You may have heard of cortisol as a harmful stress hormone. But cortisol isn’t always negative; our bodies actually depend on the release of cortisol for several key functions. The problem is when high stress, and cortisol release, are chronic. Humans aren’t meant to live under chronically high levels of stress, and doing so can lead to serious health consequences.
Luckily, there are ways you can lower your cortisol levels and work on reducing stress. Here are 10 natural cortisol-reducing habits to start with.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is also often referred to as the “stress hormone.” When you’re under stress, the adrenal glands release cortisol. Although cortisol has a bad reputation, it isn’t all bad – and we need a certain level of it, especially at certain times of the day, to be healthy. Cortisol helps us control fear, motivation, mood, and energy.
For example, we need bursts of cortisol early in the day to give us energy.
Some of the most important functions of cortisol include:
- Regulating the sleep-wake cycle
- Regulating blood pressure
- Increasing blood glucose
- Keeping inflammation down
- Controlling how your body uses proteins, fats, and carbs
Cortisol is necessary, and it isn’t always negative. When you’re faced with danger or a stressful situation, cortisol helps your body shut down certain unnecessary mechanisms – like your digestive or immune systems – to help you fight off (or run from) the danger.
Too little cortisol can even have health consequences like Addison’s disease, which can cause symptoms like low energy, muscle weakness, and weight loss.
However, we talk about cortisol as a negative thing because many people have cortisol levels that are too high. The release of cortisol can be temporarily beneficial, but after the danger passes, cortisol levels should decrease and return to normal. You can think of the release of cortisol as a fire alarm. Sometimes, it’s necessary – but after the danger has passed, the alarm should turn off.
Some people, however, have chronically high levels of cortisol. In other words, their alarm stays on. This can have serious consequences for your health.
Some of the negative effects of chronic stress or too much cortisol include:
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
- Mood problems
- Low energy or fatigue
That’s why it’s so important to learn how to lower cortisol levels when it’s time to. It’s not about getting rid of cortisol altogether – it’s more about turning off the fire alarm when you no longer need it.
10 natural ways to lower cortisol
Lowering your stress levels overall is a great way to lower cortisol. But sleep, diet, and exercise also play a role.
If you have severely elevated cortisol levels that are having an impact on your health (for example, Cushing’s syndrome is a rare but serious disease), then you may need medical attention to rebalance your hormones. But many people are able to lower their cortisol by making important lifestyle changes.
Here are 10 natural, medication-free ways to lower your cortisol.
One effective way to lower both your stress and cortisol levels is to practice effective relaxation techniques. Effective relaxation is about a lot more than taking a bubble bath or getting a massage (although both of these things can be very relaxing for some people).
When we talk about relaxation techniques, we are referring to any type of specific strategy that calms your sympathetic nervous system (stress response) and activates your parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response).
One way to consciously relax is by using your breathing. When your body’s under its stress response, it takes short, shallow breaths to get ready to fight or flee. If you’re not in any danger, you can send a reminder to your brain to decrease cortisol (and turn off the alarm button) by using your breathing.
Counteract short, shallow breaths by breathing slowly and deeply. Many people like using the 4-7-8 breathing technique. For 4 counts, breathe deeply into your belly. Hold your breath at the top for 7 counts, then release all of the air out of your body, through your mouth, for 8 counts. Repeat this until you feel your body start to calm.
Get enough restful sleep
Cortisol plays a role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle. By not getting enough sleep every night, you may make your cortisol levels unbalanced. This can become a Catch-22, because unbalanced (too high) cortisol levels can make it even harder to get restful sleep.
Experts recommend that adults get anywhere between 7 and 9 hours of restful sleep every night. To improve your chances of getting enough sleep, practice good sleep hygiene habits like:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
- Reserve your bedroom for sleeping and sex only
- Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol before bed
- Don’t eat big meals before bed
- Get enough physical exercise during the day, but don’t exercise right before bedtime
- Turn off all electronic screens around an hour before your bedtime
- If you find you’re tossing and turning, get out of bed and do a boring or relaxing activity for around 15 minutes. Don’t stay in bed if you’re unable to fall asleep
- Make your bedroom into a dark, quiet, and cool sleep sanctuary
Research shows that getting physical exercise is an effective way to lower your cortisol levels naturally. Although intense exercise will temporarily raise your cortisol, it should go down a few hours later. In addition, physical exercise has many health benefits that can lower cortisol in the long run, including:
- Helping you get better sleep
- Managing a healthy weight
- Reducing stress
If you have chronically high levels of cortisol, then you may want to start with moderate exercise to avoid the increased cortisol that comes along with intense exercise. Overexercising can have a negative impact on cortisol. In addition, avoid exercising right before bedtime, as this can make it harder for you to get restful sleep.
