Stress is part and parcel of everyday life and something that we must all contend with, whether we like it or not. Elevated stress levels lead to the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Despite cortisol being an essential hormone that helps with many important functions in the body, chronically increased levels of it can lead to many undesirable symptoms in the body.
Figuring out how to lower stress and cortisol is not only good for your overall health, but it is also quite essential for your mental health too. If you have been unsuccessfully trying to get rid of all the side effects of cortisol, read on to find simple but effective ways of doing this.
What Is Cortisol?
According to the Hormone Health Network, cortisol – also known as the stress hormone – is a steroid hormone made in the adrenal glands and secreted via the HPA axis aka the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland.
When it comes to cortisol functions, the hormone has different tasks throughout the body. It has been known to affect blood pressure and blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation. In women and during pregnancy, at appropriate levels the hormone also helps with the development of the foetus (4, 18).
Despite its multitude of functions, excess cortisol can cause quite an amount of harm in your body. Some high cortisol symptoms include:
- Weight gain
- Easily bruised and thinning skin
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
- Severe general fatigue
- High blood pressure
- Difficulty in concentration
If you have been experiencing any of the above high cortisol symptoms and are wondering ‘how to lower cortisol levels fast’, then one of the first things that you will have to do is to make positive changes to your lifestyle. Since the world was struck by the pandemic in 2020, a lot of things have changed and more people have reported feeling extra stressed, extra weight gain, mental health issues and more.
In fact, according to the Americans Psychological Association, nearly 1 in 4 adults has reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress during the coronavirus pandemic. The article goes on to further point out that three in four adults have reported experiencing high stress levels (16). These alarming findings were localized in the United States so one can only imagine how the rest of the world has been fairing.
If you too have been feeling like your stress levels are getting out of hand and are worried about what these extra stress hormones might be doing to your body, here are some simple tips on how to lower cortisol levels by making changes to your lifestyle.
What you think, you become.
Stress almost always begins in the mind. The more you entertain negative thoughts, the more you worry and despair, increasing cortisol levels in the body, making you extra stressed. This can become a never ending cycle unless you learn how to recognize these thoughts and put a stop to them.
Practicing mindfulness can be a way to help you recognize these harmful thoughts and process them without spiraling. For those who may be unaware, mindfulness is the practice of focusing on your thoughts, feelings, or sensations without judgment and allowing yourself to process them. Several studies have shown that this simple practice can help you recognize stress and may even help reduce cortisol levels in the body.
- A review published in the journal the Psychiatric Clinics of North America, revealed that mindfulness practices such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can help you recognize when you are stressed out which can effectively help reduce anxiety and depression in many (15).
- Another study in the Psychoneuroendocrinology journal also found that when you are self-aware, especially of your mental state and health you are not only able to recognize stress but you can observe these thoughts and formulate conscious and deliberate reactions without becoming a victim to them (1).
- In a study published in 2014, researchers linked lowering of cortisol in the body as a response to a mindfulness program aimed to help reduce stress in women (11). These findings have been supported by more findings in several recent studies (6, 14, 22).
Some mindfulness practices include meditating, journaling, taking notice of your thoughts at all times, and much more.
While foods to lower cortisol exist and do a great job of it, coffee isn’t one of them. According to a study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, your daily cup(s) of coffee might be increasing the cortisol levels in your body.
They found that cortisol responses to caffeine were greater after a period of abstinence, and that habitual caffeine intake blunted the response to the first morning dose, but not the second afternoon dose(2). So if you can’t imagine giving up caffeine entirely, maybe sticking to one cup of coffee in the morning and ditching the afternoon cup will help reduce your cortisol levels.
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Some of the most commonly known risks of eating excessive sugar include weight gain, acne, depression, and more. However, few people are aware about how simple sugar can increase the levels of cortisol in the body.
Studies in rats have shown that consuming sugar activates a glucocorticoid-metabolic-brain-negative feedback pathway, which in turn, may turn off the stress response and thereby reinforce habitual sugar overconsumption (7).
