Lowering Cortisol and Acing Finals: Your Guide to De-Stressing via Diet
By Ari Snaevarsson, Staff Writer
As much as I love making instructional mega-guides for dieting, I felt now more than ever it would be pertinent to take a break from that madness to zero in on a topic that likely hits home for every student right now: stress. With finals just around the corner, study spaces are becoming few and far between, students are downing caffeinated beverages like water, and stress is at an all-time high.
I am not at all interested in regurgitating the same boring information we see time and again on our news feeds; “Whoa, bread consumption increases serotonin uptake? Time to store this in my arsenal of nutrition trivia so people think I know stuff!” The reality is, I could easily plagiarize Livestrong and copy down a bunch of “stress-reducing superfoods”, but I would much rather go about tackling the bigger issue and leaving readers with somewhat of an actual idea for healthy lifestyle changes to curtail stress.
Chances are you have heard of cortisol at some point, likely within the context of its role as a stress hormone. In short, it is secreted by the adrenal gland and responds to stress by activating the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) or some other function to counteract the specific stress.
What It Does
For our purposes, we will look at five primary functions of the hormone and why they can become majorly problematic when left unchecked. Secreted as a necessary response to stressful events, it can suspend insulin production so that we have enough glucose at our disposal to, say, run away from the angry mother saber-tooth tiger; it binds to hypothalamus receptors to increase appetite for fats and sugars, again to give us that needed energy; it reduces inappropriate inflammation; it improves our acute fight or flight response and temporarily deactivates our rest and digest response; and it helps pump blood faster and stronger.
Clearly, these functions prove imperative in life-threatening stresses. Problems arise, however, when the hormone is chronically “turned on” in response to constant, unchecked micro-stresses. Contrary to popular belief, studying for finals is not life-threatening.
The first function we mentioned was that of the transitory cessation of insulin production. When stress is left chronically unmanaged, this means cells are in a constant state of insulin resistance, a known pre-diabetic marker1. This also translates directly into heightened levels of blood sugar, which can lead to ketoacidosis, an often dangerous condition characterized by fat oxidation in the place of glucose, leaving behind waste products, known as ketones, that build up in the blood. Our bodies prove to be markedly inefficient at disposing of these.
When cells in the body are denied of glucose, signals are sent to the brain to increase appetite. But when there is already an excess of unused blood sugar, this is clearly problematic and another indicator of pre-diabetic state. Moreover, another role of cortisol is its binding to hypothalamus receptors to, again, increase appetite.
Cortisol also functions to downregulate inflammation. On the surface, this appears to be a positive, but if inflammation is being chronically scaled down, two events can occur. The immune system can be suppressed2, and, in an already systemically inflamed body (read: the majority of Americans), the adrenal glands get the message to keep secreting cortisol. And so a vicious cycle is given life, in that inappropriate cortisol secretion leads to a cascade of negative health effects that only worsen the systemic inflammation that, in turn, revs up cortisol secretion.
As we have previously discussed, cortisol works by activating the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the fight or flight response (“Should I tackle this saber-tooth or should I run?”), and counteracting the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the rest and digest functions. When cortisol is being continuously released, the latter now poses the threat of indigestion or even ulcers.
The final function we touched on was cortisol’s ability to constrict blood vessels and increase blood pressure. It is not too difficult to see why this, in a chronic state, is less than ideal. These are the precise conditions that lead to arterial plaque buildup (coronary heart disease), making heart attacks a very real consequence.
To briefly restate what inappropriate cortisol secretion can lead to:
-Insulin resistance (known pre-diabetic marker)
-Increased appetite à weight gain
-Suppressed immune system
-Indigestion or even ulcers
-Coronary heart disease
Fortunately, managing stress and, therefore, cortisol is not entirely difficult. As one could imagine, diet plays by far the largest role in this process. I will point to a few key dietary guidelines, the implementation of which can dramatically push things in the right direction.
First, avoid trans fats like the plague. Not only are they linked to all the negative health effects mentioned in my “Six Rules of Thumb”, they have been shown to, in conjunction with other unhealthy habits, elevate serum cortisol3.
