Our bodies haven't really changed in 60,000 years... but our lifestyles and diets sure have. The known 'fight or flight' response is hard-wired in us from the dawn of time, however, nowadays the body can’t tell the difference anymore from where this stress is coming – whether it be from your computer (cr*ppy email from your boss) or from a wild animal charging at you for its next meal. The effect this stress has on the body though, is exactly the same.
Cortisol is a hormone made up of tiny glands that your body releases when you're under stress. Naturally, cortisol levels drop at night as the body prepares for restorative relaxation (1). If your cortisol levels are imbalanced however, you could be struggling when you get to bed and end up developing insomnia. To help nourish your body and help you get better sleep, there are certain foods you can try and include in your diet to help reduce, manage and prevent stress and a build-up of cortisol.
What's more, your daily routine could also be getting in the way. The two cups of coffee you 'need' in the morning to help you deal with stress might be making your heart beat faster, re-directing glucose to the eyes, heart, lungs and muscles. Your body still probably thinks that you're preparing yourself to run from the animal, instead of sitting in front of your computer! Our body then places this glucose back into fat near the liver to be readily converted into glucose at the next ‘stress’ event.
Evidently, not only can imbalanced cortisol wreak havoc on our hormones, it can lead to very low energy for long periods then a surge just before bed, causing you to develop issues with getting good quality sleep and insomnia (2). Cortisol is also catabolic and negatively affects systems in the body it thinks it doesn’t need, like the digestive and reproductive system. This is sometimes evident in women who are really stressed out and don't often get their periods (2). And, sleep is the biggest anabolic time within our 24 hours, and is essential for repair and restoration – that’s why it’s so important to get our cortisol in balance.
Sugar and stress
Refined sugar – all those 'yummy' but diabolical sweets, chocolate and candy that you find inconvenient stores – causes a spike in blood sugar that encourages the body to store excesses of it as fat around your middle. Low blood sugar releases the stress hormone cortisol, which creates powerful sugar cravings and can lead to weight gain. So, if you're concerned that you may have a cortisol imbalance, and notice a link in you between stress and sugar cravings, ask yourself the following questions:
• Do you feel tired as soon as you wake up?
• Do you crave sugar, caffeine or salt?
• Do you suffer from weight gain around the middle?
• Do you feel tired in the afternoon?
• Is early evening one of the most productive times of the day for you?
• Do you have problems falling asleep?
• Do you wake up in the night and find it difficult to get back to sleep?
If you answered 'yes' to some of these questions, then it might be that your cortisol is out of balance and that's why you crave sweets or other kinds of the 'good stuff' when stressed. One way to get things back on track is to opt for more nourishing dietary options that can help balance out your hormones and get things back on track. Here's a list of foods to help with insomnia and stress.
How to reduce stress naturally
1. Plant-based protein
The foods to eat that can help with stress are more plant-based protein that give a drip feed of energy, like tempeh, quinoa and hemp seeds.
2. Vitamin C foods
Include vitamin C foods to help with stress and insomnia, like citrus fruits and brightly-coloured vegetables. Studies have shown that they have the compounds that help people bounce back from stressful situations faster than those with low levels of vitamin C in their blood (3).
3. B vitamin foods
Opt for foods rich in B vitamins, like chicken, eggs and oats as they can help the body manufacture neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which helps the body's ability to cope with stress and anxiety. They can also help boost the immune system during times of anxiety (4).
4. Go for more iron
Like taking B vitamins for anxiety, iron plays an important role in the production of serotonin. Having low iron levels can lead to anemia and has been associated with fatigue, weakness, exhaustion, anxiety and panic attacks. And according to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency is the number one nutritional disorder in the world! (5) So add in some iron in your diet like greens, brown rice and meat (especially darker cuts of chicken) as they can all help you stay calm and get your zzz's on.
5. Eat less refined carbs and avoid caffeine
The simple act of keeping your blood sugar levels stable will make you more resilient, less tired and be able to focus properly. Not only that, but stable blood sugar levels will help you stay lean too and avoid excess weight gain. This is because along with stress hormones like cortisol, unstable blood sugar causes you to make storage hormones like insulin, which causes the weight gain and exhaustion.
In the modern world, we have weird ideas about breakfast foods being desserts. You will function much better if you opt for a protein start to your day instead, as this helps keep you feeling fuller for longer. Also, caffeine causes you to raise your blood sugar in the same way that sugary food does, so try to stick to one or two cups (if you need more than one) before 2pm (6).
These natural food solutions and home remedies to stress and insomnia may help you balance out your cortisol levels and finally help you get some restorative rest and better quality sleep long-term. Say goodbye to counting sheep!
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1. Endocrine Web: https://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology/overview-adrenal-glands
2. US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3079864/
3. Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200304/vitamin-c-stress-buster
4. National Institute of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290459/
5. US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23603926
6. Harvard School of Public Health: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/carbohydrates-and-blood-sugar/