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Cortisol is a stress hormone. Released by the adrenal glands, it’s a crucial element of your body’s “fight-or-flight” response.
However, when your cortisol levels are even moderately elevated for too long, it can cause more harm than good. Too much stress means too much cortisol, and this can lead to serious weight gain, high blood pressure, sleep disruption, an inability to focus, and much more.
The good news is, there are a number of things you can do to naturally lower cortisol levels — and you can start them today.
First Thing’s First: What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands (which are found just above your kidneys).
Whenever you feel alarmed or anxious, your body pumps out cortisol to fuel your “fight-or-flight” response. And although we’ll discover in a moment that even moderately high levels of cortisol can have negative side effects, it’s still an essential hormone when kept in check.
Cortisol has anti-inflammatory properties, it helps to control blood sugar levels, and it regulates metabolism. So, not all bad.
What are the Side Effects of High Cortisol Levels?
If you regularly find yourself in stressful situations, your body will react and release hormones, including cortisol, to prepare you to fight or run away from a perceived threat. But too much cortisol in your system for too long can ultimately lead to a number of health problems.
- Weight gain – High levels of cortisol can increase your appetite and raise your blood sugar (glucose) levels. This shifts your body’s metabolism towards a fat-storing state, resulting in weight gain, mainly around your face and belly.
- Chronic health complaints – If cortisol gets out of hand, it can contribute to serious, chronic health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.
- Fatigue – Too much cortisol can lead to interference with other important hormones. This can disrupt your sleep patterns and lead to tiredness.
- “Brain fog” – Cortisol can also interfere with your memory, making it difficult to concentrate and leaving you feeling a bit cloudy up top.
- Infections – Finally, high amounts of cortisol can affect your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and infections.
The above issues can often overlap, causing even more stress in the process. This can leave you trapped in a vicious cycle of feeling tired, unwell, unable to concentrate, and fueling your anxiety with junk food.
However, the good news is, there are a number of things you can do to naturally reduce or moderate your cortisol levels and get back on track. These include stress-reduction tips, sleep and relaxation techniques, and diet and lifestyle changes.
Let’s explore each in a little more detail:
7 Things You Can Do To Naturally Lower Cortisol Levels
1. Control Your Stress Levels
Let’s start at the root cause: Chronic stress.
To keep your cortisol levels in check, you need to learn how to recognise stressful situations, and either remove yourself or cope better.
If you can spot stressors, you can take steps to proactively manage your anxiety. Employing breathing exercises, meditation or mindfulness can help keep you calm, allowing you to take a step back and observe the situation rationally.
2. Learn to Relax (Properly)
Kicking back with a beer and a pizza after a tough day might sound relaxing, but it probably won’t do anything to lower your cortisol levels.
Instead, incorporate some proven relaxation techniques into your daily routine. A 2017 study found that deep breathing could help improve mood and lower stress, while research into yoga’s impact on stress also found favourable results.
And if you don’t fancy rolling out the yoga mat, don’t worry; something as simple as listening to relaxing music can also decrease cortisol levels.
3. Eat a Healthy Diet
Lowering cortisol levels isn’t just about stress and relaxation. It’s also about paying attention to what you’re putting in your body. Certain foods can potentially keep cortisol levels stable, while others can make things worse.
- A 2014 study found that dark chocolate reduced cortisol secretion;
- A 2015 study of cyclists observed a reduction in cortisol after consuming bananas or pears during a 75km cycle;
- And a 2006 study linked hydration (i.e. drinking lots of water) to cortisol levels.
Other foods and drinks which may help include probiotics, found in yoghurt, green and black tea, and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, almonds, walnuts, and flaxseed oil.
Meanwhile, you should try to cut down your sugar and caffeine intake, which can interfere with a good night’s rest. Speaking of which…
4. Get a Good Night’s Rest
The length and quality of your sleep can also affect your cortisol levels.
So, a night of tossing and turning due to an upcoming deadline, relationship problems, or one-too-many iced coffees can lead to more of that stress hormone winding up in your bloodstream.
To combat this, aim for a structured and consistent bedtime routine. Try to switch off, both figuratively and literally, before your head hits the pillow. Turn off your devices around 30-minutes before bed, especially your smartphone, as the blue light can suppress melatonin, the hormone responsible for controlling your sleep-wake cycle.
5. Exercise More
Generally speaking, exercising will do wonders for your mental health and physical wellbeing. And coupled with a healthy diet, it can lead to weight loss, better quality sleep, and improved mood.
However, when it comes to your cortisol levels, there’s a balance to be struck. High-intensity exercise can actually lead to an increase in cortisol production to deal with the extra stress you’re placing on your body. Fortunately, this increase is typically short-lived, with nighttime levels of cortisol subsequently decreasing.
So, try to find an exercise routine that works for you and your current fitness level. If you’ve barely looked at your running shoes over the past few months, it’s better to ease yourself in, rather than go hell for leather straight out the blocks. Otherwise, you could do more harm than good!
6. Live, Laugh, Love
Living your best life will go a long way towards reducing or eliminating stress and, by extension, lowering your cortisol levels.
Enjoying stable, loving, respectful relationships with your partner, friends, family, and co-workers is often the key to a happy and fulfilling life. It also gives you the support network you need if things do get difficult.
But if those relationships are characterised by friction and arguments, it can send your stress hormones into overdrive.
Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that friendships aren’t limited to humans. Studies show that caring for a pet can also keep cortisol levels in check, with a four-legged friend doing more good during stressful situations than its human counterpart.
And if you can add some laughter to your everyday life, you’re onto a winner. According to one study, cortisol levels decrease in response to the giggles, and being happier, in general, can lead to an increase in confidence, lower blood pressure, and a stronger immune system.
7. Take Nutritional Supplements
Finally, certain nutritional supplements have shown promise when it comes to lowering cortisol.
- A 2013 study observed that fish oil supplements helped to reduce cortisol when compared to a placebo;
- A 2008 study found that the Asian herbal supplement ashwagandha, taken once or twice daily, helped bring down cortisol levels;
- And a study into cortisol concentrations post-exercise found that magnesium supplements helped decrease levels of the stress hormone.
High levels of cortisol in your body can lead to noticeable weight gain (especially face and belly fat), high blood pressure, fatigue, and infections. It can also affect your ability to focus and disrupt your sleep pattern.
Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to keeping cortisol levels in check. To combat stress and the hormones it produces, you need to commit to self-development (recognising and dealing with stressors) and try to eat better, sleep better, exercise more, and tend to your relationships.
There’s no time like the present — check out our Daily Health articles for more inspiration.