By Tilman Nathaniel, Founder of Superfood Box, and Melissa Wright
Do Everything in Your Power to Get Enough Sleep
A study on sleep deprivation demonstrated how cortisol levels dramatically increased the following two evenings after participants were deprived of sleep.
After normal sleep, plasma Cortisol levels over the 1800–2300-hour period were similar on days 1 and 2. After partial and total sleep deprivation, plasma Cortisol levels over the 1800–2300-hour period were higher on day 2 than on day 1 (37 and 45% increases, p = 0.03 and 0.003, respectively).
Take Some Eleuthero
Eleuthero, an adaptogen herb, has been shown to balance out cortisol levels. If they’re too high it lowers them, and if they’re too low it increases them.
According to Herbal Therapy and Supplements: A Scientific and Traditional Approach, Eleuthero increases resistance to stress, reduces the effects of excessive cortisol production and improves feeling of well-being.
Get Your Vitamin C
The easiest way to get plenty of Vitamin C is by eating plenty of fresh fruits, especially citrus fruits.
In a study of athletes who raced in a 90km ultramarathon, those who supplemented with 1500mg of vitamin C had significantly lower increases of cortisol after the race than the control groups.
The top sources of vitamin C include sweet green or red peppers, acerolas, chives and coriander leaf.
More Plants Less Meat
Take this one from Dr Greger, Founder of nutritionfacts.org. He explains how “a single meal high in animal protein can nearly double the level of stress hormones in the blood within a half hour of consumption.”
Get Enough Magnesium
After digging into the interactions of magnesium (Mg) and stress, a study out of UNC Chapel Hill concluded:
Stress, whether physical (i.e. exertion, heat, cold, trauma--accidental or surgical, burns), or emotional (i.e. pain, anxiety, excitement or depression) and dyspnea as in asthma increases need for Mg.
A German study gave triathletes blood tests that showed lower cortisol levels before and after a triathlon, when supplementing with magnesium orotate (a type of magnesium salt bound to orotic acid to make magnesium absorption more efficient).
The top sources of magnesium include rice bran, cottonseed meal or flour, basil, hemp seeds, coriander leaf, chives, and wheat bran.
In her book, Magnesium Miracle, Dr. Carolyn Dean explains how magnesium is commonly depleted:
Diets high in processed foods, magnesium-depleted soil, certain medication interactions, and fluoridated water, which renders magnesium unavailable to the body.
She claims that up to 80% of the population are magnesium deficient! She goes on to describe its use for preventing heart attacks:
I found that doctors have been prescribing magnesium for heart disease since the 1930s. A review of seven major clinical studies showed that IV magnesium reduced the odds of death by more than half in patients suffering acute myocardial infarction (heart attack).
PUFAs are polyunsaturated fats, and the two main types are Omega-3 and Omega-6. A paper published by Italian researchers explains how Omega-3 Fatty Acids positively affect our cortisol levels:
A study on the effect of zinc on cortisol levels of medical students, demonstrated an “acute inhibitory effect of zinc on cortisol secretion during 240 min of the study period in the experimental group.” The doses of zinc received by the experimental groups ranged from 25mg to 50mg.
Some great sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, lamb, oysters, cashews, cocoa powder, fortified cereals, soybeans, squash seeds, crab and lobster.
Ashwagandha is one of the most popular Ayurvedic herbs. In a review of five studies on Ashwagandha use for anxiety published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine the authors explained that patients reported more improvements (significantly in most cases) on anxiety and stress scales than the placebo groups in all five studies. Three different scales were used to measure anxiety and stress levels. The review only mentions one study that measured cortisol levels. The study had 64 women participants over the course of 60 days taking a dose of 300mg twice per day in capsules with at least 5% withanolide content (the active ingredient in ashwagandha responsible for most of its health benefits).
An Expert Speaker at Wanderlust on Stress and Cortisol
Listening to Dr. Sara Gottfried is very inspirational. Her approach is scientific, personal, entertaining and very interesting. Check out her full talk at Wanderlust here:
Eat Your Beans and Barley!
A specific type of phospholipid called phosphatidylserine (PS) may help with cortisol levels. According to a study done on healthy adults with a “healthy” level of neuroticism, a daily dose of PS was associated with mood improvements and decreased perceived stress levels. This particular phospholipid can be found in foods like white beans and barley. It is important to remember that the referenced study investigated perceived stress levels, meaning that the reports of lowered stress were subjective, based on what each participant felt. This is key because the goal should be to respond to your individual body’s needs and eat foods and nutrients that work for you.
