Can Diet Affect Your Stress Hormones?

As cliché as it sounds, the saying holds true—you are what you eat! Diet plays a major role in regulating the hormones that control your bodily processes, including your stress hormones.

Replacing junk food with healthy food is a positive step you can take toward reducing the effects high stress hormones can have on your health. Here’s what you should know about what stress hormones do, how they impact your health and how you can keep them in check through healthy dietary choices.

How stress hormones work

As you can imagine, stress hormone levels rise when you feel stressed. Your body experiences a spike in stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol as part of its natural fight or flight response. Since the days of the earliest humans, stress hormones were released in response to danger. They influenced bodily processes to make sure our ancient ancestors were alert and physically prepared to fight or flee from life-threatening challenges.

These days, we’re not fighting predators in the wilderness. Instead, the things that most often trigger our stress hormones are work, school, family, bills, appointments—the list goes on. The stressful events are different, but our bodies’ reactions are the same. Stress hormones don’t differentiate between a territorial lion and an intimidating boss. Our bodies interpret all stress as dangerous, even though it’s usually not.

We need a certain level of stress hormones in our bodies each day to regulate our physiological processes. However, chronically high levels of stress hormones can not only impact your mood but also lead to health problems from head to toe.

What you eat matters

Thanks to the human race’s ancestral instincts, stress makes us hungry. When your body releases stress hormones, your appetite might increase. To your brain, hunger is a signal that you need to fuel your body to combat the danger you’re facing.

Stress-induced eating often leads people to choose snacks high in fat and sugar. Comfort food like ice cream and cheeseburgers might sound good in the moment. Unfortunately, those tasty cravings often lead to even higher stress hormone levels. Diet can both help and harm hormonal balance, so it’s important to focus less on what you want and more on what your body needs to minimize stress and stay healthy.

Foods that increase stress hormones

A lot of our go-to comfort foods can lead us down the wrong dietary path. Foods high in sugar and saturated fats are the worst for stress, but they’re also the hardest to resist. Next time you reach for a midday snack, stay away from these stress-inducing culprits.

  • Refined sugar: Sweet treats like soda, ice cream, cookies and donuts feature refined sugar as the main ingredient. Unfortunately, refined sugars have been linked to imbalanced cortisol levels. Because refined sugars are quickly metabolized by your body, they can cause rapidly fluctuating blood sugar levels. Cortisol plays a role in blood sugar regulation, and those sugar highs and crashes can interfere with your body’s ability to stabilize cortisol production.
  • Caffeine: Many people need one (or more) cups of coffee to make it through the workday. Unfortunately, all that caffeine can wreak havoc on your stress hormone levels. Caffeine increases both adrenaline and cortisol production, which isn’t necessarily harmful in small amounts. However, excessive caffeine intake can keep those stress hormones elevated for too long and impact your health over time.

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Foods that can stabilize stress 

Instead of junk food, there are plenty of suitable replacements that not only taste good but will leave you feeling good, as well. Certain foods give your body the nutrients it craves while helping to lower your stress hormones, such as:

  • Leafy greens: If your body is telling you to load up on calories, you might not think to grab a bowl of salad. Despite what your cravings have told you, leafy greens like spinach, kale and Swiss chard contain exactly what your stressed body is looking for, including vitamin C, magnesium and vitamin K. These nutrients help combat stress, leaving you feeling happier and more relaxed.
  • Dark chocolate: You don’t have to say goodbye to dessert forever! Dark chocolate containing at least 60 percent cacao may lower feelings of stress thanks to its antioxidants. Just steer clear of milk and white chocolate, since these treats have more refined sugar and barely contain any cacao at all.

If stress has got you down, it’s time to take a good look at which foods are entering your body. However, as influential as your diet can be, it’s equally important to create a positive environment that’s free from extra stressors. There’s no magic food that will make your stress disappear. Your diet combined with a healthy lifestyle is key to a less stressed you!

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