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7 Cortisol-Lowering Foods to Keep Stress at Bay

A silhouette of a woman stressed at her desk with text that says "7 Cortisol Lowering Foods to Keep Stress at Bay"

7 Cortisol-Lowering Foods to Keep Stress at Bay was written by Fiona Mainolfi and reviewed/edited by Gabi Abreu and Jackie Silver MHSc, RD

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links with which I may earn a small commission but at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help bloggers like me to provide you with free content. All opinions expressed here are genuine. 
Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.

Last updated: March 6, 2024

Stress is a topic that is frequently discussed in our everyday lives, impacting everyone in various ways. Whether it’s the stress of meeting a work deadline, tackling school assignments, or managing the responsibilities of preparing your children’s school lunches, stress is a pervasive aspect of our experiences. 

But what really is stress? Why do we feel stressed and is it possible to decrease stress levels simply by changing the way we eat? 

Let’s start by discussing what stress is. Stress is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” Stress can be physical or mental; it is a normal human response that encourages individuals to cope with challenges or threats in our lives. While stress is a normal part of human functioning, excessive stress can have adverse effects on both physical and mental well-being.

A woman is sitting at her desk with her laptop and crumpled pieces of paper, stressed

When your body encounters a stressor, like failing an exam, engaging in an argument, or losing a job, the fight or flight response is triggered. In an attempt to restore balance, your body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol.  

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is commonly known as the “stress hormone,” however it’s not actually responsible for causing stress. When you feel stress, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) system releases stress hormones, such as cortisol to help restore homeostasis in the body. 

Cortisol has several important functions for regulating the body including mediating the stress response, regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, and supporting immune function.

A graphic showing the 4 important functions of cortisol

The release of cortisol on a short term basis has positive effects on your body, as the hormone provides you with the energy required to cope with a stressful situation. However, too much cortisol from prolonged stress can be detrimental to the body by increasing inflammation or blood pressure

An overactive HPA system can lead to dysregulation of the body’s reaction to stress.This may result in physiological and psychological consequences, such as becoming ill or sick. The dysregulation of cortisol can also lead to disorders like Cushing syndrome or Addison disease.

Do Cortisol-Lowering Foods Exist?

While the best way to decrease cortisol levels is by effectively managing stress, incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your diet can be an additional strategy. Be sure to check out my curated selection of anti-inflammatory foods, where you’ll discover not only valuable insights but also exciting recipe ideas to enhance your well-being!

The Mediterranean diet is widely endorsed for its comprehensive benefits to overall health and wellness. The diet emphasizes the consumption of fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Many of these foods are cortisol-lowering foods because they are  naturally high in omega 3 fatty acids, which play a pivotal role in reducing inflammation and therefore lowering cortisol levels.These fatty acids have also been linked to improved mood and mental well-being, factors that influence cortisol responses to stress.

A collection of anti inflammatory foods, which are cortisol lowering foods

In addition to embracing these nutrient-rich foods, prioritizing whole foods over highly processed ones is essential for optimal health. By prioritizing whole foods over highly processed ones, the Mediterranean diet further aids in lowering cortisol levels, as processed foods can contribute to inflammation and hormonal imbalances.

Why are Cortisol-Lowering Foods Important for Neurodivergent Individuals?

Neurodivergent individuals often experience higher stress levels compared to neurotypical people. Research suggests that this heightened stress may be linked to hormone regulation, with autistic individuals, for instance, exhibiting elevated cortisol levels

Additionally, neurotransmitters play a role; individuals with ADHD may have variations in the norepinephrine transporter gene, impacting norepinephrine levels. During stress, norepinephrine triggers the fight or flight response, and imbalances can lead to panic attacks or difficulty focusing

A man in a white shirt at his desk with his hands on his head, stressed

People with ADHD may also have shorter attention spans, leading to “information overload,” which can be overwhelmingly stressful. Given the likelihood for higher stress levels in neurodivergent individuals, prioritizing foods that regulate cortisol and reduce inflammation becomes even more crucial. Let’s jump into our list of 7 cortisol-lowering foods.