Take A Moment And Just Breathe
It may seem like pseudoscience and something that new age practitioners try to pass on as facts but studies have shown that taking a moment to breathe will not only help lower your stress levels but it also works as a tip on how to lower cortisol.
- According to a review in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, practicing slow breathing techniques can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which in turn lowers the levels of this stress hormone in the body. Essentially, deep breathing helps counter the flight or flight response caused by stress and is known to boost cortisol production (10).
- In another study in the journal of Neurological Sciences, researchers saw that not only do deep breathing techniques have positive impacts on mood and stress levels, but they also help with improvements in heart rate and salivary cortisol levels (27).
- In the same year, the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal published a study where they stated that not only do people who practice deep breathing have increased attention lengths, but they also have significantly lower cortisol levels than those who do not (21).
Contrary to what many people believe, alcohol is not a stimulant. It is, instead, a depressant with stimulating effects. In the same article by the American Psychological Association, since the pandemic started, more and more people – especially parents with younger children – have started turning to alcohol as a way to cope with stress (16).
This could be due to the popular but misguided belief that alcohol helps you relax. According to WebMD, Verywellmind, and Healthline, while the initial stimulating effects of alcohol may seem relaxing, it is in truth a depressant that affects your central nervous system and impacts how your brain communicates with the nerves in your body. A study published in 2008 by the journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that for every unit of alcohol per week men consumed, their cortisol levels increased by 3 percent (26).
Maintain Healthy Relationships
If you are wondering how to lower cortisol, then you should take some time to examine your familial, platonic, and romantic relationships. If you find that some people in either of these groups are not good for your health – mental or otherwise, try distancing yourself from them.
Toxic people who cause you anger, anxiety, sadness, etc., are not good for your cortisol levels. A study published online by the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology found that children in warm, loving and stable families had lower cortisol levels than those who had families filled with conflict (8).
In 2016, the Hormones and Behavior journal published its study findings that stated that conflicts in the relationship lead to increased cortisol levels. However, partners who practiced mindfulness during the conflict showed either quicker cortisol recovery or an absence of slowed recovery in the presence of more negative partner behaviors (13).
Not only did this study show that mindfulness is a great way to quickly reduce stress, but it also shows the importance of having positive partners in your life.
The thing about stress is that it is not a ‘one size fits all’ type of problem. In some cases, people tend to sleep too much when dealing with stressful situations (as a way to escape) while others cannot afford a wink of sleep at night. If you fall into the later group, then sleeping more could actually help with your ‘how to lower cortisol’ issue.
According to a study published in 2005, not only will sleep deprivation lead to accelerated aging, increased risk of diabetes, increased hunger and reduced satiety, but it also has multiple effects on endocrine and metabolic function which causes increased cortisol levels especially in the afternoon and early evening (12).
Find A Hobby
According to the Oxford dictionary, a hobby is an activity that one does in their leisure time for pleasure. Some popular hobbies include writing, dancing, photography, cooking, knitting, hiking, or even gardening. A study by the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine stated that horticultural therapy not only improves life satisfaction and enjoyment but it may also reduce stress and salivary cortisol levels in research subjects (9).
Get A Pet
According to the MayoClinic, pet therapy – aka animal-assisted therapy – is a field of therapy that uses animals,mostly cats and dogs, to help people recover from or cope with a health problem or mental disorder. When it comes to how to lower cortisol, taking care of a pet can help quickly lower the levels of these stress hormones in an individual. The use of pet therapy has been successful in lowering cortisol levels in children, socially stressed people, anxious university students and even in older adults (3, 25, 17, 20).
Laugh As Much As You Can
Whoever said that laughter is the best medicine was right – at least where cortisol and stress levels are concerned. Laughter has been shown to help release endorphins and has been linked to positive things such as an overall better mood, reduced stress and perceived pain, lower blood pressure, and a stronger immune system.
