Keep Cortisol Levels in Check with a Vegan Diet

Fruits and Vegetables

Cortisol is an important body hormone, but when you have too much, or your daily rhythms are out of sync, you can have serious health problems. Lifestyle habits such as a healthy diet and daily exercise are important to keeping the body systems in check.


Cortisol is best known for its involvement in our “fight or flight” response. If we were being chased by a bear, for example, cortisol and its partner hormone epinephrine, would cause a temporary increase in energy production so we would have fuel on board to fight that bear or have the ability to get out of its way.

Most of us today don’t fight bears. But many of us do have excessive levels of cortisol due to our fast-paced, stressful lifestyles.

Keep in mind, cortisol is not a bad thing – it is naturally higher in the mornings, for example, to help wake us up for the day. Typically, it decreases at night as we start to relax from a hard day’s work.

Unfortunately, though, this natural rhythm of hormone fluctuations has gotten “lost” in some of us. Emma Adam of Northwestern University says that losing variation in the cortisol cycle, or “stress related circadian dysregulation”, may be a cause of health concerns such as inflammation, obesity, and possibly even cancer.

Ms. Adam’s team looked at data from 80 studies and found that “inflammation and immune system dysfunction had the strongest associations (with altered cortisol levels)” and that “fatigue, cancer, depression, and obesity were all worse in people who had less variation in their cortisol”.

Several lifestyle habits can help reduce this chronic stress situation that leads to poor health. This includes stress management, better sleep quality and daily exercise. But we can also do wonders by improving our diet.

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An Anti-Inflammatory Diet is often prescribed to help reduce the systemic inflammation that can cause elevated cortisol levels. The vegan diet fits perfectly, as long as your vegan diet includes the following recommendations:

Low Glycemic Load – During stress, cortisol helps release glucose into the bloodstream, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Over the long term, this would lead to a potential insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes. Focus on foods such as fruits and vegetables and whole grains – and skip the processed flours and other foods that sharply raise blood sugar.

Low Saturated Fat and Low Trans Fat – Cutting out the animal products is a quick way to significantly decrease saturated fats. But beware of boxed convenience foods – while they may be vegan, they could also be harboring trans fat.

High Fiber – Maintaining a high fiber diet has many advantages, including helping control calories (feeling full on fewer calories), helping reduce cholesterol and blood sugar spikes, and maintaining good bowel function.

High Intake of Micronutrients and Antioxidants – Strive for a colorful diet every day. Fruits and vegetables from all colors of the rainbow have benefits – try to fit as many colors as possible into your daily meal plans.

Other foods to cut back/avoid: Caffeine, alcohol

The results of the Northwestern University study appear in the September issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Northwestern University, news release, Aug. 2, 2017 (via Medline Plus)
Today’s Dietitian