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 or 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. If your cortisol levels are imbalanced, however, you could be facing issues with insomnia. To help nourish your body, 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.

how does stress affect sleep

What's more, your daily routine could 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 insomnia. 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. 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 cortisol

What's more, refined sugar causes a spike in blood sugar that encourages the body to store excess it as fat around your middle. Low blood sugar releases the stress hormone cortisol, which creates powerful sugar cravings. If you're concerned that you may have a cortisol imbalance, 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 a
round 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. 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.

list of foods that help reduce stress

How to reduce stress naturally

• Eat more plant-based protein for a drip feed of energy, like tempeh, quinoa and hemp seeds
• Include vitamin C foods, like citrus fruits and brightly-
coloured vegetables
• Opt for food rich in B vitamins, like
chicken, eggs and oats
• Add in some iron like with greens, brown rice and meat (especially darker cuts of chicken)
• Eat less refined carbs
• Avoid caffeine.

These natural solutions to stress and insomnia may help you balance out your cortisol levels and finally help you get some restorative rest.

Read next: How to Sleep Better: What You Can Do During Your Day

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Find out how to rebalance your cortisol levels with natural foods, manage stress and prevent issues like insomnia and hormonal imbalance.

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