A study published in 2009 by the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, revealed that laughter can not only decrease cortisol levels, but it lowers stress and increases total oxidative status (5). Even if you do not feel like laughing, force yourself to since science has shown that even forced laughter may lower stress leading to lowered cortisol levels (24).
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How To Lower Cortisol Levels And Lose Weight
Excessive amounts of cortisol in the body have long been linked to weight gain and belly fat. If you are on a journey to figure out how to reduce these stress hormones and lose a couple of pounds then here is what you should do
- Reduce how much stress you are under – You can use any of the above mentioned tips like taking up hobbies, spending more time with animals, gardening, meditating and more. While this won’t help much with weight, it does wonders for your mental health.
- Workout more – Exercising has been shown to help you gain more emotional resilience to stress which means that you are able to deal with stress better instead of simply falling and folding under it. Science has also shown that while cortisol levels will increase after exercise, they tend to reduce quite significantly afterwards. It is also said that the more you workout the less cortisol your body releases over time (19, 23). This is a win-win situation because as we all know, working out is one of the greatest stepping stones of weight loss.
- Change your diet – Reduce the amount of added sugars and refined carbohydrates you consume, eat more vegetables, lean protein and complex carbs, drink more water, and always eat on a calorie deficit if you want to lose weight and combat increasing cortisol levels. If you want to make more of an impact, try foods to lower cortisol such as blueberries, mangoes, broccoli and asparagus, papayas, pineapples, onions and more.
How To Lower Cortisol Levels Fast So I Can Sleep More
If your stress levels are affecting how much sleep you get a night, try some simple and relaxing ‘how to lower cortisol’ tips such as meditating, deep breathing, playing with your pets, and making time for your hobbies. You are more likely to sleep if you are relaxed.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to how to lower cortisol the key lies in finding ways to help your body be as relaxed as can be in any situation, no matter how stressful. Be sure to carve out time in your day and week to practice self care. Do things to help you be more relaxed, carefree and happy. Also be sure to add more cortisol reducing foods in your diet to help combat this issue from the inside out.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Anticipatory sensitization to repeated stressors: the role of initial cortisol reactivity and meditation/emotion skills training (2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Caffeine Stimulation of Cortisol Secretion Across the Waking Hours in Relation to Caffeine Intake Levels (2008, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Can presence of a dog reduce pain and distress in children during venipuncture? (2015, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Cortisol (n.d., sciencedirect.com)
- Divergent effects of laughter and mental stress on arterial stiffness and central hemodynamics (2009, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Effects of Mindfulness-Based Interventions on Salivary Cortisol in Healthy Adults: A Meta-Analytical Review (2016, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Future Directions in the Study of Social Relationships as Regulators of the HPA Axis across Development (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Horticultural therapy: a pilot study on modulating cortisol levels and indices of substance craving, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and quality of life in veterans (2015, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- It’s not what you think, it’s how you relate to it: dispositional mindfulness moderates the relationship between psychological distress and the cortisol awakening response (2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Metabolic and endocrine effects of sleep deprivation. (2005, europepmc.org)
- Mindfulness during romantic conflict moderates the impact of negative partner behaviors on cortisol responses (2016, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis (2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Anxiety and Depression (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- One year later, a new wave of pandemic health concerns (2021, apa.org)
- Paws for Thought: A Controlled Study Investigating the Benefits of Interacting with a House-Trained Dog on University Students Mood and Anxiety (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Physiology, Cortisol (2021, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Benefit of Pets and Animal-Assisted Therapy to the Health of Older Individuals (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Effect of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Biological Acute Stress Responses in Generalized Anxiety Disorder (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The exercise-glucocorticoid paradox: How exercise is beneficial to cognition, mood, and the brain while increasing glucocorticoid levels (2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Laughter Prescription A Tool for Lifestyle Medicine (2016, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends (2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Relationship between Alcohol Consumption and Cortisol Secretion in an Aging Cohort (2008, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The role of deep breathing on stress (2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)