Too Stressed? 13 Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is a powerful and natural hormone that helps kick the body's stress response into gear, which stimulates a physiological response to danger. Chronic stress, however, keeps cortisol too high for too long, causing it to act like an overprotective parent that hurts more than helps. Fortunately, there are natural ways to help calm your cortisol levels, reduce your stress, and decrease your risk of chronic disease.

A closer look at cortisol

Cortisol gives you bursts of energy to confront threats and is released during normal daily activities, helping you face everyday physical and mental demands. Its primary aim is to help you survive, keeping you energized, motivated, and responsive to environmental triggers. When cortisol levels spike upward, your body releases glucose to feed your cells and muscles. It also narrows arteries to help your heart pump harder to face a threat.

Meanwhile, your body’s normal operations take a break. Digestion slows, reproduction takes a back seat, and your immune system downregulates. This helps your body focus on emergency functions rather than non-essential ones.

However, while elevated cortisol levels are vital in an emergency, they're damaging at chronically high levels, contributing to many long-term health problems.

High levels of stress, even from long-ago childhood trauma, keep the stress response constantly running, placing the body into overdrive until it's overworked. At that point, cortisol no longer helps regulate immunity. Instead, these high levels trigger a hyperactive immune system and harmful inflammation throughout the body, powering the development of many diseases.

13 ways to lower cortisol naturally

A vital way to address chronically high cortisol levels is to manage stress. Here are 13 natural ways to calm stress and cortisol.

1. Seek help from a trusted advisor

Facing chronic stressors requires an inner journey to understand yourself better. To do this, most people need a little help from a trusted advisor, like a counselor, doctor, or coach, especially if you faced trauma as a child. Research shows that childhood trauma, from neonates to adolescents, causes adult stress later, even when the stressor is no longer present.

2. Declutter your life

According to mental health experts, clutter can be a vicious cycle. Stress often causes clutter, and clutter increases stress for many people. Set aside a day to declutter your workspace, closet, emails, and internet tabs. Or take a week and declutter three things a day. Anxiety and stress also increase with chronic busyness. Consider saying 'no' more often, slowing down, and taking naps to rest your brain.

3. Hire a sleep coach to help you with insomnia

Chronic sleep issues are linked to higher cortisol levels and represent another vicious cycle: poor sleep increases stress, and stress increases poor sleep. Sleep coaching is a growing industry with multiple tools to help reduce insomnia.

4. Head outside

It’s well established that time in nature helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. A small study published in 2019 in Frontiers in Psychology found a reduction in cortisol levels after 20–30 minutes outdoors for 36 urban dwellers. After an hour, the study showed a 21% total reduction in cortisol. Try skychology, earthing, or forest bathing, a Japanese name for walking in the forest.

5. Get moving

Physical movement offers impressive stress-reducing benefits. Exercise is known to improve mental health conditions, boost sleep, and reduce high blood sugar levels from chronic stress. A 2022 systematic review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found ample research supporting exercise as a powerful treatment for mental distress. Exercising outdoors may be especially potent for cortisol reduction.

6. Smile and laugh often

For ages, many cultures believed laughing to be 'good medicine.' Research shows that laughing calms cortisol and releases endorphins. Creating time for fun and laughter, especially with other people, promotes overall well-being.

7. Try essential oils

Numerous small studies show essential oils, lavender, sandalwood, ylang-ylang, and frankincense help calm the sympathetic nervous system and bolster the parasympathetic nervous system. Consider using a stress-reducing blend to help manage your stress throughout the day.

8. Practice yoga, mindfulness, or meditation

For several reasons, mind-body practices, like breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation, help reduce stress in the body. Deep breathing directly impacts cortisol levels by sending signals that put the parasympathetic nervous system — the rest and digest response — back in charge. Mindfulness and meditation help improve focus, decrease overthinking, and reduce procrastination, all contributing to lowering stress.

9. Engage in neurofeedback training

Research shows promising cortisol-reducing benefits from neurofeedback (NF) training. NF may rewire the brain over time by helping people develop and boost healthy brain waves. This helps create new and healthier ways of thinking by improving neural pathways.

10. Add adaptogens to your diet

Adaptogens are plants that uniquely support your body’s ability to manage stress by directly impacting your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Some examples of adaptogens include ashwagandha, reishi mushrooms, ginseng, lion’s mane mushrooms, and licorice root. Adding adaptogen powders to smoothies, coffees, and teas may be the easiest way to integrate the adaptogens into your diet.

11. Reduce the use of electronic devices for 30 days

Studies and experts suggest that electronic device overuse contributes to modern-day stress levels. Resting from constant cell phone use and social media engagement will likely have wide-ranging benefits, like lowering cortisol levels. Consider trying something like a 30-day dopamine detox.

12. Pet a friendly animal

According to research, petting an animal, like a dog, cat, or horse, may temporarily lower cortisol levels. Keep in mind that acquiring a pet may heighten stress levels when they increase busyness and clutter. Nonetheless, petting one can still help reduce stress in the short run.

13. Feast your way to lower stress

By eating a nutrient-dense diet, your body manufactures a magnitude of proteins, hormones, and neurochemicals to support your stress response and reduce cortisol levels. Like a master alchemist, human bodies build and send nutrients where needed. When you don't eat sufficient nutrients, however, your body is left empty-handed for beating stress and anxiety, according to psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety.

Data suggest that normal cortisol levels are supported by a diet rich in healthy fats, proteins, plants, and fermented foods but moderate in caffeine, alcohol, and simple sugars. The Mediterranean diet has even shown significant improvement in mental health, including post-traumatic stress syndrome, which elevates cortisol levels over a long period.

Should I get my cortisol levels checked?

One way healthcare providers measure chronic stress is simple lab tests requiring a sample of saliva, blood, urine, or a combination. The results show whether cortisol levels are too high or too low and are often repeated to monitor ongoing progress.

Medications to balance cortisol levels are usually only required in uncommon conditions, like Cushing’s disease (high cortisol levels most commonly caused by a tumor) or Addison’s disease (insufficient cortisol levels typically caused by an autoimmune disorder).

If you need help managing your cortisol levels, talk with your physician. In the meantime, discover what increases and decreases your stress levels and take personalized action to reduce your cortisol levels naturally.

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