Many studies have shown the beneficial effect that pomegranate fruit have on the cardiovascular system: it helps to reduce blood pressure, reduces thickness of the arteries by cutting down the damage caused by cholesterol in the artery and lowering cholesterol build-up. It has other health benefits too – improving blood sugar levels and slowing the rate of prostate cancer in men.
It has also been discovered that pomegranate lowers the stress hormone cortisol. When a group of men and women were given 500ml of pomegranate juice or a placebo for 4 weeks, those drinking the juice had reductions in cortisol levels and improvements in blood pressure and insulin resistance.
What is cortisol?
The hormone cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands and is often called the ‘stress’ hormone because high levels are secreted during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to a stressor. Normally we get an increased amount of cortisol in the mornings which helps us wake up and get out of bed, and a decrease at night which helps us wind down ready for sleep.
How does cortisol work?
It is involved in many body functions including:
- Proper glucose metabolsim – the breakdown and conversion of carbohydrates into energy
- Helps to regulate blood pressure which is important to reduce the risk of stroke
- Maintains blood sugar levels by helping release of insulin needed for balancing blood sugar levels
- Immune function – important in helping the body fight infection
- Inflammatory responses – enabling the body to protect itself from possibly harmful substances by recognizing and responding to harmful substances that can include viruses, fungi or bacteria and chemicals and drugs.
Small increases in our cortisol levels can have a beneficial effect:
- Quick bursts of energy in stressful situations (an evolutionary response for survival)
- Heightened memory function
- Immuno-protective properties
- Lower sensitivity to pain
However, it is important that our body can revert to a normal state after a stressful event and in our increasingly stressful lives this can be difficult to achieve. Unfortunately this can lead to chronic stress with constantly elevated cortisol levels leading to:
- Impaired cognitive performance – brain fog, poor memory, confusion
- Suppressed thyroid function – may lead to lower levels of thyroid hormones which will interfere with our body’s metabolism
- Blood sugar imbalances such as high blood sugars – may lead to metabolic disorders such as diabetes
- Poor digestive function – may lead to indigestion, heartburn and poor absorption of nutrients from food
- Decreased bone density which ultimately can result in osteoporosis
- Higher blood pressure resulting in risk of cardiovascular disease
- Poor immune function and inflammatory responses in the body – which can lower body’s ability to fight bacteria and viruses
- Poor sleep – people living with chronic stress often wake early in the morning around 2-3am and find it difficult to get back to sleep.
- Increased abdominal fat – fat around the middle which is associated with many health problems including cardiovascular disease, strokes and higher levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of good cholesterol (HDL). Studies have also shown that people who secrete higher levels of cortisol in response to stress also tend to eat more food, especially carbohydrates, than people who secrete less cortisol.
How can I help control cortisol levels?
In order to reactivate the body’s relaxation response after becoming stressed you need to keep your stress levels under control. This is often easier said than done but there are some lifestyle and dietary tips that can help:
- Yoga, meditation and relaxing techniques such as Tai Chi and Chi Gung
- Deep breathing exercises such as Pranayama
Dietary Advice for reducing cortisol levels:
- Reduce trans fats
- Reduce sugars
- Caffeine – be aware that many sodas contain caffeine as well as over the counter medications such as cold and flu remedies
- Processed foods that are low in fibre especially refined grains
Increase your consumption of:
- Fish – white and oily
- Pasture fed meats
- plant proteins including beans and pulses
- Nuts – raw and unroasted
- All vegetables
- Some fruits (2 x portions a day)
- Whole grains and seeds including quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, chia, flax and pumpkin seeds