Cortisol Lowering Foods and Supplements For Stress Management
By: Maude Morin, MAN, RD, registered dietitians and nutritionists at JM Nutrition
In this post:
Overview of cortisol and stress
Diet and cortisol connection
Foods that increase cortisol
Cortisol lowering foods that reduce stress
Stress and mood connection
Supplements that relieve stress
Meals for stress relief
Before we take a look at cortisol lowering foods that help reduce stress, and stress relief supplements, let’s examine what stress looks like in our body and the role played by cortisol.
A Brief Overview of Cortisol
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands that is responsible for essential body functions. Among these are the sleep-wake cycle, fat oxidation (or fat burn), as well as day-time production and regulation of energy. Considering this, it is not always necessary to reduce the cortisol hormone if you are not under chronic (or long-lasting) stress conditions.
Diet and cortisol connection
Can food increase cortisol levels? Are there specific cortisol lowering foods?
For many people, the cortisol hormone is increased by environmental factors. Most of us can relate to the pressure of deadlines, illness in the family or financial worries. Long-term stressors like these can lead to bodily discomforts such as headaches, muscle tension, and poor sleep. It can also affect mental health symptoms, such as anxiety and depression, by triggering your adrenal glands to produce cortisol (2).
Related: How To Balance Hormones Naturally
Although food cannot directly reduce stress, it can help your body be more resilient under stressful conditions.
And that’s they key.
You can fill the tank with the right vitamins and minerals to support the body. Doing so becomes crucial, when feeling stress. In addition, you can reduce the intake of foods that increase our cortisol levels.
Foods that increase cortisol
Caffeine is certainly not one of the cortisol lowering foods. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It can increase cortisol.
Your morning coffee ritual could be contributing to elevated cortisol in your system. This can impair your ability to deal with stressful situations.
It is commonly known that caffeine is a stimulant. As such, it can trigger your nervous system and cause spikes in cortisol. This can interfere with your body’s natural highs and lows of cortisol. This can, in turn, affect your sleep-wake cycle (3).
What is the daily recommended caffeine intake?
Current Health Canada recommendations advise keeping your caffeine intake to a maximum of 400mg per day for adults.
This is the equivalent to 3 cups (8 ounces) of drip coffee or 9 cups of tea (regular).
It’s also important to note that you can find caffeine in sodas, energy drinks, as well as foods made with cocoa and chocolate, albeit in smaller amounts.
Since caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours, it can be helpful to stop consuming it at least 5-6 hours before going to sleep.
If you feel like your energy levels slump in the afternoon, take a look at these strategies and tips to boost energy.
What to have instead?
Without a doubt, the gold standard here is water. Water plays a crucial role in keeping your energy levels up, even more so than coffee or tea. Adequate consumption of water is critical for many reasons.
Learn more about the importance of drinking water and how much you should drink daily.
If you enjoy the taste and ritual of an afternoon or evening coffee, consider switching to decaf. This way you can help reduce cortisol.
2. Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
Sugars, sweeteners and refined carbohydrates can no doubt lead to increases in blood sugar and cortisol levels. Foods to watch for in this category are candy, sodas, juices, many baked goods and snacks such as chips.
What to have instead?
Fill your plate with fibre-rich carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. Doing so can help slow down the absorption of sugars and carbohydrates into the bloodstream.
If you’re looking for ways to flavour your food or drinks, consider using plant-based sweeteners. Stevia and monk fruit are just two examples. We recommend them because they do not increase blood sugar levels as much as their more traditional counterparts.
Cortisol Lowering Foods
Let’s take a deeper dive at cortisol lowering foods and their effect on stress reduction.
As cortisol is produced in your adrenal glands, you should certainly try and improve their function as best you can.
Providing your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs is important. We cannot emphasize this enough.
So what cortisol lowering foods should you consume?
1. Foods that contain magnesium can lower cortisol
One of the key foods that lower cortisol are those that contain magnesium. Magnesium is a mineral found commonly in our food, if we eat a mostly wholesome, plant-rich diet.
Learn more about the benefits of plant-based eating.
