45 Foods That Lower Cortisol (Plus Natural Ways to Reduce Stress)

Posted by Dr. Ian Stern on

Dr. Ian Stern Dr. Ian Stern Dr. Ian Stern

We’ve all been stressed at one point or another. You know the feeling of being anxious before an important exam, interview, or presentation. Your heart heart beats loudly, thoughts racing, your breathing speeds up, and you feel your face getting flushed.

This happens because when you experience stress, your body releases a hormone called cortisol, which increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure and blood glucose levels, rushes blood to the head and heart, and temporarily shuts down systems in the body that are unessential for dealing with stress, such as reproduction and digestion.

This can be helpful in the short run, when dealing with a particular stressor. However, if our cortisol levels remain elevated for prolonged periods of time (which often happens in today’s world, where people are stressed too often), it can lead to a variety of health problems. Some of these include high blood pressure, high risk of heart attack or stroke, an increased risk of developing diabetes, low libido, depression, anxiety, and mood swings.

It’s important to find natural ways to lower cortisol. Below are some scientifically proven methods.

1. Dark Chocolate

Researchers found that eating the equivalent of one average-sized dark chocolate candy bar (1.4 ounces) each day for two weeks reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the “fight-or-flight” hormones known as catecholamines in highly stressed people [1].

Keep some dark chocolate bars (70% cocoa or higher) in the house and treat yourself to small portions during stressful times. You might also consider replacing your morning cup of coffee with a cup of cocoa (made of organic cacao), which will jump start your day with a nutritional boost. Cacao is very rich in minerals, with high amounts of iron, copper, manganese, and zinc. And while cacao contains little to no caffeine, its abundant theobromine content can provide a similar feeling of euphoria and give a smoother, crash-free boost of energy.

2. Holy Basil

Holy basil is also known as tulsi. It is part of a class of herbs called adaptogens that help reduce the production of cortisol, making it an effective stress-fighting solution [2]. You can grow a holy basil plant in your backyard and add it to chicken dishes or brew a cup of basil tea.

3. Dried Apricots

Dried apricots are rich in magnesium that gets depleted in our bodies when we’re stressed. Magnesium acts as a natural muscle relaxant and helps reduce heart palpitations. They’re also high in Vitamin C and fiber to keep your immune system strong when you’re feeling stretched thin.

Studies comparing the quality of antioxidants in fresh versus dried fruits found that dried fruit wins hands down [3]. Make yourself a healthy dried apricot trail mix and keep it at your desk. Be careful not to over-indulge, though, as dried fruits contain a lot of sugar.

4. Asparagus

Low levels of folic acid can leave you feeling anxious. That can be fixed with just a cup of asparagus, which contains two-thirds of your daily value of folic acid. Asparagus is delicious and easy to incorporate into your diet. Roast, steam, or grill it and include as a side dish or eat alone with some balsamic vinaigrette.

5. Avocados

Avocados provide numerous health benefits, including being an excellent source of heart-healthy fats and stress-relieving B vitamins. We need B vitamins for healthy brain and nerve cells.

They’re also a good source of potassium, a mineral that gets depleted in times of stress. For a healthy stress-busting lunch, make some guacamole with avocados, olive oil, chopped onions, freshly squeezed garlic, and lime juice, and paste it on whole-grain bread.

6. Garlic

Garlic is a restorative herb that can play a crucial role in balancing a stressful life. It boosts the immune system and acts as a powerful tonic that reduces fatigue. Garlic can help reduce the number of stress hormones produced and increase your energy levels. It decreases our glucose levels, which tend to rise when we are stressed.

Garlic helps restore antioxidants which soothe our stress levels. Add garlic to your meats, fish, or grains. However, to enjoy garlic’s full range of health benefits, most medical studies insist it should be consumed raw. Use it in guacamole, salad dressings, or in bruschetta.

7. Salmon

Fish (especially salmon) provides essential Omega 3 fatty acids, which help keep cortisol and adrenaline from spiking when you’re feeling anxious. Eating fish a few times a week also strengthens and protects your heart, which can take a beating during times of high stress. Studies show that n-3 fatty acids (fish oils) inhibit the adrenal activation elicited by stress [4]. How about some Asian food? Brown rice sushi, for example, can be a great healthy option.

