You’ve probably heard the word cortisol before, but do you know much about it?
Cortisol is associated with stress, but that’s often the extent of most people’s knowledge.
If you’ve ever had an animal run out in front of your car while driving or were startled by someone you didn’t know was behind you, then you experienced your body producing cortisol.
Cortisol is important and useful, but can also become a problem when there’s too much or too little cortisol.
Keep reading to learn how to reduce cortisol levels naturally.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands and acts as the primary stress hormone in the body. You have two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney.
Cortisol is in a class of hormones called glucocorticoids and helps to reduce inflammation and suppress the immune system.
Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day but are usually higher in the morning and lower in the evening. How much cortisol is released is influenced by a network including the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (both in the brain) and the adrenal glands. This system is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis.
When cortisol levels are low, the pituitary glands produce a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone, which then prompts the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol into the bloodstream. When cortisol levels are high, the hormones that increase cortisol levels are blocked.
Cortisol is important for your body’s fight-or-flight response to stress. When there is a stressful or scary situation, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol.
Cortisol acts to raise blood sugar levels to provide the energy needed to escape the (perceived) danger. It also increases your heart rate and blood pressure.
Cortisol secretion suppresses body systems that would be less helpful in a fight-or-flight situation, such as digestion and the reproductive system.
What happens when your cortisol level is high?
Normally cortisol levels fall after a stressful situation resolves. However, if your body still senses a threat or the continuation of a stressful situation, cortisol levels can remain high for a prolonged period as a stress response.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels can become problematic and lead to conditions such as:
- Digestive problems
- Muscle tension and pain
- Cardiovascular disease (including heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke)
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment – “brain fog”
- Impaired immune system
Over time, chronic high cortisol levels can lead to Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s syndrome has symptoms like weight gain, stretch marks, bruising easily, acne, and slow-healing wounds. It can also lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and bone loss.
Low cortisol levels are also problematic. Addison’s disease, or adrenal insufficiency, is a rare condition where the adrenal glands don’t produce enough cortisol.
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10 ways to naturally reduce your cortisol levels
1) Practice good sleep hygiene, and get the right amount of sleep
When it comes to sleep, it’s a bit of a Goldilocks and the three bears situation. You don’t want to sleep too much, but you also shouldn’t be falling short on sleep night-after-night.
Getting good sleep can help regulate your body’s natural rhythm of cortisol production. Chronic sleep issues like sleep apnea, insomnia, or working night shifts are associated with increased cortisol levels.
According to the Sleep Foundation, here are some good sleep habits to practice regularly.
- Have a nighttime routine.
- Have a set wake-up time, even on weekends.
- Prioritize sleep.
- Don’t overdo naps.
- Reduce alcohol and caffeine consumption.
- Get exposure to daylight.
- Don’t smoke.
- Be physically active.
- Don’t eat late.
- Keep the room cool, around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Use a noise machine.
- Use black-out curtains or an eye mask.
2) Get regular exercise, but don’t overdo it
Regular exercise is a good stress-fighter and can help promote healthy sleep. Exercise causes the production of endorphins, which are hormones that help improve mood, which is why many people turn to exercise to help with stress management.
Too much exercise, or really intense exercise, can increase cortisol levels. Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise.
Listen to your body and rest when you need to in order to promote healthy cortisol levels.
3) Be aware of your stressful thoughts
We all fall into a certain way of thinking and are often not even aware of it. Maybe you’re hard on yourself, think of worst-case scenarios, or are easily stressed out by little things.
Try to be more aware of your stressful ways of thinking and change those thoughts to be less stress-inducing. Being aware is the first step to working on changing.
One strategy to change negative and stressful thoughts is to question them (are they realistic?) and replace them with positive ones.
For example, if you think that your boss is mad at you, ask yourself things like, “What evidence do I have that they are mad at me? If they are mad at me, how can I best approach them to come to a resolution?”
4) Laughter might really be the best medicine
Laughing helps reduce stress hormones, including cortisol. Laughter also stimulates the release of endorphins, which increase pleasure and help reduce the perception of pain.
Laughing with a friend, watching a funny movie, or reading books written by comedians are all great ways to benefit from laughter to reduce cortisol and stress levels.
5) Optimize your expectations before a stressful event
A study found that people who optimized their expectations prior to a stressful event (such as by realizing how much or little control they have over the situation) had lower cortisol levels after the stressful event.
For example, if you’re stressed about a presentation you have to give at work, remind yourself that you only have control over a few things.
You can prepare by practicing your speech and making sure your information is well-researched. You can’t control how your audience reacts or what the outcomes of your presentation will be.
6) Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation is a strategy to reduce stress levels. It encourages focusing on the present moment and less ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.
Mindfulness meditation is scientifically proven to reduce cortisol levels. You can practice mindfulness on your own, through the use of an app, or through the guidance of a mental health professional.
7) Tap into your creative side
In a study, people who made a piece of art had reduced saliva cortisol levels compared to before the art-making. Drawing, making a collage, using modeling clay, or even coloring might all help reduce cortisol levels.
If you know how to sew, make jewelry, or anything else that involves creating, that can have a similar benefit as doing actual art.
Do you remember zoning out while coloring when you were little? Coloring books for adults have become popular in recent years since coloring can make you feel relaxed. If anything, coloring gives your brain a distraction from stressful thoughts.
You can buy coloring books specifically for adults that are more complex and require more time to complete, or you can always pick up a regular children’s coloring book.
8) Consider picking up yoga
Yoga is a great low-impact exercise that is safe for most people. It involves stretching, strengthening muscles through increased balance, as well as offers an aerobic workout. Yoga also emphasizes relaxation, deep breathing, and awareness.
A study concluded that people who participate in yoga benefit from lower cortisol levels. Practicing yoga is a form of exercise, helping to release endorphins that can reduce cortisol levels.
9) Take deep breaths
Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, can help you feel more relaxed and at peace. When you get stressed, the usual reaction is to take short, shallow breaths that can further increase the feeling of stress.
A study found that deep breathing helped lower cortisol levels in participants compared to the group that wasn’t instructed on deep breathing.
10) Don’t overcommit yourself
It’s easy to put too much on your schedule. Your job, your family, kids’ activities, keeping the house clean, making meals, taking care of your health, and trying to make time for your hobbies can become overwhelming.
If you’re feeling too busy to take care of yourself physically and mentally, it might be time to take a step back and reduce your obligations.
If you’re volunteering at your kids’ school but have no time to exercise or do the hobbies that help you relax, then it might be helpful to your stress level to take a break from volunteering for a while.
Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone and is released as a part of the body’s stress response. Cortisol is important for many body functions, but it can also become problematic if cortisol levels are consistently high.
The best way to lower cortisol levels is by practicing habits that help make you more resilient to stress. Identifying and changing negative/stressful thoughts, getting regular exercise, practicing meditation, and prioritizing sleep are all ways to promote healthy cortisol levels.