However, with the rise of convenience foods in the developed countries, 15-20% of people have suboptimal levels of magnesium in their bodies (4). That is a staggering statistic!
What role does magnesium play in lowering cortisol?
Undoubtedly, magnesium plays an integral role. It can reduce cortisol.
Simply put, it participates indirectly in the production of cortisol by interacting in several steps along the process. The higher the stress, the more quickly we use up our magnesium. Therefore, the lower the magnesium, the lower ability to manage stress (5). Talk about a vicious cycle!
For this reason, consume magnesium-rich foods because they are foods that lower cortisol and help reduce stress.
Specific food sources of magnesium:
Three good sources of magnesium are nuts, seed and whole grains. These versatile foods can be easily incorporated into your daily meals and snacks.
How much magnesium should I consume?
As an adult, your goal would be to get around 350mg per day. Take a look at more specific magnesium intake guidelines for men and women of different ages.
What meals contain magnesium?
- 1-2 slice(s) of sprouted whole wheat toast
- 1-2 tablespoon(s) of almond butter
- 1 banana, sliced on toast
- 1 tablespoon of hemp hearts, sprinkled over
- Sprinkle of cinnamon or cardamom
These are just a few simple examples of cortisol lowering foods. Many more exist.
a) 2-4 tablespoons of hummus or white bean dip and vegetable sticks
b) 2 Brazil nuts and 2 squares of dark chocolate
Related: 12 Magnesium Health Benefits
2. Foods that contain Vitamin C can lower cortisol
Although not directly, Vitamin C-rich foods can reduce cortisol. For this reason and many others, Vitamin C consumption is critically important.
Stress can produce many free radicals or unstable by-products in your body, which are best managed by consuming antioxidant-rich foods.
One of the best antioxidants to manage these harmful molecules is ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C. Having a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is the simplest way to make sure your vitamin C levels are adequate.
Food sources of vitamin C are ubiquitous
The most well-known include citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons and grapefruit.
Other great sources (6) include berries, kiwis, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, herbs, melons, kale, hot peppers, as well as guava.
Here are some ways include more Vitamin C-rich foods in your meals:
- Lemon and herb vinaigrette
- Mixed sweet pepper chicken fajitas
- Spinach and citrus salad with grilled fish
- Cream of coconut and broccoli soup
- Curry roasted cauliflower
- Mixed berry breakfast smoothies
Be sure to include these cortisol lowering food to help reduce stress.
Related: The Importance of Vitamin C
3. Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids can lower cortisol
Let’s start with omega-3 fatty acids.
What are omega-3 fatty acids and how do they help reduce cortisol?
Omega-3s are “essential” fatty acids.
This is a helpful term to know when it comes to nutrition. It means that our bodies cannot make enough of these from other dietary sources and we must get it from food sources.
Similarly to Vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids play a role in protecting our body from inflammation caused by oxidative stress. As a result, they omega-3-rich foods are foods that lower cortisol, at least they have the potential to do so.
Which foods contain omega-3 fatty acids?
Dietary omega-3s can be found in plants like hemp seeds, walnuts and flax oil in the form of Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
These forms are found in foods of marine origin, primarily fatty fish. They can also be extracted from algae for our plant-based friends.
Types of fatty fish include sardines, mackerel, herring, salmon, trout, and anchovies.
Try to include two 100g servings per week to meet your dietary needs. Doing so can help place you in the best position to reduce cortisol, and in turn, stress.
4. Foods that contain melatonin can lower cortisol
You may be wondering what role dietary melatonin plays in offsetting the effects of stress on your body.
Unquestionably, there is a connection here.
As previously mentioned, cortisol plays an important role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle. It goes together with our hormone melatonin. The best way to improve the relationship between these hormones is to get consistent and quality sleep.
If you struggle with getting adequate, restful sleep, take a look at these tips to improve sleep.
Dietary melatonin can help to increase the levels of the melatonin hormone, when our cortisol levels are found in excess.
It is important to consume melatonin as we lose our ability to make enough on our own. This happens as we age (8).
Discover more about melatonin.
Which foods contain melatonin?
Food sources of melatonin include animal proteins such as chicken, salmon, eggs, and dairy milk.