8. Blueberries

Blueberries are full of Vitamin C and powerful antioxidants. Studies show that eating blueberries regularly reduces oxidative stress and increases anti-inflammatory cytokines [5]. Mix together blueberries, granola, yogurt, and almonds for a powerful anti-stress parfait.

9. Broccoli

Broccoli too is full of vitamin C, which lowers cortisol levels and is a bona fide stress buster. Studies show that vitamin C plays an important therapeutic role in reducing and preventing anxiety [6]. Add chopped broccoli to your salad, use it in your rice or pasta dishes, or parboil it and sprinkle with virgin olive oil and garlic.

10. Green Leafy Vegetables

In addition to broccoli, kale and spinach are great sources of Vitamin C. Leafy greens also contain plenty of magnesium which can get very depleted when we’re stressed, as well as folate, which helps your body produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.

11. Yogurt

In addition to being a wonderful probiotic-rich food that improves our digestive health, studies have recently shown that eating yogurt may relieve stress and anxiety by reducing activity in the emotional region of our brain [7]. Try having some yogurt with dark chocolate chips, blueberries, nuts, and chia seeds as an afternoon snack when you feel your stress levels rising and your energy levels dipping.

12. Almonds

Almonds’ rich array of nutrients aid our bodies in times of stress. These include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E to improve immunity, B vitamins which are involved in energy metabolism, and magnesium which keeps cortisol levels low. Raw almonds with a pinch of sea salt are a great on-the-go snack.

13. Whole Grains

Whole grains digest slower and cause a steady release of serotonin in the body. Serotonin is the happy hormone, which gets depleted during stressful times. In addition, whole grains stabilize blood sugars, preventing spikes and drops which could negatively affect your mood. A good source of 100 percent whole grains is oatmeal. Try a comforting bowl of oats with berries and half a cup of nuts.

14. Milk

Milk contains tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in the body. The calcium, magnesium, and potassium in milk play a role in blood pressure control. Research also suggests that calcium has an anxiety-calming effect and can prevent mood swings. Milk is high in Vitamins B2 and B12 as well as protein and calcium. Have a bowl of 100 percent whole grain cereal, fresh fruit, and milk.

15. Walnuts

Walnuts, which are high in omega 3 fatty acids, are good for the heart and brain, and they reduce inflammation and stress. Include walnuts in your salads and trail mixes.

16. Red Peppers

Red peppers are high in vitamin C, and they promote healing and stress-relieving. Include red peppers in your salads, soups, stir-fries, or make stuffed peppers with lean ground turkey, brown rice, onions, garlic, and Italian parsley.

17. Carrots

Root vegetables are a good source of fiber and carbohydrates, which can help boost serotonin production. Carrots also are a great source of vitamins and minerals that are good for your blood pressure and heart. Baby carrots make a great snack on their own or with some almond butter.

18. Tuna

As mentioned previously, naturally fatty fish will help keep stress under control. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, such as salmon and tuna, can prevent surges in stress hormones and may help protect against heart disease and depression. Rub some Ahi Tuna with sea salt and black pepper and throw on the grill, searing on each side for 1 ½ min.

19. Cottage Cheese

The calcium helps strengthen and relax the nervous system and can help you manage stress. Make sure to pick a brand of cottage cheese that doesn't add starches, fillers, and sugars, as these can have an adverse effect on stress. Add some blueberries, strawberries, and a bit of honey to plain cottage cheese, and enjoy for breakfast or lunch.

20. Green or Black Tea

A study of 75 men found 6 weeks of drinking black tea decreased cortisol in response to a stressful task, compared to a different caffeinated drink [8]. The polyphenols in green tea help combat anxiety and stress. It is also a good source of Vitamin C.

Although green tea contains plenty of caffeine, it is adaptogenic in nature, and it keeps you alert yet calm throughout the day. Consider replacing your morning cup of coffee with delicious black tea, and have a cup of green tea in the afternoon for better energy throughout the day.


21. Water

Dehydration increases cortisol. Water is great for hydrating while avoiding empty calories. A study in nine male runners showed that maintaining hydration during athletic training reduced cortisol levels [9]. Drink plenty of water, especially during physical exercise.

