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Understanding the Impact of Cortisol on Mood: Managing Anxiety Through Diet

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

Introduction: Cortisol and Anxiety

Anxiety is a common mental health issue affecting millions of people worldwide. While various factors contribute to anxiety, one important player is cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress.


In this blog, we will delve into the relationship between cortisol and mood, specifically anxiety, and explore how diet can be utilised as a powerful tool to manage cortisol levels and promote emotional well-being.


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The Weight of Stress: Unveiling the Diet-Cortisol Connection. Discover how your food choices impact cortisol levels and influence stress and anxiety. Visit our blog for insights and tips on managing stress through a balanced diet.

Section 1: The Role of Cortisol in Mood Regulation

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, which are small glands located on top of the kidneys. It plays a crucial role in the body's stress response system, helping to regulate various physiological processes.


While cortisol is essential for survival and adaptation to stress, chronic elevation of cortisol levels can have negative effects on mood and overall well-being.


The link between cortisol and anxiety is well-established. When we encounter a stressful situation, the body releases cortisol as part of the "fight, freeze-or-flight" response. This response prepares us to cope with the stressor by increasing our alertness and energy levels. However, prolonged or repeated exposure to stress can lead to consistently elevated cortisol levels, which can disrupt the delicate balance of the body's stress response system.


Research has shown that chronically elevated cortisol levels can contribute to increased anxiety symptoms. Studies have demonstrated that individuals with anxiety disorders tend to have different cortisol responses compared to those without anxiety disorders. Additionally, individuals who are more vulnerable to stress are more likely to exhibit higher cortisol levels, which may increase their susceptibility to developing anxiety disorders.


Adam and others (2014) conducted a study that explored the prospective associations between the cortisol awakening response (CAR) and the first onset of anxiety disorders. A higher CAR was a strong and significant predictor of at least a subset of anxiety disorders.


Fiksdal and others (2019) found symptoms of depression and anxiety among individuals without a psychiatric diagnosis are associated with blunted and exaggerated cortisol responses to and recovery from stress.


The relationship between cortisol and anxiety is complex and multifaceted. Elevated cortisol levels can affect neurotransmitter systems involved in mood regulation, such as serotonin and dopamine. Furthermore, cortisol can influence the function of the amygdala, a brain region associated with emotional processing and the generation of anxiety responses.


Section 2: Diet and Cortisol Management

Managing cortisol levels through diet is a powerful approach to promoting emotional well-being and reducing anxiety. A well-balanced diet plays a significant role in maintaining overall mental health, as it provides the body with essential nutrients necessary for optimal functioning.


Firth and others (2019) conducted a meta-analysis that examined the effects of dietary improvement on symptoms of depression and anxiety. It included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that assessed the impact of dietary interventions on mental health outcomes. The study found that dietary improvements, such as increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and reducing the intake of processed foods, were associated with a significant reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety.


Aucoin and others (2021) completed a scoping review aimed to map the existing literature on anxiety disorders and nutrition to identify associations between dietary factors and anxiety symptoms or disorder prevalence. The review found that a healthy diet, characterised by the consumption of fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, and "healthy" dietary patterns, was associated with lower levels of anxiety.


Aucoin and others (2021) also found that high-fat diets, inadequate tryptophan and dietary protein, a high intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates, and "unhealthy" dietary patterns were associated with higher levels of anxiety.


A crucial aspect of managing cortisol levels is a diet supporting stable blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels fluctuate rapidly due to consuming high-sugar or processed foods, it can trigger the release of cortisol. This cortisol release aims to regulate blood sugar, but chronically elevated levels can disrupt the stress response system.


Foods to Help Manage Cortisol and Anxiety

To support healthy cortisol levels, it is important to focus on nutrient-dense foods. Here are some specific nutrients and food groups that can influence cortisol production:


Fruits and Vegetables:

Incorporating a variety of fruits and vegetables into your diet provides important antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that support overall health. These nutrient-rich foods help combat oxidative stress, which can contribute to cortisol dysregulation.


Lean Proteins:

Including lean sources of protein, such as poultry, fish, legumes, and tofu, helps stabilise blood sugar levels and provides amino acids necessary for neurotransmitter synthesis. Neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine play a crucial role in mood regulation.


Whole Grains:

Opting for whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat bread instead of refined grains helps maintain stable blood sugar levels. Whole grains are rich in fibre and nutrients, supporting sustained energy release and preventing cortisol spikes.


Healthy Fats:

Consuming sources of healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil is important for brain health and hormone production. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish (salmon, mackerel) have been linked to reduced anxiety symptoms and improved mood.


By incorporating these nutrient-dense foods into your diet, you can support healthy cortisol levels and promote overall mental health. Remember to consume a variety of foods to ensure you obtain a wide range of nutrients.


Foods to Reduce Anxiety and Promote Emotional Well-Being

Incorporating specific foods into your diet can help lower cortisol levels and alleviate anxiety symptoms. While these foods can be beneficial, it is important to remember that managing anxiety requires a holistic approach that includes various strategies.