In addition, plant sources such as black rice, whole grain rice, wheat, barley, strawberries, tart cherries (sour cherries), kiwis, grapes, pistachios, walnuts, and almonds, among many others, contain melatonin.
Bedtime snack ideas to help with stress relief and better sleep:
- Plain yogurt with sour cherries
- A hard-boiled egg
- 1-2 kiwi(s) with some walnuts
- Brown rice cakes with almond butter
5. Foods that contain serotonin can lower cortisol
Serotonin (9) is an important neurotransmitter responsible for many functions such as digestion, mood regulation and sleep.
Having adequate serotonin can certainly contribute to being less irritable, maintain mood stability and prevent poor quality sleep – all of which can worsen with excess cortisol.
In addition, having enough serotonin can make you more resilient and tolerant of stressors in your life. In other words, it can help you avoid feeling like your molehills are mountains.
Which foods contain serotonin?
Dietary sources of serotonin include many fruit: kiwi, papaya, plums, pineapple, plantain and bananas.
Additional sources are foods such as wild rice, green onion, spinach, Napa cabbage, lettuce, potatoes and hazelnuts.
Simple meal ideas that contain serotonin to reduce stress:
- Spring roll stir fry with Napa cabbage
- Wild rice and chicken soup
- Potato salad
6. Foods that contain protein can help lower cortisol
It is a well-known fact that protein-rich foods play an integral part in muscle growth.
But did you know that protein also plays a key role in regulating your hunger hormones?
Protein-rich foods help to slow the release of sugars from carbohydrates into the blood stream, which regulates the hormones that make you feel hungry.
For this reason it’s important to keep a mostly regular meal and snack schedule for the day.
In addition, try to include protein-rich sources with each meal and snack. Include foods such as yogurt, legumes, nuts, eggs and lean meats regularly in your diet.
If you find it difficult to eat enough through whole food sources, protein bars and protein powders with few ingredients could be helpful to supplement your intake.
Here are some tips and strategies with planning meals, should you feel you need to refer to some time-tested ideas.
7. Herbal tea can help lower cortisol
If you find that you are feeling peckish, even though you’ve eaten satisfying meals and snacks through the day, consider turning a soothing herbal tea instead.
Reason being, certain herbs have calming properties and scents that can help soothe your body and mind. As a result, herbal tea is a wonderful drink that lowers cortisol. Some of our favourite herbs to look for are lavender, valerian, chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm.
A warm tea can be a valuable part of your soothing unwind routine to reduce cortisol before going to sleep.
Lavender (11) and valerian (12) have been shown to reduce anxiety, which for many of us comes with stress. It can also potentially improve the quality of your sleep.
Lemon balm (13) may improve mood, while chamomile (14) could make you feel more relaxed.
Peppermint (15), on the other hand, soothes the digestive system when it feels like it’s in knots.
All in all, these cortisol lowering foods and drinks are invaluable to helping to curb stress.
Stress and Mood Connection
Both long- and short-term stress can eventually lead to altered mood. If you’re finding that you’re both stressed and feeling a little more down than usual, take a look at your intake of the below nutrients.
1. Vitamin D
Low Vitamin D (16) status can cause symptoms such as fatigue and mood changes, particularly depressed mood.
Though your perception of stress and your mood may differ, for most of us these feelings are very much tangled.
Make sure you are meeting your needs of vitamin D either through sunshine (which also boosts mood), food or a supplement. Current recommendations suggest adults consume 600IU daily (17).
Foods that contain Vitamin D
Vitamin D is commonly found in foods such as fortified dairy and non-dairy, egg yolks and liver. Fatty fish such as salmon, trout, and sardines also carry Vitamin D.
If these foods do not form a regular part of your diet, you may want to ask if a vitamin D3 supplement is right for you. As always, consult the right health professional to help you with your needs.
2. B Vitamins
Did you know there are eight different B vitamins (18) that we obtain from our diet?
It is especially important to eat your B vitamins as they are water soluble vitamins, meaning they are easily lost in water through bathroom visits.
They are worth mentioning in this section because they play a significant role in the production of several ‘happy-hormones’ such as serotonin and dopamine.