22. Sauerkraut

Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut contain probiotics, which are shown to reduce anxiety and depression [10]. The idea that your diet can have a huge effect on your emotions has become the focus of an exciting new area of psychological research. Sauerkraut may also maintain brain health by increasing your gut's absorption of mood-regulating minerals, including magnesium and zinc [11].

23. Herbal Teas

Peppermint, chamomile, rose, valerian and passion fruit all have anti-anxiety, tension-releasing benefits and promote better sleep. Lemon balm tea also relaxes the mind without causing drowsiness and elevates the mood. Have some herbal tea before bed, following a meditation session, or during a stress-relieving activity such as writing in your gratitude journal.

24. Kefir

Kefir is another great source of probiotics, which, as previously mentioned, are great stress and anxiety busters! Probiotics have been found to help improve memory and lower symptoms of anxiety and depression [12]. Kefir can be used as a base for healthy shakes, combined with fruits, nuts, and seeds, or consumed alone.


25. Kimchi

A powerful probiotic, kimchi is also packed with a range of vitamins such as vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, and vitamin C, as well as essential amino acids and minerals such as iron, calcium, and selenium, and powerful antioxidants. The process of fermentation also increases the availability of B-vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, which can impact mood [13].

25. Onions

Onions have tons of health benefits. They contain both vitamin C and phytochemicals that increase the effectiveness of vitamin C in your body. Vitamin C helps relieve stress. In addition, they also contain quercetin, a flavonoid that fights free radicals. During times of prolonged stress, quercetin suppresses enzymes required for cortisol release [14]. Chop up some cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley, and red onions, and drizzle with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and sea salt for a healthy Israeli salad.

27. Papaya

Papaya is rich in Vitamin C, which helps boost adrenal gland function; one of the symptoms of vitamin C deficiency is a lowered ability to handle stress. Papaya fruits also have lycopene, an antioxidant that keeps cholesterol from oxidizing and thus narrowing the arteries, which is essential during stressful times, when hypertension and stress tend to weaken the artery walls. Combine raw papaya with watercress, chopped walnuts, raisins, fresh lime juice, ground cumin, and sea salt for a delicious and stress-busting salad.

28. Pineapple

Pineapples are loaded with nutrients and antioxidants to help you combat oxidative stress. They also contain a group of digestive enzymes called bromelain, which ease digestion and provide anti-inflammatory properties in the body [15]. Pineapple is also a top source of vitamin C to improve your body’s response to stressful environments.

According to Alabama researchers, a daily recommended value of vitamin C is sufficient to lower stress hormones in the blood [16]. A serving of pineapple provides 131% of the daily recommendations of Vitamin C and 76% of manganese, which aids metabolism, helps regulate blood sugar, and contributes to decreased inflammation. Have a pineapple, blueberry, and greek yogurt smoothie for breakfast, or add a pineapple ring to your burger for lunch.

29. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that is proven to lower stress and anxiety. It is also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng. In a 2012 study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, patients were given 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice a day for 60 days. The participants’ scores of perceived stress dropped by 44%, and their levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased by almost 28% [17].

Ashwagandha is available in powder form, and it can be added to shakes or food. A wonderful and easy to make beverage for overall health and well-being is called golden milk. Make it yourself: combine turmeric powder, black pepper, almond milk, coconut oil, raw honey, cardamom, and ashwagandha powder, and simmer on the stove for 15 minutes.

30. Strawberries

One cup of strawberry halves (152 grams) provides 89 mg of vitamin C, which increases our ability to cope with stress. They are loaded with powerful antioxidants that fight diseases, an important property during stressful times, when our immunity to diseases tends to be lower. Strawberries have direct anti-inflammatory effects, mostly due to antioxidants called anthocyanins (which give strawberries their deep red color).

Researchers believe anthocyanins reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by protecting blood vessels from the effects of wear and tear. Add sliced strawberries to your salad or dip strawberries in melted dark chocolate for a delicious and stress-fighting dessert.

