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Stressed All the Time? How to Lower Cortisol

What do you do when your cortisol levels are too high? The simple answer: manage your stress.

While that may sound all well and good, lowering stress can be much easier said than done. Unfortunately, if you want to feel your best and protect the health of your body— it’s critical.

So, how do you manage stress and lower your cortisol? This article will discuss what cortisol is, why stress reduction is crucial for lowering cortisol levels in your body, and some natural techniques for bringing cortisol levels back down to normal.

What Is Cortisol?

Cortisol is most well-known as the “stress hormone” due to its role in regulating your fight or flight response. It’s synthesized in your adrenal cortex and is regulated by your HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal).

The primary function of cortisol is to mediate the stress response. However, it’s also involved in regulating your metabolism, immune function, and inflammatory response. Its wide-ranging effects can reach multiple systems in your body, including:[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/

  • Nervous system
  • Immune system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Respiratory system
  • Reproductive system
  • Musculoskeletal system
  • Integumentary system

Cortisol also plays a crucial role in your circadian rhythm— your body’s internal clock. When in balance, it helps give you a burst of energy in the morning and signals your body to wind down at night.[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/

Cortisol and Stress

As mentioned, cortisol is most well known for its role in your stress response. When your body (or mind) senses that there is danger, it activates a mode of your nervous system called the sympathetic mode. When your sympathetic nervous system is active, it releases cortisol to help your body respond to stressful situations.

Together with other hormones, cortisol increases your heart rate and respiration, dilates your blood vessels, and shuttles energy away from your internal organs to your extremities (arms and legs) to help you fight or flee from a dangerous situation.

Once you are safe, your nervous system switches back into parasympathetic mode (rest and digest), and the levels of your stress hormones drop.

This is what is known as an acute stress response— and it’s been a vital part of keeping the human species alive throughout evolution. The problem with cortisol comes when you start experiencing chronic stress, and therefore chronically high levels of this hormone.[3]https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body

Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, many people experience chronic stress. This could be due to an unhealthy work environment, stressful family dynamics, financial insecurities, or worries about the state of the world.

When the perceived stressor in your environment doesn’t resolve, your mind can get involved, and you start ruminating, worrying, magnifying the issues, and feeling helpless. All of these thoughts and emotions trigger cortisol, which in turn magnifies these fears (or perceived fears) even more. This is why one traumatic event can cause chronic stress that takes months or even years to resolve.[4]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263906/

While high cortisol is often related to stress, other factors may also contribute to high cortisol, such as pituitary or adrenal gland dysfunction or side effects from medications that impact your hormones such as corticosteroids or oral contraceptives.[5]https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/endocrine-diseases/cushings-syndrome[6]https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cushing-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20351310#:~:text=A%20pituitary%20gland%20tumor%20

What Happens When Cortisol Is Too High?

Excess cortisol production can cause a myriad of issues over time. Some of the most common side effects of high cortisol include:[7]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263906/[8]https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/

  • Widespread inflammation
  • Pain
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Muscle weakness
  • Increased thirst
  • Low sex drive
  • Infertility
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability

While this hormone is critical for healthy stress response, finding ways to manage stress (and therefore cortisol) is essential if you want to keep your body in balance. Below are some of the most effective ways to lower your cortisol and mitigate its effects on your body.

6 Ways To Naturally Lower Cortisol

1. Stress-Lowering Supplements

Many people turn to pharmaceuticals when stress and anxiety get out of hand, but nature has provided us with a few alternatives that come free of unwanted side effects.

L-theanine is an amino acid (a building block of protein) that research shows may help to lower cortisol levels. L-theanine is naturally found in green tea and is the reason that tea doesn’t give you the jitters that coffee does. This naturally calming nutrient helps to keep your nervous system in check and lowers your stress response.[9]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26797633/

Ashwagandha is another supplement that’s widely used to help manage stress and overall nervous system function. As part of the ancient system of medicine known as Ayurveda, ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years to mitigate stress and anxiety. The ancient herb works as an adaptogen in your body, helping you adapt to stress by giving your body the resources it needs to either upregulate or downregulate the stress response.

Research shows that taking ashwagandha can significantly reduce cortisol levels, increase resilience to stress, and improve the overall quality of life.[10]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573577/

Take this quiz to find your individual supplement blend.

