As a holistic nutritionist, I am primarily concerned with how your food intake is affecting your body. What are you eating? Why? Do you have cravings? How do you feel before you eat? After you eat? I don’t use the word diet because it’s gotten such a bad rap but instead, I want to give you the tools to nourish your body with the nutrients it needs to function optimally.
Here are some of the key things to keep in mind when striving to balance your cortisol levels and improve your overall health.
Reduce/Eliminate caffeine (I’m sorry, but it’s a big one. I’ll explain below.)
Limit/Eliminate alcohol (This isn’t sounding like much fun right now, is it?)
Reduce/Eliminate refined carbohydrates.
Increase intake of fruits and vegetables.
Before we worry about eating like a rabbit, lets break down why the changes affect your cortisol and how you can expect to feel different.
Excessive amounts of caffeine (this varies by individual) may cause symptoms of depression, nervousness, irritability, recurrent headaches, heart palpitations and insomnia. People who are prone to feeling stress and anxiety tend to be especially sensitive to caffeine. Coffee, chocolate, tea and even some medications contain fairly high levels of caffeine and should be avoided by those who are sensitive to it and restricted by those who don’t seem to be. Did you know that if you can drink coffee immediately before bed and get to sleep right away and stay asleep it is a sign that your liver is not functioning optimally?
You may be thinking … “but Sandy …. I can’t function without my morning coffee!!!” You don’t have to go cold turkey – have one cup (and by one cup I mean a regular 250ml cup not a Starbucks super loaded half a carafe cup) in the morning. Espresso (and I mean a single shot of espresso not a humungous full fat latte with whipped cream and all kinds of other stuff that Starbucks puts in its lattes) is actually easier on your body than brewed coffee. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Brewed coffee will wake you up more gently, but it stays in your system longer and it will makes you crave more caffeine throughout the day. Espresso will jolt you awake a little quicker but the effects of the caffeine leave your system more quickly. I do not, however, recommend caffeine in either one of these forms if you have inflammatory issues (think anything with “itis” such as arthritis or colitis). A safer approach for everyone would be green tea and if that doesn’t work, Matcha tea is an amazing alternative. Not only do you get some of the caffeine you want so badly, but you also get antioxidants, which we all need. Personally, I restrict my caffeine intake to raw cacao (think unprocessed cocoa), Matcha powder and occasionally a little chocolate.
Alcohol produces chemical stress on the body and increases oxidative stress, which means that it depletes your body of the all-important anti-oxidants, including the critical glutathione. In short, this means that your immune system is compromised and you are at higher risk of diseases such as cancer as well as overall burnout. It also increases adrenal hormone output and interferes with both normal brain chemistry and sleep cycles. Despite a common misconception that alcohol has a calming effect, it has been shown in studies to significantly increase anxiety in some people.
Does this mean you shouldn’t have alcohol at all? Well … that depends on your unique situation. If you can’t stop at one drink, then refrain from that one drink. Should it be one drink every day? I’m afraid not. One glass of wine every few days is more than enough, especially for women. But we’re having a party (or going out on the town or out for dinner), should I restrict myself to just one? Not necessarily. If it’s an occasional outing, try having a little more and watch what happens to your sleep. Here’s a tip for better metabolizing alcohol … for every drink you have, make sure you’re drinking at least one glass of water. Personally, one glass of wine is fine for me. If I have several (which happens rarely), I usually don’t sleep well and my digestive system get very upset with me.
Cortisol is a contributing factor in rapidly fluctuating blood sugar levels, which can be a precursor to insulin resistance and diabetes. Refined carbs (sugar and white flour) are known to contribute to problems with blood sugar control, especially hypoglycemia and glycemic volatility.
Generally speaking, I recommend you stay away from all foods that are white … sugar, flour, rice, and potatoes. Brown and wild rice are amazing, especially when combined together and if you want to be really adventurous, add in some black japonica rice. I combine the 3 of them together and it makes a really flavourful, chewy, almost nutty type of rice. Sweet potatoes are a much better alternative to white. As far as flour is concerned, use unbleached, whole wheat or better yet, alternative gluten-free flours (coconut, almond) where possible, but try to avoid “gluten-free flour”.
Fresh Fruits & Veggies:
In order to support the adrenal glands (the source of stress hormones), it is important to maintain adequate potassium levels within the body. Potassium and sodium work together in the body and their levels need to be balanced. Two of the best ways to do this is to avoid processed foods, which are notoriously high in sodium, and increase your fresh fruit and vegetable intake.
I hope that this gives you some guidance and inspiration to make small changes to decrease your stress levels. In addition to a healthy, balanced lifestyle, it is also important to move well and support your mental health! We’ll be addressing ways you can do that in a couple of weeks.