How to Balance Cortisol with Nutrition

Jan 15, 2024
Avocado toast - healthy fats, protein, fiber to balance cortisol levels

I'll be the first to admit that when I'm stressed out, my focus on nutrition generally has been one of the first things to go. At the height of my anxiety, I decided to take a look at what I was eating. I wrote down what I ate for three days . . . boy, what a wake up call.

No breakfast, two cups of black coffee, whatever was in the breakroom for lunch (donuts, sweets treats), another cup of coffee in the afternoon, and (this one I'm a bit embarrassed about) goldfish and a glass of wine for dinner. No wonder I was anxious and feeling like crap. 

Making some small tweaks and being consistent with them really helped to reverse the anxiety. I know changing what we eat can be hard, but if I can do it - you can too!!! 

In today's post we will talk about:

  • How nutrition impacts cortisol
  • Key nutrients for cortisol balance
  • Food choices that raise cortisol levels

How Does Nutrition Impact Cortisol? 

Nutrition can play such a huge role in maintaining cortisol balance. In last week's post, we discussed the role of cortisol in the body - if you didn't read it and want to, click here.

One of cortisol's primary roles is to ensure a stable level of glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis (sugar creation) and increasing lipolysis (break down of fats) in adipose tissue (fatty tissue). As blood sugar balance is one of cortisol’s primary responsibilities, maintaining appropriate blood glucose levels is key to maintaining stable cortisol levels.   

It is also important to note that cortisol affects our appetite (Stachowicz & Lebiedzinska, 2016; George, Khan, Briggs, & Abelson, 2009). Studies have shown that glucocorticoids (of which cortisol is one) increases ad libitum food intake (George, Khan, Briggs, & Abelson, 2009).

This describes a link between the HPA axis and stress-related eating behaviors. Research shows that in stressful situations, appetite for sweet and fatty meals rise (George, Khan, Briggs, & Abelson, 2009). In a positive feed-back loop, consumption of these foods will increase cortisol as well (Stachowicz & Lebiedzinska, 2016) primarily through imbalances in blood sugar.

What are key nutrients for cortisol balance? 

  • Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral that plays a role in cortisol regulation. Consuming foods rich in magnesium, such as leafy greens and nuts, can help support healthy cortisol levels.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds, have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce cortisol levels.
  • Vitamin C: Foods high in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, can help reduce cortisol levels and support the body's stress response.
  • B Vitamins: B vitamins, particularly B5 and B6, are involved in adrenal gland function, which produces cortisol. Consuming foods rich in B vitamins, like whole grains and lean proteins, can support adrenal health and ultimately cortisol levels.
  • GABA: affects the hormonal control of cortisol. GABA reduces the secretion of corticotropin releasing hormone which is the central regulator of the HPA axis (stress pathway). Natural sources of GABA include fermented milk products and sprouted grains
  • Protein: Adequate protein intake is essential for neurotransmitter synthesis, which affects mood and stress. Lean sources of protein, such as poultry and legumes, can support cortisol balance.
  • Hydration: Staying well-hydrated is important for overall health, and dehydration can potentially increase stress and cortisol levels.

Foods that Increase Cortisol

Sorry in advance!

  • Caffeine and Alcohol: Excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption can lead to elevated cortisol levels, so moderation is key. Black coffee stimulates secretion of cortisol and the caffeine in coffee inhibits evening decrease in cortisol levels (Stachowicz & Lebiedzinska, 2016). This will keep you wired when you're wanting to wind down and go to sleep. 
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is considered a nutritional stressor and will cause the release of cortisol so that blood sugars go up and hopefully keep you in a better state of homeostasis.  
  • Sugar and refine carbohydrates: Cortisol is a strong appetite stimulant and when your body thinks it is hungry, you crave more carbs. Sugar and refined carbohydrates tend to spike blood glucose and when you're stressed, cortisol just adds fuel to the fire. I talk more about sugar here in my free Stress Busting Guide


Key Take Aways

A balanced and nutritious diet that stabilizes blood sugar levels, includes key vitamins and minerals, and minimizes inflammatory foods can help regulate cortisol and support overall stress management. Additionally, managing portion sizes and eating at regular intervals can prevent large fluctuations in blood sugar, which can also impact cortisol levels.

It's about blood Sugar Regulation: A diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugary foods can lead to rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels. These fluctuations trigger the release of cortisol to help regulate blood sugar, leading to chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels. Stress can also cause us to desire sweet and fatty foods - leading to a cycle of blood sugar dysregulation, elevated cortisol, and cravings. 

Focusing on protein, fat and fiber are essential in managing blood sugar levels and therefore cortisol levels.  



George, S. A., Khan, S., Briggs, H., & Abelson, J. L. (2010) CRH-stimulated cortisol release and food intake in healthy, non-obese adults. Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology (35), 607-612. 


Stachowicz, M. & Lebiedzinska, A. (2016). The effect of diet components of the level of cortisol. European Food Research and Technology (242), 2001-2009. DOI: 10.1007/s00217-016-2772-3

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