6 Steps to Get Your Cortisol Levels Under Control & Turn Down the Stress
March 23, 2016
Updated: June 14, 2018
Original article and page source found here.
Do you find yourself overly stressed, tired and even notice weight gain despite not changing your diet or workout frequency? Your cortisol levels may be out of whack. More specifically, they may be too high.
Cortisol is often called the primary “stress hormone” because it’s one of the main hormones we release when we’re under any sort of pressure and our evolutionary-based “fight or flight response” kicks into gear. Although most think of cortisol as a bad thing — such as contributing to acne, weight gain or high blood pressure — there’s actually a lot more to cortisol levels than just our stress response and its unwanted symptoms. We need it to live.
While producing cortisol is a necessity for life and helps keep us motivated, awake and responsive to our environment, maintaining abnormally high circulating cortisol levels can become dangerous and contribute to long-term problems. Long-term use of corticosteroids and chronic stress are two of the biggest contributors to high cortisol. Chronic, high cortisol production is tied to symptoms and ailments including weight gain, anxiety, sleep disorders, hormonal imbalances and fertility problems, in addition to many other problems.
The good news is there are many natural ways to get your cortisol levels in check. For instance, adaptogen herbs are known to lower cortisol, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Read on for more ways to lower high cortisol levels naturally.
How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally — 6 Steps!
You can greatly help manage cortisol levels and regain your health by changing your diet, exercise routine, sleep and stress levels. Assuming you haven’t been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease (see below) by your doctor, here are steps you can take to help lower high cortisol levels naturally:
1. Switch to a Whole Foods, Anti-inflammatory Diet
Poorly managed blood sugar levels (especially hypoglycemia, having low blood sugar) and high levels of inflammation can contribute to high cortisol levels and other hormonal imbalances. Following an anti-inflammatory diet low in processed foods and high in antioxidants, fiber and essential nutrients is key to balancing hormones, controlling your cravings and getting you on the right track. These same strategies can also help with adrenal support, allowing you to reach and maintain a healthy weight, boosting energy during the day and helping you sleep better at night.
Some of the most significant dietary contributors to inflammation and high cortisol levels include: (1)
high-sugar, high-glycemic diet (with many packaged foods, refined grain products, sugary drinks and snacks)
consuming high amounts of refined and trans fats
drinking too much caffeine and alcohol
experiencing insufficient intake of micronutrients and antioxidants
not consuming enough fiber (which makes it hard to balance blood sugar)
not consuming enough healthy fats or protein (which can lead to hunger, weight gain and high blood sugar)
Instead, switch to a low-glycemic diet, include healthy fats and proteins with every meal, and make sure to get enough fiber and phytonutrients by eating plenty fresh fruits and veggies. (2) Some of the most useful foods for lowering cortisol and stabilizing blood sugar include vegetables; fruits; coconut or olive oil; nuts; seeds; lean proteins like eggs, fish and grass-fed beef; and probiotic foods (like yogurt, kefir or cultured veggies).
2. Reduce and Manage Stress
Chronic stress is now linked with just about every health problem out there. Stress affects most people at least to some degree and impacts health by sending chemical signals around the body, including to the heart and blood vessels, immune system, lungs, digestive system, sensory organs, and brain. Stress has the power to increase breathing, heart rate, pain and muscle tension, your appetite (including overeating), and sleep-related problems.
Fortunately, stress management is something you can begin without too much trouble. The natural stress relievers listed below are proven to help lower cortisol and decrease the negative impact stress has on your health:
Meditation or “mindfulness”: This practice has been shown to help train the brain and body to turn off the stress response and promote more relaxation. And these benefits are possible without impairing alertness, concentration or memory. Many studies show that daily mediation or even healing prayer for just 15 to 30 minutes can offer significant reductions in cortisol. Participating in a regular “mindfulness-based stress reduction” program also offers significant reductions in cortisol and stress-related symptoms or diseases. Using meditative methods can also improve brain and heart health while bolstering your immune system. (3)
Acupuncture: Trusted for thousands of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture treatments help naturally control stress and reduce symptoms like muscle or joint pain, headaches, fertility problems, troubling sleeping, and poor circulation.