7 Cortisol-Lowering Foods

A graphic listing 7 cortisol lowering foods

1. Foods Rich in B Vitamins

Vitamin B is a group of water-soluble vitamins that play essential roles in various metabolic processes, including those related to cortisol. Since they are water soluble (meaning they are easily lost in water through bathroom breaks) it’s especially important to consume these cortisol-lowering foods in our diet. 

By giving our bodies enough vitamin B love, we help break down and use cortisol, keeping our hormones in check for a smoother stress response and balance.  

A group of foods high in Vitamin B, which are cortisol lowering foods

Some vitamin B rich foods include: 

  • Salmon
  • Leafy greens (i.e. spinach, collard greens, turnip greens or romaine lettuce)
  • Organ Meats (i.e. liver)
  • Eggs
  • Milk 
  • Beef
  • Oysters, clams, or mussels
  • Legumes (i.e. black beans, chickpeas, edamame, kidney beans etc.)
  • Chicken or Turkey 
  • Plain Greek Yogurt

2. Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Foods high in omega 3, cortisol lowering foods

Omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in overall well-being. Their anti-inflammatory properties make omega-3s particularly valuable in counteracting the effects of heightened cortisol. To delve into the specific benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, I recommend checking out this article. Some cortisol-lowering foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Anchovies
  • Avocados
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Olive oil
  • Oysters
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Tuna
  • Walnuts

3. Magnesium-Rich Foods

A collection of magnesium rich foods which lower cortisol

Magnesium plays a vital role in various bodily functions, encompassing protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation, energy production, bone development, and maintaining a normal heart rhythm. Magnesium is beneficial in lowering cortisol levels, as it reduces inflammation, metabolizes cortisol, and may encourage relaxation of the body and mind.

Cortisol-lowering foods rich in magnesium include:

  • Avocados 
  • Dark chocolate 
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Nuts (i.e. almonds, cashews, and brazil nuts)
  • Legumes (i.e. beans, chickpeas, peas, and soybeans)
  • Tofu
  • Buckwheat
  • Bananas  
  • Salmon

4. Gut-Healthy Foods

A jug and a glass of Kombucha, one of gut-healthy cortisol lowering foods

Approximately 70 to 80% of your immune system is related to your gut. Consuming probiotics (the good bacteria our gut needs) has been correlated with improved gut and mental health. Including fermented or probiotic-rich foods in your diet can contribute to cortisol reduction by maintaining a balance of good bacteria. Imbalances and inflammation in the gut have been associated with mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. So, by supporting our gut health with probiotic-rich foods, we help regulate the body’s response to stress, and as a result, potentially reduce cortisol levels. 

Some gut healthy foods include:

  • Kefir
  • Probiotic-enriched yogurt
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut

5. Water 

Water being poured into a clear glass cup

Yes, you read that correctly. Believe it or not, staying hydrated is an effective way to regulate cortisol levels. Mild dehydration can impair one’s ability to effectively perform tasks. Dehydration has actually been associated with a temporary increase in cortisol levels. Body water loss and an increase in cortisol could result in a decreased attention span, memory, or reasoning skills. The inability to think straight could in turn make events or circumstances more stressful. This is why it is so important to consume water during the day!

6. Protein-Rich Foods

A collection of protein rich foods which are known to be cortisol lowering foods

Foods that are rich in protein may also help to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the production of cortisol.

Some cortisol-lowering foods rich in protein include:

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Nuts (i.e. peanuts, almonds, cashews, nut butters)
  • Seeds
  • Lean meats
  • Poultry
  • Fish (i.e. trout, perch, salmon, sardines etc.)
  • Shellfish
  • Eggs
  • Lower fat milk or lower fat dairy products 

7. Foods High in Flavonoids

A group of foods high in flavonoids which are cortisol lowering foods

Flavonoids are compounds found in certain foods, known for their health benefits such as anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Foods that contain a high amount of flavonoids could be beneficial in decreasing cortisol levels. Flavonoids have been shown to decrease stress reactivity which results in the decreased release of cortisol. 

