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Healthy Living
November 20, 2023

12 Science-Backed Foods that Reduce Your Cortisol Levels

Chronically stressed? Here are 13 foods that reduce your cortisol levels you can find in your pantry, including dark chocolate, ginger, and green tea.
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Danielle Desroche

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Contents

Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” often gets a bad rap, but cortisol is critical for your body's ability to adapt to stress, and without it you won’t be able to go on with your day-to-day life. However, chronically elevated cortisol levels can have negative effects, from reducing the body's ability to produce certain hormones to impaired immune function, and even accelerating aging. That’s why it’s critical to keep stress levels in check.

In this article, we'll dive into the relationship between cortisol and food, and explore 13 nutrient-dense foods that reduce cortisol and can help you stay calm and healthy.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to a wide range of physiological and psychological stimuli, including fear, pain, and lack of food. Alongside its primary role as a response to anxiety or stress, the stress hormone is responsible for many important functions in the body, including maintaining blood glucose levels, regulating metabolism, and even controlling the immune system. It also plays a critical role in the balance between digestion and absorption of nutrients, and the conversion of food into energy. (Source)

Additionally, cortisol has many other roles in the body, such as increasing the availability of amino acids and glucose and increasing tolerance to pain. The physiology of stress and its relationship to disease is a complex subject, but cortisol plays a key role in the stress response and its downstream effects on the body. 

The effects of cortisol vary depending on the amount produced, the duration of its presence, and the location of its actions. 

What Are the Effects of Elevated Cortisol?

While low levels of cortisol are needed for proper immune and reproductive function, high levels of the stress hormone can be damaging to your health.

Cortisol typically rises in the morning and then tapers off throughout the day. However, many people are stuck in a pattern of chronically high cortisol levels. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol are associated with a wide range of health consequences, including depression, insomnia, blood sugar imbalances, and elevated blood pressure. Elevated cortisol levels have also been linked to increased visceral fat (the kind that surrounds the vital organs), decreased bone density, and memory impairment. (Source, Source, Source)

What Foods Reduce Cortisol?

Wild Salmon

Salmon is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory, help relax the muscles, and reduce production of cortisol, helping to prevent the development of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Wild salmon is generally lower in saturated fats and higher in omega-3s than farmed salmon and is often recommended for this reason. Eating a diet rich in foods like wild-caught salmon, or supplementing with products like fish oil, can help keep your cortisol in check. (Source, Source

bar of dark chocolate

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate contains 50% to 90% cocoa solids, compared to milk chocolate, which may contain as little as 10% cocoa solids. Cocoa flavanols, the chemicals in cocoa solids that endow dark chocolate with its health benefits, have been shown to potentially lower blood pressure and increase insulin sensitivity. Additionally, studies have found regular consumption of dark chocolate can improve mood, enhance gut microbiome diversity, and lower cortisol levels and the inflammation that excess cortisol causes. (Source, Source, Source)

Turmeric

Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory and pain reliever that has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine to treat inflammatory conditions ranging from arthritis to allergies. The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin, is a phytochemical that has been shown in some studies to reduce cortisol levels, although results have been mixed. The best way to consume turmeric is with piperine, the active compound in black pepper, as it makes the curcumin more bioavailable. (Source, Source)

olive oil in a flask

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil (especially extra virgin olive oil, which is minimally processed and retains more beneficial polyphenols than other forms) has numerous health benefits, thanks to its strong anti-inflammatory effects. Studies have found that people who regularly consume olive oil tend to live longer and are less likely to succumb to cancer, heart disease, and other life-limiting conditions. Some studies have also shown consuming olive oil reduced participants’ physical response to stressful situations. Research suggests one component of olive oil, oleuropein, lowers blood pressure and is a potent antioxidant that may protect against cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Even if olive oil isn’t found to work directly on cortisol, preventing serious chronic illness certainly helps reduce stress in the long run. (Source, Source, Source)

DID YOU KNOW
Sleep disruption
Sugar
Vitamin D deficiency
Sleep disruption
is a top contributor of stress.
Sleep disruption
Sugar
Vitamin D deficiency
Sleep disruption
Source

