World Stress Day: The Stress Hormone & Food

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Today is World Stress Day – so here is another article surrounding stress, specifically the stress hormone. This piece will discuss the biology of the stress response and go into detail about the stress hormone, cortisol.

Stress is an important topic. It essential to be able to spot when you are stressed and be able to navigate yourself out of the manifestations that can occur from stress. It is equally important to understand how you are stressed and find ways to hack your biology and trick your body into producing less of the stress hormone.

As mentioned in my previous article, while stressed, you are in the fight-or-flight (sympathetic) system. To combat this, you want to trick your body into the other nervous system, i.e. the rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) system.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a (steroid) hormone that is associated with stress and is released by the adrenal glands. The hormone gets released into the bloodstream to be transported around the body to have its effect. This hormone affects nearly every organ and tissue within the body.

Cortisol’s effect on the body

There are many receptors throughout the body that respond to the release and binding of cortisol, and so cortisol’s release affects many systems, such as:

This means that the imbalance of this hormone can cause many problems within the body. Such as:

  • Skin, nails and hair health
  • Regulating hormones and stress response
  • Sore muscles and joints
  • Menstrual health issues (irregular, painful)
  • Suppressing inflammation
  • Regulating blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Controlling the sleep-wake cycle

Cortisol levels and regulation

The body has many feedback and regulation systems to ensure that the body is in a state of equilibrium. Let’s discuss the mechanism for maintaining safe cortisol levels. The areas involved:

  • the hypothalamus (brain area)
  • the pituitary gland (below the brain)
  • the adrenal gland (located above each kidney)

Within the brain, a small area (termed the hypothalamus) essential for hormonal regulation works alongside the pituitary gland located just below.

When cortisol levels in the blood drop, the brain area (hypothalamus) involved knows and sends out a hormone (CRH) that stimulates the gland to produce another hormone (ACTH) which then stimulates the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol.

You can have your cortisol levels checked by asking your GP if this is a concern of yours.

Tips and tricks

If you feel your cortisol levels are imbalanced, it is important to try to get this back to baseline.

Try the following general tips:

  • take deep breaths
  • get adequate sleep
  • exercise
  • journal
  • spend time doing your hobbies
  • recognise and stop negative thinking

Additionally, there have been studies indicating diet can naturally help cortisol levels.

Consider the following foods:

(1) rich in vitamin B

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Cereal
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Organ meats

(2) rich in omega-3 fatty acids

  • Walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds
  • Tuna, sardines, salmon, oysters
  • Herring, mackerel, anchovies
  • Avocado
  • Olive oil

(3) magnesium-rich foods

  • Avocado, pumpkin seeds
  • Bananas
  • Broccoli, spinach
  • Dark chocolate

(4) protein-rich foods

  • Almonds, peanuts
  • Quinoa, lentils
  • Tuna, salmon, shrimp
  • Turkey, beef, chicken
  • Eggs

(5) general gut-healthy foods

  • Greek yoghurt
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut

Avoid the following food and drinks:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • High sugar
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Simple carbs (cakes, pastries)

As well as trying out these foods, it is essential to ensure you eat consistently, i.e., no binging or inconsistent fasting.

Final thoughts

This article explored the ins and outs of the stress hormone cortisol. Including regulation, imbalance consequences and information to keep your cortisol levels in check.

If you are struggling with anything mentioned, please contact your GP or any of the helplines below:

Additionally, within the university, there are services you can contact to assist you with your feelings and struggles.

  • Student services
  • Mental health services
  • Apply for counselling through the university
  • Togetherall

More information on the university services above can be found here.

Stress impacts both mental and physical health, and it is vital you take the necessary steps to get yourself back to a baseline level to avoid the repercussions of constant stress on the body and mind.

Featured Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

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Final year Biology & Psychology student with a keen interest in music, food and lifestyle pieces.


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