Charles Moss, M.D., has been practicing holistic medicine since the 1970s and founded The Moss Center for Integrative Medicine. In The Adaptation Diet: A Three-Step Approach to Control Cortisol, Lose Weight and Prevent Chronic Disease, he focuses on reining in our levels of the stress hormone cortisol. —Editor
When Bob came in to see me as a patient complaining of insomnia, anxiety and stressed, I knew from his dietary history that his stress was not just from being in a difficult work situation, but also from his eating habits.
Dietary stress, like emotional or situational stress, has as its major hormonal component cortisol, the main stress hormone made in the adrenal glands. Cortisol helps us survive stressful events, it’s production controlled by the midbrain, (the “old” brain) where thoughts, emotional memories and the hormonal system converge to provide a means of surviving the types of stress our distant ancestors faced every day. However, our ancestors never ate anything that looks like the modern American diet, loaded with foods that make the old brain feel under attack.
Cortisol’s job is to reduce inflammation, raise blood sugar, mobilize fats, break down muscle proteins for energy and suppress the immune system, all in the service of providing energy to survive the day’s challenge, whatever it may be. Foods that increase inflammation, alter blood sugar or trigger allergic reactions all stimulate excess cortisol production leading to weight gain (especially in the belly), muscle wasting, fatigue and a dramatic increase in the risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other life-altering illnesses.
In Bob’s case, he was skipping breakfast, maybe having a cup of coffee, eating fast food for lunch and having high-calorie dinners, heavy on meat with a few vegetables on the side. Let’s look at how Bob was altering his dietary stress level.
Not eating a protein-rich breakfast means his body increases cortisol to mobilize energy to deal with the day’s challenges. Without breakfast, the blood sugar wavers and the body mobilizes free fatty acids for energy, increasing inflammation and the need for more cortisol.
Bob’s lunches usually included beef. It was probably raised on grains, not grass, which means it has a high content of omega 6 fatty acids that lead inflammatory hormones (prostaglandins) to trigger a marked release of cortisol to lower the inflammatory response. Let’s say he had an egg sandwich instead; eggs from chickens raised on a grain-based diet also give quite an inflammatory jolt. The same goes for other animal proteins not organically raised.
The level of persistent organic pollutants in these animal products, including non-organic dairy products, can also trigger cortisol. These chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, PCB’s (now banned as insulation material), biphenyl A and phthalates (plasticizers found in many household products), are readily absorbed from the fat in dairy and animal foods and increase the need for cortisol.
The super-sized soda and wheat bun that come with many burgers are also cortisol triggers. High glycemic index foods (the bun and soda) induce a rapid spike in blood sugar, followed by increased insulin, then a blood sugar crash which triggers a cortisol release to raise blood sugar. In addition, these foods lack the fiber that is critical to support the good bacteria (probiotics) needed to reduce inflammation originating from the digestive tract and clear toxins from the gut. Put them together with the fries (another source of inflammatory fats) and there is no doubt that one is taking a step in the wrong direction as far as controlling obesity and disease risk.
Food sensitivity and allergies also set off excess cortisol production as the body uses it to reduce the damage from these food reactions. Fifty percent of the population has some degree of food intolerance; wheat, dairy, corn, soy, tomatoes, beef and yeast are the most likely culprits. Symptoms range from fatigue, headaches, digestive issues to depression and even osteoporosis. (I describe a simple method to identify food intolerance in The Adaptation Diet.)
If you follow these few guidelines you can control your dietary stress right away:
1. Eat a protein-rich breakfast.
2. Strictly avoid animal protein raised with grain, like beef, eggs and chicken.
3. Eat organic foods, especially dairy or animal products, as well as plant-based foods that are rich in flavanoids and carotenoids, to reduce inflammation.
4. Limit gluten grains if you are possibly sensitive; use only whole grains.
5. Avoid ultra-processed packaged foods that are high in calories and low in fiber, and eat more fruits and vegetables.
Within a few weeks on The Adaptation Diet Bob was able to dramatically reduce his level of anxiety, improve his sleep and deal more effectively with work stress. I have found in thousands of patients that reducing dietary stress is the first step in regaining adaptation and dealing with our high stress environment.