31. Brussel Sprouts

Brussel Sprouts are rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Folate, Carotenoids, and Folate. Purchase brussel sprouts that are bright green in color. Halve the brussel sprouts and arrange cut-side-down in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. Roast in a preheated oven at 400 F until browned on the exterior and tender on the inside.

32. Mango

One cup of mango provides nearly 70% of the RDI of Vitamin C. Mango has over a dozen different types of polyphenols, including mangiferin, which is called a “super antioxidant” and is especially powerful. It fights oxidative stress, which is linked to certain types of cancer. This magical fruit is not only great for lowering your stress, but it’s extremely beneficial for the heart, eyes, and digestion. Dice mango and add it to salsa, salads, quinoa, etc.

33. Cinnamon

Cinnamon has been used for centuries to treat anxiety and depression. It boosts your mood and improves cognitive performance. A study conducted at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia, published in April 2005 in the North American Journal of Psychology, showed that even smelling cinnamon enhanced cognitive performance in people with anxiety [18].

Cinnamon also lowers blood sugar, which tends to rise with stress, thereby lowering the risk of developing diabetes. Have some cinnamon tea, or add cinnamon to your shakes, desserts, or meat dishes.

34. Oranges

Consuming foods that are high in vitamin C can reduce stress. Studies show that smelling an orange or eating one can reduce stress by nearly 70% [19]. Make some freshly squeezed orange juice every few days, but be mindful of the high sugar content and don’t over-consume.

35. Quinoa

Quinoa is a complex carbohydrate and a complete protein, which keeps your blood sugar steady and increases your energy levels. It helps to prevent blood sugar spikes, which can make you irritable and unfocused. Make a quinoa bowl including fresh mango, red pepper, red cabbage, avocado, fresh greens, cilantro and cashews. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice.

36. Collard Greens

Collard greens are high in vitamin k and magnesium. Just one cup of cooked collards has 35% of your daily need for magnesium. Studies show that people with lower levels of magnesium are more prone to anxiety [20]. Toss some into your pasta, or mix up with other greens in a salad.

37. Turkey

Turkey is a source of lean protein, packed with amino acids called Tyrosine. Tyrosine has been shown to boost levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which helps you concentrate and feel more alert. Have a turkey sandwich with whole grain bread, some dijon mustard, and collard greens.

38. Eggs

Eggs provide some omega-3s, and they are also a good source of choline, a nutrient that's important for proper brain function. Like turkey, eggs are also high in tryptophan, an amino acid which releases serotonin and controls hunger and feelings of happiness. Make an egg salad with crushed boiled eggs, chopped scallions, olive oil, salt and pepper.

39. Bananas

Bananas are packed with magnesium, B6, and potassium. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that high-potassium diets helped relieve depression symptoms and muscle tension in its participants [21].

Bananas also act as natural beta-adrenergic blockers, which prevent your adrenaline from rising to extreme levels, which tends to happen often when we’re stressed. Bananas also contain tryptophan, a special protein that converts into serotonin, the “happiness” chemical. Add some banana slices to your morning oatmeal or whole grain cereal for some “feel good” calming effect.Add bananas to your yogurts, smoothies, cereals, or just have it as a healthy snack.

40. Microgreens and sprouts

While greens are great (see above), young greens such as sprouts and microgreens sometimes contain much more vitamin C than full-grown plants and should be included in one's diet. Several studies have demonstrated the high level of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that microgreens contain.

Microgreens also are rich in enzymes, which enable them to be more easily digested. You can grow them in the comfort of your home and use them as toppings for soups, sandwiches, or salads, in smoothies, omelettes, etc.

41. Cannellini Beans

Cannellini beans are rich in phosphatidylserine, a chemical that helps with cellular function in the brain, which may counteract the damaging impact of cortisol on your body. They are available in both dried and canned forms. Since they're also high in resistant starch, they can help promote weight loss and regulate blood sugar levels.

For a stress-fighting nutritious dinner, combine cannellini beans, spinach, garlic, olive oil, and red pepper on a pan, and season with salt and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Serve with chicken or turkey breast.

42. Seeds

Flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are all great sources of magnesium, the mineral that may help regulate emotions. Magnesium has been shown to help alleviate depression, fatigue, and irritability. Make a healthy shake by mixing together some strawberries, bananas, blueberries, flaxseed, and yogurt.