Deep breathing exercises: Taking deep breaths helps turn down the sympathetic nervous system and kick in the body’s natural relaxation response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing is an easy technique to learn on your own and practice throughout the day to relieve muscle tension and anxiety. Controlled breathing techniques have been a staple in Eastern health practices for centuries and are becoming more popular in the West, too, thanks to emerging studies and books describing their benefits — such as Dr. Herbert Benson’s book “The Relaxation Response.” (4)
Spending time in nature/outdoors: Studies show that physical settings play a role in stress reduction, and being in nature is a well-documented way to promote relaxation. (5) Try going for walks or runs outside (especially barefoot running or walking, a practice called “earthing“), spending time at the ocean, walking through forests, gardening at home, or doing other things outdoors and away from technology to reduce anxiety.
3. Exercise Regularly
According to research published by Harvard Medical School, regular exercise (about 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week, depending on the intensity) is one of the best ways to manage stress, balance hormones, sleep better and aid normal metabolic functions (like balancing blood sugar levels). (6) The key is to avoid overtraining and overexerting yourself, which can actually cause even more cortisol to be released.
Exercise benefits hormone levels because although it temporarily increases adrenaline and cortisol production, it generally helps bring cortisol back down to normal levels afterward. This cycle helps your body better handle stress and gives your autonomic nervous system (the one that controls your stress and relaxation responses) its own workout. This means the next time your stress hormones rise due to a perceived threat, you should be able to lower cortisol levels more easily, since your body becomes primed to this during physical activity.
4. Use Adaptogen Herbs and Superfoods
Adaptogen herbs help naturally lower high cortisol levels in several key ways. They help balance hormones; reduce inflammation due to their strong antioxidant, antiviral and antibacterial effects; have natural antidepressant effects; lower fatigue; and help balance blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Many adaptogens, such as reishi mushrooms and cocoa, have been safely used for thousands of years to promote better overall health with little to no side effects.
There are at least 16 different proven adaptogenic herbs that can help lower cortisol, including:
medicinal mushrooms, including resishi and cordyceps
5. Try Essential Oils to Promote Relaxation
Similarly to adaptogen herbs, essential oils are also helpful for fighting stress and balancing hormones. Essential oils, including lavender, myrrh, frankincense and bergamot, contain potent, active ingredients that have been shown to naturally lower cortisol, reduce inflammation, improve immunity, and help with sleep and digestive functions.
Try inhaling some of the best essential oils for hormones, diffusing them in your home, making bath soaks or body washes using your favorite kinds, or rubbing them directly into your skin when mixed properly with a carrier oil (like coconut or jojoba oil). If you’re dealing with side effects of high cortisol, including acne, indigestion or bloated stomach, certain essential oils like lemon or peppermint can help with that, too.
6. Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep helps us control cortisol production, but having high cortisol levels can make it hard to rest. In people with normal circadian rhythms, cortisol levels rise during the early morning hours and then drop very low at night prior to sleep and during sleep. People who develop high cortisol levels can wind up feeling the opposite: wired and anxious at night, but then fatigued during the day — thus, they can’t sleep well at the times they’re supposed to.
This overactivity of the adrenal glands is one of the biggest signs of Cushing’s disease or adrenal fatigue and is usually tied to stress and hormonal imbalances. By taking the steps listed above, you should be able to rest more easily. Ideally, you should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night to reset your circadian rhythms and bring hormones back to balance.
Related: How to Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Stress & Pain Relief
What Is Cortisol?
The adrenal gland, following signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, is responsible for the secretion of cortisol, a type of essential glucocorticoid steroid hormone. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning around 7 a.m. and lowest at night (called a diurnal rhythm). Cortisol is also present in both chronically stressed individuals and those who are perfectly healthy. (7) This vital hormone possesses dozens of different purposes within the body and makes numerous chemical interactions every single day.
What does cortisol do exactly? Cortisol receptors are scattered throughout the entire body, found in nearly every cell, and serve different essential functions, including: (8)
helping to keep us awake and alert
preventing fatigue or brain fog
keeping our metabolisms running (it helps us burn fat for energy)
balancing blood sugar levels (since it allows cells to take up and use glucose for energy)
reducing inflammation and helping with healing
balancing fluid levels based on salt and water intake
contributing to control over blood pressure
helping with many cognitive processes like learning and memory formulation
allowing us to respond to and escape perceived dangers
helping to develop the fetus during pregnancy
Levels of cortisol rise when the pituitary gland releases another hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH signals the adrenals to pump out more cortisol. Why does this happen? Many different things trigger this releas