levels of cortisol. Complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, beans, whole grains, starchy veggies, and lentils, can support and stabilize blood sugar levels that can be lowered by the presence of cortisol.
Beans and barley! Beans are doubly helpful! They are complex carbohydrates and aid in blood sugar regulation, but they also contain phosphatidylserine. This is located in the cell membrane and helps to counteract cortisol. White beans and barley are two of the best options.
Avocados! Who doesn’t like avocados? In addition to being delicious, avocados, like tomatoes and leafy greens, are high in potassium. Potassium helps to keep our blood pressure in check. This is great for when cortisol causes increased heart rate due to hormone spikes.
Spinach & cruciferous vegetables! Rich in magnesium, spinach and broccoli are known to help our bodies regulate the production of cortisol. Microgreens, or immature greens, are also known to have high concentrations of various beneficial nutrients and tend to be denser in vitamin C than their mature counterparts.
Nuts! Almonds, cashews and pistachios contain selenium, which is a mineral that can help elevate mood. While it may not have a direct effect on cortisol it can help combat the effects of too much cortisol. It helps to strengthen your immune system in times of stress, when the body may be depleted or weakened.
Dark chocolate! Naturally-occurring antioxidants in dark chocolate can aid in decreasing inflammation and slow the production of the cortisol hormone. The result of one study indicated that about 40 grams per day of dark chocolate can help, so don’t feel bad about having a piece or two! Just aim for a dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, like 85% or higher, for best results and lower added sugar.
The Bottom Line
In times like this when stress feels insurmountable, fear not - there are things that we can control to help our body’s stress response. Consider focusing on your sleep, exercise, and diet. Look at the foods you are putting in your body. Be wary of “comfort foods” that will only exacerbate the problem. Instead, turn to foods that can help combat too much cortisol and support your immune system.