When it comes to high-stress times, optimal nutrition is one of the first things to go out the window. How many times have you found yourself indulging in the naughtiest foods available after a stressful day in an effort to take the edge off?
Unfortunately, unhealthy foods will harm your metabolism and exacerbate your stress response—a combination that is associated with obesity and chronic disease.
How does this happen?
When you are under stress, your adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a fascinating hormone that is essential for survival, affecting metabolism, mood, behavior, appetite, and pain perception. Cortisol’s main action is to supply the body with energy during times of stress—everything from skipping meals, to a hard workout will increase cortisol.
Cortisol is an insulin antagonist, which means that when insulin (the storage hormone that regulates blood sugar) goes up, cortisol will go down, dampening your experience of stress. Insulin release serves as a protective mechanism to keep cortisol in check and help you manage stress.
This relationship between insulin and cortisol even goes so far as to regulate the foods we crave when we’re under stress: Studies show that high cortisol blunts the desire for protein-rich foods that are less palatable, while increasing cravings for high-carb, high-fat foods that are very rewarding. You’re never going to crave salmon and kale, but you’ll be overwhelmed with a desire for pizza, chips, cake, or other high-carb delight.
Neurotransmitters, which act as chemical messengers in the brain and regulate mood, appetite, and stress response, are also impacted by diet. For example, serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, gets depleted during times of stress because the body uses the same raw materials to make cortisol as it does serotonin.
Serotonin is synthesized out of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan competes with other amino acids for entry into the brain, which means that eating carb-rich foods can increase tryptophan entry and serotonin synthesis. When serotonin gets low, you’ll have an overwhelming desire to eat carbs to replenish it.
Another factor that contributes to high cortisol and problems with excess stress is the standard recommendation to count calories to lose body fat.
Unfortunately, calorie counting backfires because the combination of restricting and monitoring food intake actually increases cortisol and is theorized to be one of the primary reasons diets fail.
Calorie restriction is inherently stressful. When you have a calorie deficit, your body releases cortisol, which triggers the release of glucose from the liver to raise blood sugar and give you energy. Additionally, counting calories and coping with hunger is a daily hassle that can make your body feel threatened, which is what is called “perceived stress.” This bumps cortisol up even higher, resulting in two effects:
- It leads the body to deposit fat in the abdominal area, and
- increases cravings for unhealthy foods that are easy to overeat, thus negating the calorie deficit.
What can you do instead?
The good news is that with a little planning, you can plan your nutrition to manage stress and balance cortisol. This article will provide strategies to outsmart food cravings and keep your hormones in balance.
Of course, it’s true that a calorie deficit is necessary for fat loss, however, how you achieve that deficit is the magic bullet. The good news is that the best strategies for achieving optimal body composition without dieting also serve to lower stress. What follows are six strategies for doing both.
#1: Eat Regular Meals
It’s so easy to think you have no time to stop for a meal. Plus, when you’re in the thick of it with cortisol and adrenaline pumping through your body, hunger is the last thing on your mind. It’s only later that hunger hits with a vengeance.
Eating regular meals resets your hormonal cascade and improves your body’s biological circadian rhythm. After you eat, cortisol and the hunger-causing hormone ghrelin drop, providing a feeling of satisfaction.
Most people will benefit from having a high-protein breakfast within an hour of getting up to keep cortisol in check and set your blood sugar up for the day. Subsequent meals should be eaten roughly every four hours to take advantage of your body’s circadian rhythm.
#2: Turn To Protein, Healthy Fat & Veggies During The Day
By planning meals of protein, fat, and low-carb plants, you’ll head off stress-induced cravings. Protein supplies the body with a pool of amino acids that will keep you steady. Plants (veggies and fruit) help keep inflammation in check. Healthy fat slows digestion and helps moderate blood sugar.
Another benefit of protein foods is that they activate energizing regions of the brain involved in cognition and drive to be physically active. On the other hand, high-carb foods have a sedating effect, reducing energy expenditure and making us sluggish.
Planning ahead is key. Remember that high cortisol basically hijacks your brain, impeding your ability to make intelligent food choices. Don’t leave meals up to chance. Know what you’re going to eat for breakfast the night before. Pack a healthy lunch and scope out restaurant menus in advance so you can outsmart your stressed out brain.
#3: Eat Whole-Food Carbs At Night/Post-Workout
There’s a myth that says that carbs shouldn’t be eaten at night because they’ll supposedly turn to fat. This idea is not true. In fact, healthy high-carb foods trigger a prolonged insulin release, which can help to lower cortisol levels at night for better sleep. Remember that carbs also raise serotonin, which is relaxing and gets you ready for a restful night of sleep.
Meanwhile, after a tough workout, cortisol will be elevated and carb stores in the muscle will be depleted, making after exercise a perfect time to have higher carb foods. The key is to favor whole carbs—starchy vegetables, fruit, and boiled grains or beans—over processed carbs, which are packed with sugar and will activate pleasurable parts of the brain that can trigger overeating.
#4: Be Careful With Caffeine
Caffeine is a godsend, but it can also backfire if you are struggling with cortisol issues. Caffeinated coffee or tea can improve cognition and exercise performance, making it extremely useful when you’re under pressure and need to perform.
It can also be a curse if you overdo it or are suffering a lot of anxiety along with your stress. In new users or those who don’t use it daily, caffeine consumption elicits a large spike in cortisol that lasts throughout the day.
For regular caffeine users, the cortisol spike usually goes away after morning use. However, consuming additional caffeine after noon will re-elevate cortisol, indicating that chronic use throughout the day is problematic for stress hormone regulation.
Worst of all, in people who are anxious or mentally stressed, caffeine raises cortisol levels higher than they would be in the absence of caffeine.
#5: Remember To Hydrate & Supplement
It’s easy to forget to hydrate. Having to re-fill your water bottle and make extra bathroom breaks and it can seem like too much trouble. But dehydration is a much underrated stress inducer. And if you’re exercising hard, hydrating is the number one thing you can do to improve recovery because it aids body temperature regulation, which affects cortisol release in the body.
It’s also easy to skip supplementation, either because you don’t have supplements with you or you’re just too busy. Game changing nutrients that are depleted by stress are magnesium, taurine, B vitamins, and fish oil.
#6: Get Stress Relief With Key Cortisol-Lowering Nutrients
Certain nutrients can help balance cortisol and help the body recovery from excessive stress:
Vitamin C can help you recover from stress by accelerating the body’s ability to metabolize cortisol.
Magnesium is a natural calming agent and it is necessary for the body to clear cortisol.
GABA is a neurotransmitter that calms anxiety and balances cortisol by lowering release of CRH, a precursor hormone to cortisol.
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid that helps the body metabolize cortisol when under intense physical and mental stress.
Rhodiola helps reduce the prolonged effects of physical exhaustion by affecting cortisol receptors.
Final Words: With the right nutrition plan you have the building blocks for successfully managing your stress. Of course, stress management requires a holistic approach:
- Always prioritize restful sleep
- Engage in rejuvenating activities like meditation or yoga, and
- Enjoy down time with family and friends.