Many people want to know how to lower cortisol levels, and for good reason.
Often referred to as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is an important part of our chemical makeup. Healthy cortisol levels regulate all sorts of bodily functions, such as helping us get out of bed in the morning.
Too much cortisol, however, is associated with high levels of stress, and too little of it may be tied to adrenal insufficiency, sometimes referred to as adrenal fatigue.
Fortunately, there are many ways to lower cortisol levels naturally.
What is Cortisol?
The body’s adrenal glands are responsible for the production of cortisol. In the brain, cortisol effects mood, motivation and fear. This is not necessarily unhealthy.
In an emergency situation, cortisol is known to trigger a person’s “fight or flight” response, which is something of a natural instinct that helps us react during a crisis.
That’s not all this hormone does for us, though.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that helps reduce inflammation in the body. It helps the body break down and process carbohydrates, protein, and fat in our diets, as well controlling blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Why Are High Cortisol Levels Bad?
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that helps regulate the amount of cortisol in our system. It can increase cortisol levels when needed and block excess amounts when it’s unnecessary.
Too much cortisol can be the result of chronic or toxic stress, which can lead to headaches, tension, difficulty concentrating mood swings and even mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
The symptoms from too much cortisol like these can unconsciously drive people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
High cortisol levels may also be caused by an adverse reaction to certain medications or from an underlying health condition.
Whatever the case, chronically high cortisol levels are unhealthy and can lead to a number of unwanted symptoms, like some of the following:
- High blood pressure
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Rapid weight gain
- Impaired cognitive abilities and rapid mood swings
- Promote other illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and create a greater risk of developing infections
It’s easy to see why people might want to find ways to lower cortisol levels naturally.
What is Adrenal Fatigue or Adrenal Insufficiency?
Adrenal fatigue symptoms are described as experiencing fatigue even after regular, healthy amounts of sleep, feeling “blue” and having physical cravings for salty foods or unhealthy snacks.
The theory behind this syndrome is that the adrenal glands fail to produce enough cortisol because of stress or chronic illnesses like the flu, pneumonia and bronchitis. There is some controversy around the phrase “adrenal fatigue,” which was created in 1998 by a doctor that practices alternative medicine, referred to as a naturopath.
Despite the debate around adrenal fatigue, adrenal insufficiency is a medically recognized diagnosis. Here, the adrenal glands do not function normally or the pituitary glands fail to signal the adrenal glands that cortisol production is needed.
It is a relatively rare condition diagnosed by endocrinologists – doctors specializing in the production of hormones.
Regardless of the terminology, the fact remains that too little cortisol can be problematic, as is having too much cortisol in the body.
How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally – 7 Ways
Some of the best ways to lower cortisol are actually the kinds of things most of us enjoy on a daily basis.
Others, however, require a bit more discipline until they become engrained habits that will benefit us over the long-term.
Here are some proven ways to lower cortisol naturally:
1. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
“Sleep hygiene” is something of an odd term, but it means going to bed and waking up at a regular and consistent time each day, even on the weekends. The magic number for most people is to get 7 to 9 hours of restful slumber on a nightly basis.
This will help the body’s natural sleep and wake cycles, in which cortisol plays a big role. Good sleep habits will actually improve the amount of restful, regenerative sleep a person needs by naturally balancing cortisol levels.
2. Regular Exercise
Physical activity, especially rigorous exercise, helps the body cope with added stress. In turn, this helps the body process excessive cortisol, providing an outlet for it. Exercise is not only associated with better physical health, but improved mood and mental health.
What exactly constitutes rigorous exercise will certainly vary based on a person’s age and physical health. While some people might consider rigorous exercise intense cross-training, others may simply need to start with brisk walks. Speak to your physician before starting an exercise regimen.
3. Mindful Meditation
Mindful meditation, the practice of learning how to relax the mind and lower stress, actually reduces levels of cortisol in the blood and “may decrease the risk of diseases that arise from stress,” according to a 2013 study.
4. Avoid or Limit Alcohol and Drug Use
Too much alcohol or drug consumption is unhealthy in many ways. First, it can lead to a substance use disorder and require addiction treatment.
Second, excessive alcohol intake is known to stimulate cortisol production and can prematurely speed up the aging process in people, increasing the risk of high cortisol level symptoms.
5. Maintain a Healthy Diet
A well-balanced, nutritious diet rich in foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and fish is a good way to keep healthy cortisol levels. That doesn’t mean a cheat day isn’t in order here and there, but too much sugar, for instance, can increase production of the “stress hormone.”
A healthy diet also includes drinking plenty of water, staying hydrated, and eating foods that increase serotonin to improve mood and mental health.
6. Develop Enjoyable Hobbies
Having meditative activities, whether it’s gardening, painting, doing word puzzles, reading novels, or whatever you find enjoyable and relaxing in your downtime promotes good mental health, which is associated with lower levels of cortisol.
7. Take Steps to Lower Unnecessary Stress
Maybe this seems too obvious, but it’s important to say. It’s also sometimes easier said than done.
Chronic and acute stress are different conditions. Acute stress is experiencing temporary tension, anxiety or worry due to things like a work project, an upcoming performance, or even something as normal as a first date. After the event takes place, however, the stress is relieved.
Related: 10 Stress Free Jobs for People With Anxiety
Chronic stress is more long-term and leads to unhealthy cortisol levels. This can be the result of toxic relationships, untreated mental health issues, disease, physical or sexual abuse, as well as many other factors.
While some people might be able to easily cut chronic stress out of their lives, others find that seeking help through therapy, counseling, or getting needed medical attention for an illness is the first step in learning how to remove chronic stress from their lives.