If stress is affecting your mood, it can be important to focus on this group to make sure your body has the tools it needs to help you perk back up.
Generally speaking, eating enough B vitamins can be achieved with a balanced diet rich in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and lean proteins (Yes, plant-based too!). Therefore, to reduce stress, up the intake of these foods.
What B Vitamins should I take?
Special attention should be given to vitamin B6, folate, and B12. Being low in these specific vitamins often manifests itself as fatigue and depressed mood, both symptoms that accompany high stress levels.
Which foods contain these vitamins?
Vitamin B6 is found in beef liver, tuna, salmon, chickpeas, chicken, dark leafy greens and fortified foods.
Meanwhile, Folate (B9) is present in dark leafy greens, legumes, fruit, whole grains, fish, eggs and fortified foods.
Vitamin B12, on the other hand, is exclusively naturally occurring in animal proteins such as fish and shellfish, red meats, poultry, and dairy.
What’s more, many fortified foods can help you get enough dietary B12, namely nutritional yeast and enriched milks.
It’s also noteworthy that your digestive health can impact how much of the B12 you eat you actually absorb. If you experience gut health concerns, consider a conversation about resolving these and a B12 supplement. Our dietitians for gastrointestinal health can help in this regard.
Supplements For Stress Relief
Our nutritional practitioners, particularly our women’s health dietitians, continue to receive countless questions from our clients about what supplements can help manage or reduce stress levels. For this reason we feel it’s important to discuss the most important or best supplements for stress relief.
We also want to underscore the fact that supplements are meant to be included in addition to your current diet to bridge gaps. If you feel your diet may be low in the above vitamins and minerals, that would be the first place to start. Nonetheless, stress relief supplements certainly have their place.
Let’s take a look at some of these stress relief supplements.
Although we alluded to magnesium before, we cannot overlook its importance. As such, we are mentioning it again in the stress relief supplements section.
Surely, magnesium is one of the more popular supplements for stress relief and sleep management on the market today. Reason being, it has been shown to decrease stress levels in a number of clinical trials (10).
Magnesium may be the right stress relief supplement for you if you have low levels in your blood tests, digestive distress, nut allergy, or if stress is presenting as feelings of anxiety in situations where you wouldn’t normally experience it.
Supplements come in various forms and dosages, and it would be best to have a conversation with a nutrition and health professional to determine what is best for your unique needs.
Adaptogens are definitely another go-to supplement for stress relief.
What is the connection between adaptogens and stress relief?
Adaptogens are herbs with “adaptogenic” properties, which means that over time they can help you better deal with mental and physical effects of stress.
Although not new by any means, as they come to us from ancient Eastern medicinal practices, they are definitely a new discovery for many people dealing with pandemic and post-pandemic stress.
Ashwagandha: Supplement to reduce cortisol and for overall stress relief
One such adaptogen that can help reduce stress is ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic herb.
Clinical studies have shown that supplementing with ashwagandha can improve your stress resistance and lower cortisol levels in your blood.
If you want to try this supplement, look for supplement ranging from 300-500mg and take once daily during the day, as it can cause insomnia in some people.
Turmeric is no doubt one of the stress relief supplements you should consider.
You may even have heard of people taking turmeric, or it’s active ingredient curcumin, for inflammation and arthritis.
Studies have also found that supplementing with this active antioxidant can mildly reduce cortisol and anxiety. It can also moderately improve symptoms of depression and depressed mood (19). In addition to supplementation, strongly consider cortisol lowering foods such as turmeric.
Although it can be delicious to season food with turmeric and curry powders while cooking, it is unlikely that you will be consuming enough curcumin from this to see any noticeable benefits. As such, include turmeric as a supplement for stress relief.
A word of warning
Turmeric supplements can interact with certain medications, so be sure to discuss any new supplements with your healthcare provider.
Additionally, to make the most of this beneficial supplement, take the active form curcumin combined with piperine (an extract found in black pepper) and with a meal to improve its absorption (20).
Though diet is instrumental in keeping your body feeling good under most circumstances, it is not the most effective way to manage or reduce stress.