Cortisol-lowering Foods that are high in flavonoids include: 

  • Dark chocolate 
  • Tea 
  • Red wine
  • Leafy vegetables
  • Onions
  • Apples
  • Berries
  • Cherries
  • Soybeans
  • Citrus fruits

Foods that Increase Stress on the Body

In General, the following foods may increase stress on your body:

  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine
  • Simple carbohydrates 
  • Artificially sweetened beverages
A list of foods that increase stress on the body

Chronic stress is linked to dysregulated cortisol levels, which, in turn, are associated with the accumulation of visceral fat When we feel stressed, we often experience cravings for foods rich in sugar and fat, finding comfort in their consumption. Unfortunately, highly processed foods, known for their elevated sugar and fat content, might exacerbate stress on the body rather than alleviate it.

5 Simple Cortisol-Lowering Recipes to Elevate Mealtime

Now that we have discussed the best cortisol-lowering foods, it’s time to dive into some mouthwatering recipes designed to elevate your well-being!

  1. Grilled Salmon with Avocado Greek Salsa and Orzo 
  2. Butter nut squash carrot ginger soup
  3. Protein chia pudding 
  4. Blueberry Pie Smoothie
  5. Beet and blood orange salad
  6. Lemon garlic chicken recipe  

Bottom Line 

The most effective approach to lower cortisol levels involves mastering stress management techniques, including adequate rest, regular physical activity, meditation, and even unplugging from social media. 

It’s essential to clarify that incorporating these cortisol-lowering foods into your diet won’t magically eliminate stress or anxiety. Moreover, this doesn’t imply eliminating beloved foods not mentioned here. Instead, savor a balanced, mindful approach to eating, especially during stressful periods, providing your body with the nourishment it needs.

Now I want to hear from you. Have you tried any of these cortisol-lowering foods? Did they work for you? Would you recommend any? Let me know in the comments below!

If you like this article, be sure to check out some of our other blogs by clicking the links below!

Additional Reading

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: If you would like to learn more about omega-3 fatty acids check out this article. It includes information on what they are, what they are and their effects on health.  
  • Magnesium: If you are interested in leaving more about magnesium and recommended intakes check out this article. 
  • Coping With Stress: If you enjoyed this post and would like to learn some more healthy ways to cope with stress check out this article. It includes helpful tips for individuals of all ages. 
  • Eat These Foods to Reduce Stress and Anxiety: This article is perfect if you would like some more information regarding cortisol lowering food. It includes helpful information from Dietitian Courtney Barth, MS, RDN, LD, CPT. 
  • The Ultimate Anti-inflammatory Food List: This article is perfect if you are interested in learning more about inflammation and anti inflammatory foods. It also includes a FREE anti inflammatory foods PDF to make it easier to refer back to the list in the future.  
Fiona Manolfi

About Fiona

Hi! My name is Fiona and I am studying nutrition and dietetics at Western University. I love cooking, creating new recipes and learning about the way food can impact our mental and physical health. I am going into my final year of undergrad this fall and I can’t wait to see what opportunities await after I graduate. I’m looking forward to sharing new recipes and providing some education about how to fuel your body effectively!

A headshot of Gabi Abreu

About Gabi

Gabi Abreu, BSc, is a Nutrition & Dietetics graduate from Toronto Metropolitan University and the Blog & Social Media Manager at Jackie Silver Nutrition. She is also the founder of the Working Woman’s Health Collection. WWHC was created with the purpose of inspiring women to achieve a healthy relationship with food, while taking into consideration the busy lifestyles that we live today. Beyond her professional pursuits, she loves experimenting with new recipes, trying new workout classes, and indulging her love for adventure through travel!

About Jackie

Jackie is a Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.

Check out her full bio here →

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