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February 04, 2021 / Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN

How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally

Woman meditating on white chair next to desk with a computer, coffee cup, and work papers.

Do you ever wonder if you’re stressed out too much? If so, your body may be constantly releasing cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is naturally produced by your body when it senses stress – whether that’s physical, mental, or emotional.

High cortisol levels can lead to long-term health issues like type 2 diabetes, increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, digestion issues, headaches, impaired sleep, weight gain, and memory loss. Reducing cortisol can have immense benefits on your physical and mental health. Diet and lifestyle can help you achieve healthy cortisol levels.

Let’s take a look at what exactly cortisol is, what affects it, and how to lower cortisol naturally.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone in your body and is produced by your adrenal glands. It is known for activating your body’s “fight-or-flight” response in times of stress. Your hypothalamus and pituitary gland can sense how much cortisol is in your blood and tell your adrenal glands how much to release.

It’s normal for cortisol to go up and down over the course of a day. Levels are usually higher in the morning to help you wake up and be alert, and lower in the evening to prepare you for bedtime. However, cortisol can sometimes get out of balance, and having too much – or too little – can have negative effects on your body.

How Do You Know if Your Cortisol Level is Irregular?

If you’re concerned about having abnormally high or low cortisol, there are several tests that can be done to check your levels:

Signs your cortisol level is high

Having abnormally high cortisol levels for a long time can lead to a condition called Cushing’s syndrome. High cortisol symptoms include:

Signs your cortisol level is low

On the other hand, having very low cortisol levels is caused by Addison’s disease, which affects the pituitary or adrenal glands. Low cortisol symptoms include:

If you’re concerned with having either abnormally high or low cortisol levels, you should contact your healthcare provider.

16 Ways to Naturally Lower Your Cortisol Levels

Person holding a cup of tea while sitting on the couch with their legs up on the coffee table.

Cortisol can have a significant impact on your mood, metabolism, and health. The good news is that you don’t have to overhaul your entire life to control cortisol. Simple changes to your diet and lifestyle can have a positive influence on your stress and cortisol. Here are 16 ways that you can lower cortisol levels naturally.

1. Consume less sugar

Sugary snacks are often our go-to foods when we’re seeking solace from stressful situations. So you might think that they help you deal with stress and lower cortisol levels. In reality, sugar actually has the opposite effect – studies show that consistently high intakes of sugar lead to elevated cortisol.

Moreover, a 2014 study found that high cortisol was linked to more abdominal fat in those with high sugar intakes, not those with low sugar intakes. Basically, people who ate too much sugar had high cortisol levels that led to more belly fat. So, if you find yourself wondering, “how does sugar affect weight loss,” this is certainly one of the connections.

2. Limit caffeine

Rethinking your coffee habit is another way to reduce cortisol. Research has shown that caffeine may increase cortisol levels, both at rest and in times of stress. This effect can be instant and can last up to six hours. And it’s not just coffee that you should think of limiting. Tea, energy drinks, and certain soft drinks are also a significant source of caffeine.

If you’re still keen on drinking your daily cup of coffee, try to have it at least six hours before bedtime so that cortisol levels can have time to lower before you head off to bed. Otherwise, try swapping your coffee for a lower caffeine alternative or caffeine-free herbal tea instead.

3. Reduce alcohol intake

How many times have you looked forward to a weekly happy hour with your coworkers after a stressful day at work? Many people think that drinking can help them relax and relieve stress, but this is a myth.

Studies have found a link between heavy alcohol use and elevated cortisol, which can lead to more stress. They found that increased alcohol consumption led to a dysregulated HPA axis, which controls how much cortisol is released in the body. Instead of turning to a glass of wine or a can of beer to unwind after a long week, try reaching for a mocktail like this strawberry coconut slushie.

4. Ensure you’re properly hydrated

I’m sure I’m not the first dietitian (or person, for that matter) to urge you to drink more water. But did you know that proper hydration is just one of the many ways you can control cortisol? A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that even mild dehydration led to increased cortisol in soccer players.

To make sure you’re well-hydrated, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends aiming for:

5. Plan meals on a consistent schedule

Healthy meal planning can help you stay consistent with your eating schedule and take the pressure out of choosing what to eat. Sometimes deciding what and when to eat can cause so much stress and lead to elevated cortisol. Think about how many times you waited too long to eat and ended up ordering takeout, stress eating, or overeating. Counteract that with regularly scheduled meals, which can also help you avoid stress eating by keeping your insulin and blood sugars stable.

6. Eat a healthy whole food diet

Since food and nutrition have such a huge impact on our lives, it’s no surprise that a healthy whole food diet helps lower cortisol levels.

A 2019 study published in Nutrients compared cortisol in those who followed a whole food diet incorporating whole grains, low-fat dairy, polyunsaturated fat, vegetables, and fruit with those who ate a typical American diet that included more added sugars, refined grains, and total fat. They found that those who followed a healthy, wholesome diet had lower cortisol levels. This is just another reason why eating a variety of whole foods is a large part of a well-balanced anti-inflammatory diet plan.

7. Eat foods that reduce cortisol levels

While we recommend eating an overall healthy diet, there are actually certain foods that have been found to reduce cortisol levels.

Research has shown that these foods reduce cortisol:

To incorporate these foods into your diet, try this banana blueberry nut oatmeal for breakfast, strawberry asparagus salad for lunch, or creamy leek soup for dinner.