Use pumpkin seeds as a topping on green salads. Grate some carrots, sprinkle with cilantro, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and red currants or dried cranberries, and add lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

43. Amaranth

Like quinoa, amaranth is known as an “ancient grain” and a complex carbohydrate. It is packed with protein and fiber, and is also gluten free. Amaranth is a great source of vitamin B6, a B-complex vitamin essential to mental and emotional wellbeing. You can use it to make breakfast porridge, healthy granola, or as a thickener for soups or stews, since it is quite starchy.

44. Mushrooms

Mushrooms are "adaptogens," which are non-toxic edible items that once consumed, can adapt their ingredients to your body's stress levels and restore them to normal. With a great deal of protein, various types of vitamin B, vitamin D, selenium, antioxidants, and amino acids, mushrooms are a proven stress buster. Use them in your omelettes, on top of burgers, in quinoa or brown rice dishes, and just anywhere you can. They are great for your mind and body.

45. Olive Oil

Olive oil has numerous health benefits, particularly because of its strong anti-inflammatory effects. It also contains a compound called oleuropein, which can reduce cortisol levels [22]. Try a microgreen salad with some extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.” It is produced by the adrenal glands and released when you’re under physical or mental stress. Essentially, it triggers the fight-or-flight response in stressful situations.

While cortisol plays a key role in many bodily processes, elevated cortisol for prolonged periods of time can lead to a multitude of problems.

Symptoms of High Cortisol

Chronically high cortisol puts tremendous pressure on your brain and heart. It can shrink and kill brain cells. It raises your blood pressure and blood glucose levels, increasing the risk of developing diabetes, having a heart attack or stroke.

Some high cortisol symptoms include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • changes in mood, such as feeling irritable or low
  • rapid weight gain in the face and abdomen
  • type 2 diabetes
  • impaired memory and brain function
  • Infections
  • bruises or purple stretch marks appearing on the skin
  • decreased sex drive

Natural Ways to Reduce Stress

It is possible and necessary to reduce stress by making important lifestyle changes. In addition to a healthy diet, below are some other ways to fight stress and reduce cortisol.

Exercise

It is one of the most important things you can do to combat stress. Activities such as walking or jogging, which involve repetitive movements of large muscle groups, are especially stress relieving. Exercise also will help you sleep better, and as mentioned earlier, adequate sleep is paramount to adrenal support.

Essential Oils

Certain scents such as lavender, rose, vetiver, and Roman chamomile are especially soothing. Take a warm bath with a few drops of lavender essential oil and two-three cups of Epsom salt.

Sleep Well

This is one of the most important things you can do to regulate cortisol production. If you don’t get enough deep sleep during the night, your body will produce considerably more cortisol during the day [23]. Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Go to sleep at the same time every night to help regulate your sleep cycle. Stay away from caffeine and blue lights, especially before bedtime.

Spend time with friends and family.

Social bonds help us release oxytocin, which is a natural stress reliever. This effect is called "tend and befriend," and is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Research shows that the more social support a person has, the lower their cortisol levels will be. [24]


Stay away from fluorescent lights

Fluorescent light induces a stress response in the body. According to a research summary of CFLs’ effect on stress reactions, the spectral composition from CFL bulbs does not just suppress melatonin but directly triggers a fight or flight response in the body [25]. Consider changing the lighting in your home to incandescent bulbs.

Laugh More

Laughter is the best medicine. Studies show that our cortisol levels actually decrease in response to laughter [26]. Being happy and having a positive outlook appear to be related to lower cortisol levels.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing exercises can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the relaxation response. Focus your awareness on your breath, making it slower and deeper. Starting your day with just 15 minutes of deep breathing can make a world of difference.

If you need some extra help getting your adrenals in shape again and managing your cortisol levels, resulting in better quality sleep at night and more energy during the day, I encourage you to try my Relax supplement. It is a cultivation of thousands of hours of clinical research, which led me to create the optimal blend of natural ingredients, each one carefully chosen to help you feel your best again. When taken daily it promotes restful sleep and a calm energy throughout the day.


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