Nutrition forms only one part of your life, albeit an important part. As do cortisol lowering foods. Equally important stress-related lifestyle and behavioural changes to better deal with stressors and reduce cortisol levels.
Long-term psychological stress and high cortisol have been shown to be a cause of oxidative stress, leading to chronic disease.
If you feel that you’d like to learn more about foods that lower cortisol, or what and how to eat under stress to improve mood and stay well, get in touch to book a free consultation with one of our practitioners.
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2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress Management: Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037
3. Lovallo, W. R., Farag, N. H., Vincent, A. S., Thomas, T. L., & Wilson, M. F. (2006). Cortisol responses to mental stress, exercise, and meals following caffeine intake in men and women. Pharmacology, biochemistry, and behavior, 83(3), 441–447. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2006.03.005
4. Durlach, J. (1989, September 2). Recommended dietary amounts of magnesium. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2701269/
5. Cuciureanu, Magdalena D & Vink, Robert. Magnesium in the Central Nervous System: Magnesium and Stress. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/
6. Hill, Caroline & Kelly, Erin. (2022, May 10). 20 Foods That Are High In Vitamin C. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-c-foods#TOC_TITLE_HDR_5
7. Gerster, H. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9637947/
8. Meng, Xiao, Li, Na, Li, Sha, Zhou, Yue, Gan, Ren-You, Xu, Dong-Ping and Li, Hua-Bin. (2017, April). Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5409706/
9. Young, Simon N. (2007, November). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/
10. Botturi, Andrea, Ciappolino, Valentina, Delvecchio, Giuseppe, Boscutti, Andrea, Viscardi, Bianca and Brambilla, Paolo. (2020, June). The Role and the Effect of Magnesium in Mental Disorders: A Systematic Review. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7352515/
11. Donelli, Davide, Antonelli, Michele, Bellinazzi, Caterina, Gensini, Gian Franco and Firenzuoli, Fabio. (2019, December). Effects of lavender on anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31655395/
12. Shinjyo, Noriko, Waddell, Guy and Green, Julia. (2020, January-December). Valerian Root in Treating Sleep Problems and Associated Disorders-A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33086877/
13. Scholey, Andrew, Gibbs, Amy, Neale, Chris, Perry, Naomi, Ossoukhova, Anastasia, Bilog, Vanessa, Kras, Marni, Scholz, Claudia, Sass, Mathias and Buchwald-Werner, Sybille. (2014, October 30). Anti-stress effects of lemon balm-containing foods. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25360512/
14. McKay, Diane L. and Blumber, Jeffrey B. (2006, July). A review of the bioactivity and potential health benefits of chamomile tea (Matricaria recutita L.). NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16628544/
15. Kligler, Benjamin and Chaudhary, Sapna. (2007, April 1). Peppermint oil. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17427617/
16. Johnson, Larry E. (2020, November). Vitamin D Deficiency. Merck Manual. https://www.merckmanuals.com/en-ca/home/disorders-of-nutrition/vitamins/vitamin-d-deficiency
17. NIH: National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
18. Young, Lauren M, Pipingas, Andrew, White, David J, Gauci, Sarah and Scholey, Andrew. (2019, September). A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of B Vitamin Supplementation on Depressive Symptoms, Anxiety, and Stress: Effects on Healthy and ‘At-Risk’ Individuals. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770181/
19. Yu, Jing-Jie, Pei, Liu-Bao, Shang, Yong, Wen, Zi-Yu and Yang, Jian-Li. (2015, August). Chronic Supplementation of Curcumin Enhances the Efficacy of Antidepressants in Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Pilot Study. NIH: National Library of Medicine. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26066335/
20. Examine. Curcumin. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://examine.com/supplements/curcumin/
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Maude Morin is a registered dietitian whose practice focuses on women’s health: PCOS management, nutritional counselling for menopause, IBS support, FODMAP elimination diets, weight management counselling and more.
JM Nutrition’s blog has been named one of the Top 100 Nutrition Blogs, Websites and Newsletters to Follow in 2021 and one of the Top Canadian Nutrition Blogs by Feedspot. So don’t miss out and subscribe below to both the newsletter that includes latest blog posts.