8. Enjoy teatime

Another way to lower cortisol naturally is to have a cup of tea. In a 2007 study, researchers found that the cortisol in tea drinkers dropped to 53% of baseline levels after performing a stressful task. Along with antioxidants like catechin, tea also contains a compound called l-theanine that makes you feel cool, calm, and collected. Bonus points: it has also been found to keep your cortisol levels down.

One thing to note, though, is that not all tea is created equally. We mentioned earlier that caffeine can elevate cortisol levels, so you might want to choose non-caffeinated or lower caffeine teas like herbal, green, or white teas instead of highly caffeinated teas like black, mate, or pu-erh tea.

9. Stroll or spend time outside

There are so many reasons why you should take a stroll in nature, and its role in lowering cortisol levels is definitely one of them. A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that spending time in nature for 20-30 minutes three days a week was linked with a significant drop in cortisol.

To reap the benefits of this stress-relieving activity, try taking a short walk during your lunch hour, before or after work, or after dinner. Even just sitting in nature can have a massive impact on reducing your stress levels, so if you don’t have time for a walk, find a bench and enjoy the beauty of your surroundings.

10. Practice meditation and yoga

Practicing meditation, yoga, or other mindfulness techniques are effective ways of naturally lowering cortisol. A 2013 study found that cortisol levels were significantly reduced after participating in a mindfulness meditation program. Stress reduction is one of the many benefits of meditation on the brain. It can also improve your digestion, strengthen your heart, and bolster your memory. If you’re looking for a more physically active approach to cortisol and stress management, try this at-home yoga flow.

11. Exercise the right amount

Exercise can do wonders for your mood because of its impact on your hormones. It simultaneously reduces cortisol while also releasing endorphins, aka the “feel-good” chemicals. This combination is why you might feel so good after you break a sweat.

When it comes to exercise and cortisol, though, there’s actually a Goldilocks effect. You want to exercise the right amount – not too little and not too much – to control cortisol. Research has shown that high-intensity exercise can actually increase cortisol, whereas low-intensity exercise lowers cortisol levels.

12. Have fun and laugh more

Here’s something to smile about: laughing and having fun can lower cortisol naturally. Studies have shown that laughter reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine while increasing endorphins and a positive mood.

If laughing more is easier said than done, think about ways to proactively bring laughter into your life:

13. Strategize stress reduction

There’s a reason cortisol is called the “stress” hormone. Stress can directly impact your cortisol levels. When you experience stress, such as a sudden loud noise or if you’re behind on a deadline, your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol puts your body in a fight-or-flight mode, increases blood sugars, and suppresses certain processes – like your digestive system, for instance. While this is a normal reaction, the issue arises when stress becomes chronic.

To counteract this effect, try to remove yourself from stressful situations whenever possible. If that’s not an option, learn how to cope with stress triggers, stressful thoughts, and situations. Try stress management techniques, such as:

14. Recognize what triggers you to reach for comfort foods

As you now know, stress can trigger cortisol levels to rise, which can elevate blood sugars and insulin in the body. This effect is what leads to stress eating and craving “comfort foods,” usually less nutritious options that are high in fat and sugar. However, stress eating doesn’t magically make the stressful situation go away. It might make you feel better in the short term, but it doesn’t solve the problem at hand.

Instead, learn how to control stress eating and stop the cycle. If you find yourself prone to stress eating, try keeping a food journal and identify which situations or experiences cause you to seek food for comfort. Also, next time you feel stressed, rather than reaching for food, replace that urge with one of the stress management techniques we mentioned earlier.

15. Try herbs or supplements that may lower cortisol levels

Some herbs and supplements have been shown to lower cortisol levels, stress, and anxiety, such as:

While drinking these herbs in a tea is likely harmless, ingesting them in their supplement form might have interactions with certain medications. Make sure to talk with your health care provider before you decide to take any supplements.

16. Support a healthy sleep routine

Knowing how sleep affects your health is important to leading a healthy lifestyle. In fact, having a healthy sleep routine can help lower cortisol naturally. Studies have shown that poor sleep quality is associated with elevated cortisol, especially in the evening, when cortisol should be lower so that you can fall asleep easier. You can see how the cycle perpetuates itself.

Poor sleep doesn’t only affect your stress levels. In the short term, low quality or lack of sleep also affects your judgment, mood, and mental acuity. The long-term effects of sleep deprivation can contribute to an increased risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Exactly how much sleep should you aim for? The CDC recommends that most adults get 7-9 hours of sleep each day.

The Takeaway

The key to lowering cortisol naturally is to look at the big picture of your health and wellness. Are you managing stress in a healthy way? Are you getting enough good-quality sleep? Do you prioritize exercise and physical activity? Are you eating healthy, wholesome foods? All of these factors play a role in achieving healthy cortisol levels and keeping stress at bay.

PlateJoy is here to help you stress less, especially when it comes to planning your meals. From vegan meal plans to keto meal plans and everything in between, PlateJoy’s meal planning services can provide you with a plethora of healthy options.

Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN
Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant @ Alena Menko Nutrition
https://www.alenamenko.com/

Alena Kharlamenko is the founder of Alena Menko Nutrition, a food and nutrition blog where she publishes healthful, plant-forward recipes and makes nutrition approachable with easily digestible information. She’s also passionate about gut health and is a Monash FODMAP-Trained Dietitian. When she's not cooking up a storm in the kitchen or behind her computer, she can be found exploring the vast culinary scene of NYC, traveling around the world, or hiking and spending time in nature. You can find Alena on Instagram @thebalancedbite or on Facebook @AlenaMenkoNutrition.

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