2. Exercise

Exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and cortisol levels in your body naturally. Depending on the type of exercise you engage in, cortisol levels may decrease during the activity or after.

For example, research shows that low-intensity exercise like walking or yoga can help to lower circulating cortisol levels during the exercise. On the other hand, high-intensity exercise may increase your cortisol levels during the exercise but leads to lower cortisol levels about two hours later.[11]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18787373/[12]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34022085/

Regularly engaging in either high or low-intensity exercise is an excellent way to keep stress at bay, as it enhances your resilience to stress and therefore mitigates the over-worrying and magnifying effect that can happen in your brain.[13]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4013452/

 

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3. Use Mindfulness

Over the last several years, mindfulness has become a hot topic as more people are engaging in Eastern practices that hone their mindfulness skills.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and pioneer in bringing mindfulness to the West, you can define mindfulness as: “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment.”

When practicing mindfulness, you become less involved in the “story” of your thoughts and more objective and curious about what’s happening in your mental chatter. This gives you spaciousness to choose your response instead of being caught up in the drama of your mind.[14]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5679245/

More often than not, what we perceive as stress is really quite benign, and it is just the storytelling that our hyped-up brain tells us that actually creates stress. When we can take control back from our automatic catastrophic thinking, we reduce the tendency to over-analyze, ruminate, and magnify situations.

Research shows that practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, can reduce overall stress and lower cortisol levels.[15]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24971591/

4. Breathing Exercises

As previously mentioned, one of the ways that cortisol impacts your physiology is by increasing heart rate and respiration. When you experience acute stress, these systems turn on in high gear, getting your body ready for a fight.

When you engage in breathing exercises that slow your breath and heart rate, it sends a signal to your body that you are safe and there is no threat in the environment. This is the power of the mind-body connection.

For example, when your mind is spinning on something, it can be very challenging to calm it down — you could say your mind has a mind of its own. However, one thing you can always control is your own body. By inducing relaxation from your body (instead of your mind), you get to take a back door to stress relief. Your body will get the signal that your breathing has slowed down, and in turn, it will send messages to your mind that you are safe.

Of course, the type of breathing you do matters. When you breathe slowly and deeply, it activates your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). This is the system that comes in to calm your sympathetic stress response and is related to lower cortisol levels.[16]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/

Research shows that incorporating deep breathing lowers cortisol and enhances mood and your ability to pay attention.[17]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28626434/[18]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27995346/

5. Consume A Healthy Diet

You are what you eat, and when it comes to stress, you’re also what you don’t eat.

It’s no secret that sugar is bad for your health, but most people don’t realize its impact on mental health. Research shows that a diet high in sugar may increase your cortisol levels, making it more difficult to manage stressful situations. At the same time, due to the addictive nature of sugar, it can become more difficult to cut it out of your diet when you’re already under stress.

The verdict: keep sugar low in your diet to avoid unnecessary spikes in cortisol and to get ahead of stress-induced sugar addiction.[19]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21752898/[20]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25879513/

But sugar isn’t the only dietary culprit for high cortisol. Research shows that a diet high in processed foods leads to higher levels of cortisol than a diet based on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.[21]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6893582/

6. Laugh

The saying “laughter is the best medicine” may be more on the nose than we previously thought. Research shows that when you laugh, it not only increases endorphins (feel-good hormones) but it suppresses stress hormones like cortisol. This is why many people find that after a good bout of laughter, they feel a little lighter and less focused on the stress in their lives.[22]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27439375/

Physiologically, when you laugh, it first increases the stress response in your body (high heart rate and respiratory rate), followed by deep relaxation. It also increases blood flow and the relaxation response in your muscles. As a result, many of the physical symptoms associated with stress immediately dissolve when you’re laughing.[23]https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456

In addition to its direct impact on stress, laughter is also associated with reduced feelings of anxiety and depression.[24]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5037252/

Takeaway

Stress in life is inevitable, but an overactive stress response that leads to high cortisol is not.

If you’ve been feeling the pressures of life lately and want to find ways to manage stress and lower cortisol, some simple ways to make big changes include:

  • Increase exercise
  • Use mindfulness
  • Try breathwork
  • Laugh more
  • Cut the sugar

And if you want to make things really simple, try adding in a supplement like l-theanine or ashwagandha. If you want to find the right nutrients to support overall brain function and mental health, take this quiz for your personalized formula.

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