Get a pet
Animal lovers rejoice: research suggests that taking care of a pet can actually help you reduce your cortisol levels. One study found pet owners experienced a larger decrease in cortisol when they spent time with their furry companions than people who weren’t pet owners. And other studies have found that pet or animal therapy is an effective and natural stress-reducing intervention.
If you’re unable to become a pet owner, find other ways to have contact with animals. For example, you could consider dog-walking as a part-time job or volunteering at an animal shelter.
Eat a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet
What you eat also has a big effect on your cortisol levels. But lowering your cortisol through your diet isn’t as simple as incorporating more of a specific food. Eating a healthy and balanced diet is key. There are also certain food groups you may want to eat less of.
Eating a diet that’s high in sugar has been linked to higher cortisol levels. This is especially true when compared with a diet that’s high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. High amounts of caffeine can also raise your cortisol levels.
To lower overall stress and cortisol, try to eat a diet that’s high in anti-inflammatory and gut-healthy foods. Some foods you can incorporate into your diet include:
- Dark chocolate
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut or kimchi
- Whole grains
- Fruits and vegetables
In addition, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Spend time in nature
Another – literally – “natural” way to lower your cortisol levels is by spending time in the great outdoors. One 2019 study found that spending a 20 to 30-minute break in nature was linked with the greatest drop in cortisol. There were previous studies that found spending time in nature is beneficial for lowering stress levels, but this study gives us information about exactly how much nature time is “enough” to be effective.
What green areas do you have in your neighborhood? Try to prioritize spending at least 20 to 30 minutes there every day. Perhaps you can take your lunch break in a park or take a nature walk after work every day.
Mindfulness is a holistic practice that could help you lower your cortisol levels. Mindfulness is an ancient study associated with Eastern spirituality, but it’s practiced now in Western medicine as a way to effectively lower stress.
Mindfulness can help you become aware of the signs that you are stressed. For example, you might notice that your heart is racing or you’re having self-critical thoughts. When you notice these things, you’re more likely to be able to take action to change them. Mindfulness interventions also often include relaxation techniques like breathing.
A systematic review published in 2015 found significant drops in cortisol in some studies measuring the effects of mindfulness, but not in others. We need more research to be able to say for sure, but these results are promising.
Something as simple as laughing can help you naturally reduce cortisol levels. Laughing can also help you lower stress by reducing levels of certain hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline, and DOPAC. It also increases levels of “feel-good” hormones like endorphins.
As adults, we don’t laugh enough. Some reports indicate that children laugh up to 400 times a day, while adults only laugh 15 times a day. Think about how you can bring more laughter into your life.
One of the biggest contributors to high cortisol levels is smoking cigarettes. Studies have found people who smoke or use other tobacco products are much more likely to have higher levels of both stress and cortisol.
If you’re trying to quit smoking, smoking cessation programs and certain medications may be able to help.
Build supportive relationships
Having high amounts of relationship stress can contribute to higher levels of cortisol in your system. If you have a lot of conflict in your closest relationships (such as those with your spouse or children), then strengthening these relationships may be one way to naturally lessen your cortisol and stress levels.
Some relationships are difficult to repair on their own. Couples and family therapy can help in these situations.
Having strong interpersonal relationships can also be positive for your health and decrease cortisol. For example, in one study, women with breast cancer who had tangible social support had lower levels of cortisol. Focus not only on repairing damaged relationships, but also building new supportive relationships with those around you.
Treatment for anxiety and stress at The Center • A Place of HOPE
Many people are able to reduce their cortisol levels on their own. But if you’ve been living under high amounts of stress over a long period of time, then you may benefit from professional mental health treatment.
At The Center • A Place of HOPE, our clinical team can teach you new skills to reduce your stress and cortisol levels. We make sure every aspect of your health and well-being is taken care of with our proven Whole Person Care approach. Not only will we help you build new mental habits, but we will also make sure you’re eating nutritious meals, sleeping restfully, and strengthening your most important relationships.
Are you ready to get started on the road to complete well-being? Get in touch with us for more information about admissions.