It is important to incorporate these foods as part of a well-rounded diet rather than relying solely on them for anxiety relief. Here are some stress-busting foods that have been linked to anxiety reduction:


Dark Chocolate:

Dark chocolate with high cocoa content (70% or more) contains flavonoids, which have antioxidant properties and may promote relaxation. Enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate as an occasional treat.


Berries:

Berries like blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C, which can support the body's stress response. Incorporate berries into your diet by adding them to smoothies, and salads, or enjoying them as a snack.


Oily Fish:

Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats have been shown to reduce anxiety symptoms and support brain health. Aim to include oily fish in your diet at least twice a week.


Nuts and Seeds:

Almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flaxseeds are rich in healthy fats, fibre, and magnesium. These nutrients have been associated with reduced anxiety levels. Include a handful of nuts or seeds as a snack or add them to your meals and salads.


Incorporate a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats to provide your body with essential nutrients for overall mental health.


Remember, managing anxiety requires a comprehensive approach that may include therapy, stress management techniques, regular exercise, and social support. Utilise these stress-busting foods as part of your overall strategy to promote emotional well-being.


Additional Lifestyle Strategies for Anxiety Management

Managing anxiety requires a holistic approach that extends beyond diet. Incorporating various strategies into your daily routine can significantly contribute to anxiety reduction and overall well-being. Here are some additional strategies to consider:


Regular Exercise:

Engaging in physical activity releases endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, cycling, or yoga, on most days of the week. Regular exercise can help reduce anxiety symptoms and promote a sense of calm.


Quality Sleep:

Prioritise getting sufficient sleep each night, as sleep deprivation can exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Establish a consistent sleep schedule, create a calming bedtime routine, and ensure your sleep environment is conducive to restful sleep.


Stress Reduction Techniques:

Learn and practice stress reduction techniques to help manage anxiety. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness techniques can all help calm the mind and reduce anxiety levels. Find a technique that resonates with you and incorporate it into your daily routine.


Social Support:

Cultivate a strong support system by nurturing relationships with family, friends, or support groups. Talking about your feelings and concerns with trusted individuals can provide emotional support and perspective, helping to alleviate anxiety. Engaging in social activities and maintaining connections can also contribute to a sense of belonging and well-being.


Remember, managing anxiety is a multifaceted process that requires a holistic approach. While diet plays a crucial role, incorporating regular exercise, quality sleep, stress reduction techniques, and social support can enhance the overall effectiveness of anxiety management.


By adopting a comprehensive approach, you can tap into the mind-body connection and leverage natural remedies for anxiety. Integrating these strategies into your daily routine for long-term anxiety reduction and improved emotional well-being is important.


Conclusion:

In this blog post, we explored the relationship between cortisol and anxiety, highlighting the impact of diet on cortisol levels and mood regulation. Individuals can more effectively manage anxiety symptoms by incorporating stress-reducing foods and adopting a healthy lifestyle.


Remember, while diet plays an essential role in mental health, it is vital to consult with a healthcare professional for personalised advice. By implementing these strategies, you can take significant steps towards improving your emotional well-being and achieving a calmer state of mind.


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References

Adam EK, Vrshek-Schallhorn S, Kendall AD, Mineka S, Zinbarg RE, Craske MG. Prospective associations between the cortisol awakening response and first onsets of anxiety disorders over a six-year follow-up-2013 Curt Richter Award Winner. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 Jun;44:47-59. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.02.014. Epub 2014 Mar 12. PMID: 24767619; PMCID: PMC4108290.


Aucoin, M., LaChance, L., Naidoo, U., Remy, D., Shekdar, T., Sayar, N., Cardozo, V., Rawana, T., Chan, I., & Cooley, K. (2021). Diet and Anxiety: A Scoping Review. Nutrients, 13(12), 4418. doi:10.3390/nu13124418. PMID: 34959972; PMCID: PMC8706568.


Fiksdal, A., Hanlin, L., Kuras, Y., Gianferante, D., Chen, X., Thoma, M. V., & Rohleder, N. (2019). Associations between symptoms of depression and anxiety and cortisol responses to and recovery from acute stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 102, 44-52. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.11.035


Firth, J., Marx, W., Dash, S., Carney, R., Teasdale, S. B., Solmi, M., Stubbs, B., Schuch, F. B., Carvalho, A. F., Jacka, F., & Sarris, J. (2019). The Effects of Dietary Improvement on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Psychosomatic Medicine, 81(3), 265-280. doi:10.1097/PSY.0000000000000673. Erratum in: Psychosomatic Medicine, 82(5), 536. Erratum in: Psychosomatic Medicine, 83(2), 196. PMID: 30720698; PMCID: PMC6455094.


Disclaimer

The information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. Prior to making any decisions, we recommend consulting your treating doctor, health professionals, and legal representatives. This is particularly important if you have health concerns, existing mental health or medical conditions, or if you feel you are not coping.


(c) 2023 Dean Harrison



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