The importance of Omega 3:6 ratios cannot be overstated. The anti-inflammatory effects associated with a proper Omega 3 fatty acid intake dwarf that of most other “anti-inflammation” foods. As stated earlier, cortisol and systemic inflammation feed off one another in a dangerous cycle, despite cortisol’s acutely positive effects. Taking a daily dose of around 3-5g EPA/DHA Omega 3 fish oil pills and opting for naturally fed and raised meats and meat products are great ways to go about increasing this ratio in our favor.
This one may come as a hard blow to most college students, but the negative health consequences of binge drinking are undisputable, and increased cortisol levels are no exception. There is a strong positive correlation between alcohol consumption and cortisol levels4, meaning you are doing yourself no favors by abusing it throughout the week. I am by no means perfect, nor do I expect others to be; just use your judgment on this, and be an adult about how you treat your body.
While not technically diet-related, sleep is a non-negotiable if you hope to have any say in your stress levels; it plays a tremendous role in regulating cortisol levels5. It is physiologically impossible to do work anywhere near peak performance when you are deprived of sleep. It is understandable that it often feels as though there are not enough hours in the day to study, but sleep must always come first.
My final suggestion would be to ensure you are eating enough; low-calorie diets seem to stimulate cortisol secretion further6. If you are attempting to lose weight by restricting calories, just make sure you are doing everything within your power to ensure healthy hormone levels; get a lot of healthy fats in your diet, exercise, and re-evaluate your diet if you notice weight loss stalling inappropriately. I have yet to cover caloric intake, or anything on the hierarchical model of nutrition, yet, but hormonal balance will be considered heavily in that.
So, here are the takeaways:
-Avoid trans fats
-Proper Omega 3:6 ratio
-Moderate your drinking
-Make sleep a priority
-Eat enough or, if you are dieting, ensure you are doing it in as healthy a way as possible
Finals are an inherently stressful time, but the notion that you have to be stressed out to unhealthy levels every semester for four years is absurd. Our society, and college culture in general, seems to prioritize productivity over mental and physical wellbeing, but it absolutely does not have to be this way.
Abusing caffeine, pulling all-nighters, and eating whatever junk you can get your hands on are inexcusable ways of making it through finals week. Treating your body properly does not have to mean you cannot have fun and enjoy yourself; it is simply imperative that you are able to practice moderation and give your body the fuel it needs to function optimally.
- “Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes.” Accessed December 8, 2015. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/Diabetes/insulin-resistance-prediabetes/Pages/index.aspx.
- Galon, Jérôme, Denis Franchimont, Naoki Hiroi, Gregory Frey, Antje Boettner, Monika Ehrhart-Bornstein, John J. O’shea, George P. Chrousos, and Stefan R. Bornstein. “Gene Profiling Reveals Unknown Enhancing and Suppressive Actions of Glucocorticoids on Immune Cells.” The FASEB Journal 16, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 61–71. doi:10.1096/fj.01-0245com.
- Collison, Kate S., Marya Z. Zaidi, Soad M. Saleh, Angela Inglis, Rhea Mondreal, Nadine J. Makhoul, Razan Bakheet, Joey Burrows, Norton W. Milgram, and Futwan A. Al-Mohanna. “Effect of Trans-Fat, Fructose and Monosodium Glutamate Feeding on Feline Weight Gain, Adiposity, Insulin Sensitivity, Adipokine and Lipid Profile.” The British Journal of Nutrition 106, no. 2 (July 2011): 218–26. doi:10.1017/S000711451000588X.
- Badrick, Ellena, Martin Bobak, Annie Britton, Clemens Kirschbaum, Michael Marmot, and Meena Kumari. “The Relationship between Alcohol Consumption and Cortisol Secretion in an Aging Cohort.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 93, no. 3 (March 2008): 750–57. doi:10.1210/jc.2007-0737.
- Leproult, R., G. Copinschi, O. Buxton, and E. Van Cauter. “Sleep Loss Results in an Elevation of Cortisol Levels the next Evening.” Sleep 20, no. 10 (October 1997): 865–70.
- Tomiyama, A. Janet, Traci Mann, Danielle Vinas, Jeffrey M. Hunger, Jill DeJager, and Shelley E. Taylor. “Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol.” Psychosomatic Medicine 72, no. 4 (May 2010): 357–64. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c.