Updated: Jul 24
Do you find yourself reaching for ice cream or coffee when you're stressed? Or maybe a glass of wine to unwind after a long day?
Many of us turn to food and drinks for comfort during stressful times.
But here's the catch - these indulgences may only provide temporary relief, and in the long run, they could be making things worse.
As a stress management coach, I often find my clients surprised to learn how certain foods can contribute to their stress. In fact, some of their favorite snacks are probably increasing the stress in their bodies.
So what foods raise cortisol levels?
Let's find out.
Table of Contents
What Is The Relationship Between Stress And Eating Habits?
Before diving into the foods that raise cortisol levels, let's look at the relationship between stress and eating habits first.
According to the American Psychological Association, 33% of adults report having unhealthy eating habits to distract themselves from stress, and 30% skip meals due to stress .
Harvard Health says that stress can temporarily shut down your appetite. But if you're dealing with chronic stress, your body's response is quite different.
Your adrenal glands release cortisol which can increase your appetite and ramp up your motivation to eat.
Stress seems to influence your food intake in two ways: it may cause you to eat too little or too much . And people who are chronically stressed tend to develop unhealthy eating habits, such as preferring high-sugar and high-fat foods.
So the terms "comfort food" and "stress eating" might be more than just a figure of speech.
However, as you eat comfort food to ease your stress, you may actually be doing more harm than good.
This is because some foods can raise your cortisol (stress hormone) levels. And high levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain, high blood sugar levels, and other health problems .
So, the next time you feel tired and stressed out, keep an eye out for the following foods.
What Foods Raise Cortisol Levels?
According to Banner Health, foods such as processed meats, high-sugar foods, caffeine, and alcohol can increase your cortisol levels.
Another study found that consuming ultra-processed foods like sugary drinks, sugary foods, fast food, canned foods, high sodium frozen foods, or processed meat lead to high perceived stress levels.
Apart from raising your cortisol levels, these foods offer minimal nutritional value and can contribute to various health problems.
Let's examine each type of food in more detail.
Processed meat such as hams, hotdogs, bacon, and deli meats are classified as carcinogenic to humans. In fact, studies have shown that consuming just a 50-gram portion of processed meat every day can elevate your risk of colorectal cancer by up to 18%.
But it's not just colorectal cancer that you need to be worried about. Processed meat also increases the risk of breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancer .
An article from Reuters Health highlights just how deadly these types of food can be. .
That's a stark warning for anyone who loves bacon and sausages.
If you notice, you crave sugar when you're tired or stressed. It's an easy way to give yourself a quick boost, which is why you often reach for candy bars and chocolates.
But what are the long-term consequences of your sugar cravings?
Unfortunately, the news isn't good.
Research shows that sweet foods and beverages can increase the episodes of common mental disorders and depression. Additionally, sugar intake can have adverse effects on your long-term psychological health.
But the dangers of sugar does not stop there. Eating too much sugar can also contribute to a host of health problems, including:
High blood pressure
Caffeine is commonly found in coffee, tea, and soda. It's also present in chocolate and some energy drinks.
Americans love their caffeine fix, with many starting their day with a cup of coffee and having another cup or two throughout the day. In fact, the average consumption of caffeinated beverages in the United States is 1.5 cups per day .
But what are the consequences of consuming too much caffeine? Here are some facts to consider:
Caffeine and mental health. A study suggests that caffeine consumption may be associated with stress, anxiety, and depression in secondary school children .
Caffeine and cortisol. Caffeine consumption can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which can be unhealthy in the long term .
Caffeine and sleep. Caffeine can keep you awake longer, limiting the amount of sleep you get. Sleep deficiency can lead to various health issues, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
While it's true that caffeine can be harmful if consumed in large amounts, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers about 4 cups of brewed coffee (400 mg of caffeine) safe for healthy adults to consume daily.
Stress is a common trigger for alcohol consumption. Many Americans turn to alcoholic beverages to cope with stress, long-term heavy drinking does have consequences
Not only can alcohol be addictive, but it can also cause significant harm to your body over time.
Alcohol abuse can lead to liver damage, high blood pressure, stroke, and a weak immune system. In addition, heavy drinking has been linked to an increased risk for certain cancers.
Alcohol affects your mood and behavior. It also interferes with brain function, making it harder to think, concentrate, and move with coordination.
What Foods Reduce Cortisol Levels?
While the usual comfort food —like processed meat and high-sugar foods—may temporarily calm your nerves, they cause more stress in the long run.
Instead, try these foods to help reduce cortisol levels:
Foods rich in vitamin B
When it comes to managing stress, a strong nervous system is your secret weapon.
And the key player in keeping your nervous system healthy? Vitamin B! Specifically, B1, B2, B3, B6, and B12.
Some of the best sources of Vitamin B include:
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acid
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish oil and certain marine algae. But why are they so important for your mental health?
One clue comes from looking at depression rates around the world. In places where people eat a lot of fish, depression is less common .
This led scientists to investigate whether omega-3 fatty acids could play a role in preventing and treating depression and other mood disorders.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a number of foods, including:
FAQs About What Foods Raise Cortisol Levels
Do eggs raise cortisol?
Eggs are rich in vitamins B2, B3, B12, and omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce stress levels.
What are the best foods to reduce cortisol?
According to Cleveland Clinic, foods high in vitamin B, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, protein, and gut-healthy foods can help reduce cortisol levels.
How do I know if my cortisol levels are high?
According to Cleveland Clinic, the common symptoms of high cortisol levels are the following:
High blood sugar
Purple stretch marks on your belly
What should I avoid if my cortisol is high?
Avoid foods like processed meat, alcohol, caffeine, and sugary foods. These do not only raise your cortisol levels, but they can also harm your health in general.
What to do next?
If you feel like you're in an endless loop of stress, it might be time to step back and look at your lifestyle. There's no quick fix for stress, but it's important to know that you can help yourself by making small changes.
Eating your usual unhealthy comfort food isn't going to help you feel better; instead, try eating healthier foods that can boost your mood and energy. You should also make sure you're getting plenty of exercise and sleep.
I hope this blog has been helpful and will help you manage your stress levels.
If you need a helping hand in managing your chronic stress, book a call with me, so I can help you get back on track.
About the Author
Alexa Hanshaw is a health and stress management coach who helps women be the CEO of their stress. She empowers her clients to push past the confusion of the health and wellness industry to create lifestyle habits that bring them energy and work with their bodies instead of against it.
Join her free Facebook group, Be the CEO of Your Stress, and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube for quick, easy & healthy tips on stress, health, fitness, nutrition, sleep, and how to stay mindful!