Additional studies have been conducted, however, that indicate PS plays a role in perceived physical exertion and the lowering of cortisol levels, according to blood tests. Researchers had participants exercise - an activity that places stress on the body and increases cortisol levels. The participants who were given PS had an increase of cortisol levels that was decreased by 20% after physical activity (Bonus: Normally testosterone levels drop after exercise, however, this same study found that participants who received doses of PS did not exhibit lowered levels of testosterone). The researchers came to the conclusion that although the study investigated cortisol levels as a response to physical activity, PS can be an important tool in lowering cortisol levels that are a result of mental stress as well.
Eat Healthy Fats
Following an anti-inflammatory diet low in processed foods and high in healthy fats, fibers, and minerals can help lower your cortisol levels. Because inflammation and unmanaged blood sugar levels (levels too high or low) can lead to hormonal imbalances, it is important to limit processed foods and be sure to include healthy fats into your diet to minimize these effects.
Sources of healthy fats include: avocados, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and Omega-3s from fish. Not only will including healthy fats help complete an anti-inflammatory diet, but including them will help balance your hormone levels and aid in lowering cortisol levels.
Don’t Overdose on Stress Relief Either!
Now that you’re armed and ready to float away in a cloud, let’s consider the physiological purpose of stress. Sure, it’s usually considered beneficial for our health to lower stress, but at some point, you could “overdose” on the anti-stressors, just like anything else in nutrition. According to an article published by Dartmouth College, “in the realm of biology, stress refers to what happens when an organism fails to respond appropriately to threats.” So, it’s important to remember the goal of reducing cortisol levels is to respond appropriately to “threats” not to completely eliminate a response at all!
Babcock, Jillian. “Stressed? Fatigued? Gaining Weight? You Might Have This Condition.” Dr. Axe, 18 Sept. 2017, draxe.com/cortisol-levels/.
“Beans and Barley.” Cortisol-Reduction Grocery List | The Dr. Oz Show, www.doctoroz.com/slideshow/cortisol-reduction-grocery-list?gallery=true&page=2.
Benton, D., Donohoe, R. T., Sillance, B., & Nabb, S. “The Influence of Phosphatidylserine Supplementation on Mood and Heart Rate when Faced with an Acute Stressor.” In Nutritional Neuroscience: An International Journal on Nutrition, Diet and Nervous System. Pp. 169-178. Received 01 Jun 2000, Published online: 13 Jul 2016. https://doi.org/10.1080/1028415X.2001.11747360
Brandao-Neto, J., et al. "Zinc acutely and temporarily inhibits adrenal cortisol secretion in humans." Biological trace element research 24.1 (1990): 83-89.
David C. Nieman, Edith M. Peters, Dru A. Henson, Elena I. Nevines, and Milla M. Thompson. Journal of Interferon & Cytokine Research. July 2004, 20(11): 1029-1035. https://doi.org/10.1089/10799900050198480
Dean, Carolyn. Magnesium miracle. Ballantine, 2017.
Gaffney, Ben T., et al. “The effects of Eleutherococcus senticosus and Panax ginseng on steroidal hormone indices of stress and lymphocyte subset numbers in endurance athletes.” Life Sciences, vol. 70, no. 4, 2001, pp. 431–442., doi:10.1016/s0024-3205(01)01394-7.
Grosso, Giuseppe, et al. "Omega-3 fatty acids and depression: scientific evidence and biological mechanisms." Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity 2014 (2014).
Munoz, Kissairis. “11 Best Healthy Fats for Your Body.” Dr. Axe, 1 Dec. 2017, draxe.com/healthy-fats/.
Pratte, Morgan A., et al. "An alternative treatment for anxiety: a systematic review of human trial results reported for the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)." The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 20.12 (2014): 901-908.
Press, Healing Arts, and H. Matsuoka. "Common Names: Eleuthero, ciwujia, Acanthopanax senticosus Family: Araliaceae." Herbal Therapy and Supplements: A Scientific and Traditional Approach (2000): 303.
Rachel Leproult, Georges Copinschi, Orfeu Buxton, Eve Van Cauter; Sleep Loss Results in an Elevation of Cortisol Levels the Next Evening, Sleep, Volume 20, Issue 10, 1 October 1997, Pages 865–870, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/20.10.865
Seelig, Mildred S. "Consequences of magnesium deficiency on the enhancement of stress reactions; preventive and therapeutic implications (a review)." Journal of the American College of Nutrition 13.5 (1994): 429-446.
“The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis.” DUJS Online, 2 Mar. 2013, dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis/.
Tuttle, D. (2004). Cortisol. http://www.lifeextension.com/Magazine/2004/7/report_cortisol/Page-02