Bananas

Bananas are a rich source of magnesium, a nutrient critical for healthy blood pressure, normal cortisol levels, and restful sleep. They also contain tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in mood. Studies on competitive cyclists, using intense physical exertion to generate a stress response, found eating bananas afterward reduced cortisol and overall inflammation. (Source, Source)

Mushrooms

One group of compounds found in mushrooms, called beta-glucans, can help lower cortisol levels. Beta-glucans are a type of fiber that can be found in many foods, including mushrooms, oats, and barley. A study of 18 healthy men found that consuming an extract made from the beta-glucan-rich medicinal mushroom Pellinus linteus significantly lowered cortisol production, especially after exercising. (Source)

Garlic

Garlic is a natural antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal agent. When garlic is chopped or crushed, it releases an amino acid compound called allicin, which has been shown to regulate blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and even improve muscle soreness. On the stress front, researchers have found that both raw and low-temperature-aged garlic activated neuroprotective effects and significantly decreased the levels of stress-related hormones, including cortisol. (Source, Source)

bowl filled with garlic and onions

Flaxseed

Ground flaxseed, also known as flax meal, is a good source of lignans, fiber, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid. Flaxseed contains phytoestrogens, which can improve responses to stress by lowering cortisol and blood pressure, and may offer protection against atherosclerosis (the narrowing of arteries). Flaxseed may interact with medications that have similar or opposing effects, so be sure to check in with your health care provider before adding flaxseed to your diet. (Source, Source, Source)

Asparagus

Asparagus is a rich source of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps neutralize stress-causing free radicals and helps quell inflammation. Glutathione is used by the body to detoxify chemicals such as heavy metals, pesticides, and solvents that may be stored in fat cells. Rutin, another flavonol found in asparagus, has been found in animal studies to have numerous health benefits, including reduction of cortisol levels. Microwaving or steaming asparagus as briefly as possible will help maximize its phytochemical benefits. (Source, Source, Source, Source)

Ginger

This root has been used for centuries in traditional Eastern medicine for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-enhancing properties. More recently, researchers have explored the effects of ginger on cortisol levels and found the root helps to modulate the stress response and reduce oxidative stress in animals. (Source, Source)

Onions

Onions are one of the most powerful foods for reducing cortisol levels and helping you to cope with stress. They contain sulfur compounds that have been shown to lower cortisol levels during stressful situations. In addition, onions contain flavonoids and quercetin, which are powerful antioxidants. In animal studies, onions have been shown to reduce cortisol, enhance stress tolerance, and effectively fight off pathogens. (Source, Source)

Green Tea

Green tea is one of the most popular dietary supplements for lowering cortisol levels. The specific polyphenol in green tea, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), is a powerful anti-inflammatory that has been shown to calm the body and mind, and may help reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases. EGCG blocks the enzyme that converts the amino acid tyrosine into the hormone norepinephrine, which is a stress- and anxiety-inducing hormone. Researchers found that EGCG also inhibits the activity of an enzyme that converts the cortisol precursor cortisone to cortisol, directly reducing cortisol levels. (Source, Source, Source)

The Bottom Line 

If you are stuck in a pattern of chronically high cortisol levels, consuming cortisol-reducing foods is a great way to manage a stressful lifestyle and reclaim your health. Implementing these dietary changes can help mitigate the effects of high cortisol, but choosing the best eating pattern for your individual needs can sometimes feel overwhelming. Working with a WellTheory Certified Nutritionist and Registered Dietitian provides support, accountability, and guidance for a lifestyle-first approach, through diet and supplementation, to help you manage your stress and autoimmune symptoms.

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12 Science-Backed Foods that Reduce Your Cortisol Levels

Chronically stressed? Here are 13 foods that reduce your cortisol levels you can find in your pantry, including dark chocolate, ginger, and green tea.
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Cortisol is a hormone that is critical for the body's ability to adapt to stress, but chronically elevated cortisol levels can have negative effects on the body (e.g., depression, elevated blood pressure, memory impairment).

There are many foods that naturally lower cortisol levels, including wild salmon, dark chocolate, garlic, mushrooms, and green tea.

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Cortisol is a hormone that is critical for the body's ability to adapt to stress, but chronically elevated cortisol levels can have negative effects on the body (e.g., depression, elevated blood pressure, memory impairment).

There are many foods that naturally lower cortisol levels, including wild salmon, dark chocolate, garlic, mushrooms, and green tea.

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