Cortisol is a stress hormone the adrenal glands release. It helps your body deal with stressful situations, as your brain triggers its release through the sympathetic nervous system — the “fight or flight” system — in response to many different kinds of stress.
While the short-term release of cortisol can help you run quickly from danger, when cortisol levels are too high for too long, this hormone can hurt you more than it helps.
Over time, this can lead to an array of health issues such as weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, mood irregularities, and low energy levels.
This article discusses 11 ways to help naturally lower your cortisol levels.
What happens when cortisol is high?
Over the last 20 years, studies have increasingly revealed that moderate to high cortisol levels may lead to an array of health issues, such as:
- Chronic disease. Long-term increased cortisol may increase your risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases.
- Weight gain. Cortisol may increase appetite and signal the body to shift metabolism to store fat.
- Lack of energy/difficulty sleeping. It can interfere with sleep hormones which may impact sleep quality and length.
- Difficulty concentrating. Also referred to as “brain fog,” some people report trouble focusing and lack of mental clarity.
- Impaired immune system. Increased cortisol can hamper the immune system, making it more difficult to fight infections.
- Cushing’s syndrome. In rare cases, very high cortisol levels can lead to Cushing’s syndrome, a rare but serious disease.
Elevated cortisol levels can be caused by many underlying issues such as overactivity or cancer of the pituitary or adrenal glands, chronic stress, and medication side effects (e.g., prednisone, hormonal therapy).
Further, existing chronic disease (e.g., obesity) may lead to higher cortisol levels, causing a “chicken or the egg” type of scenario.
Therefore, it’s best to work with a qualified health professional to establish the root cause of your health issues. Along with this, you may want to introduce some effective lifestyle habits that may help you better manage your cortisol levels. Here are some recommendations:
1. Get the right amount of sleep
Prioritizing your sleep may be an effective way to reduce cortisol levels. Chronic sleep issues such as obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, or shift work have been associated with higher cortisol.
One review of 28 studies in shift workers found that cortisol levels were higher in workers who slept during the day (night shift workers) rather than at night (day shift workers).
Those on rotating shifts have been linked with poorer health outcomes, such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and worsened mental health.
Further, insomnia is a sleep condition that refers to difficulty sleeping. It can be caused by many things, including stress and obstructive sleep apnea. This can result in increased circulating cortisol which affects your daily hormone patterns, energy levels, and other facets of health.
If you are a night shift or rotating shift worker, you do not have complete control over your sleep schedule, but there are some things you can do to optimize sleep:
- Have a bedtime routine. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine (e.g., shower, read a book, etc.) can tell your brain and body to start winding down for the night.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. A regular sleep schedule is one of the most effective ways to improve sleep.
- Exercise earlier in the day. Exercising regularly can improve sleep quality but should be done at least 2–3 hours before bedtime.
- Limit caffeine intake. Try to stop consuming caffeine-containing food and drinks around 6 hours before your bedtime.
- Avoid nicotine and alcohol. Both substances can affect sleep quality and duration.
- Limit exposure to bright light at night. Around 45–60 minutes before sleep, reduce your exposure to bright and/or blue light. Instead of reaching for your phone in bed, try reading a book or listening to a podcast.
- Go to bed in a quiet room. Limit interruptions by using white noise, earplugs, and silencing your phone.
- Take naps. If shift work cuts your sleep hours short, napping can reduce sleepiness and prevent a sleep deficit. That said, napping may worsen sleep quality in non-shift workers.
Summary: Practicing good sleep hygiene can help to keep cortisol in a normal rhythm. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine 6 hours before bed, and staying off your cell phone right before bed are effective strategies.
2. Exercise, but not too much
Depending on the intensity of exercise, it can increase or decrease cortisol.
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Intense exercise increases cortisol shortly afterward but will decrease a few hours later. This short-term increase helps coordinate the growth of the body to meet the challenge. Additionally, the size of the cortisol response lessens with routine training.
Regular exercise has been shown in numerous studies to help improve sleep quality, reduce stress, and improve overall health, which can help lower cortisol over time.
Interestingly, regular exercise has also been associated with greater resilience to acute stress and may lower negative health effects associated with stress, such as high cortisol.
That said, overdoing it can have the opposite effect. Therefore, aim for around 150–200 minutes of mostly low- to moderate-intensity exercise each week and allow yourself time to rest between workouts.
Summary: Exercising regularly can help you better manage stress and promote good health, which may help lower cortisol levels. That said, avoid overdoing it and aim for around 150–200 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise each week.
3. Learn to recognize stressful thinking
Paying attention to stressful thoughts may help you reduce them.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a strategy that involves becoming more self-aware of stress-provoking thoughts, accepting them without judgment or resistance, and allowing yourself the ability to process them.
Training yourself to be aware of your thoughts, breathing, heart rate, and other signs of tension helps you recognize stress when it begins.
By focusing on awareness of your mental and physical state, you can become an objective observer of your stressful thoughts, instead of a victim of them.
Recognizing stressful thoughts allows you to formulate a conscious and deliberate reaction to them. For example, a study involving 43 women in a mindfulness-based program showed the ability to describe and articulate stress was linked to a lower cortisol response.
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Other studies have also shown lowered cortisol levels after regularly practicing mindfulness.
Therefore, try adding mindfulness-based practice to your daily routine for better stress management and reduced cortisol levels.
Summary: Practicing mindfulness can help you identify stressful thoughts and better manage them. Mindfulness-based practices such as meditation may help you reduce stress and lead to lower cortisol levels.
Deep breathing is a simple technique for stress reduction that can be used anywhere. Similar to mindfulness-based practice, controlled breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “rest and digest” system, which helps to lower cortisol levels.
Studies have shown decreases in cortisol after participants incorporated deep breathing into their routines.
This type of practice is popular in mindfulness-based practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qigong, where there is a strong emphasis on breathing and the mind-body connection.
Multiple studies confirm that these practices can help to lower cortisol and manage stress.
Summary: Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and lower cortisol levels. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qigong are great ways to practice deep breathing.
5. Have fun and laugh
Another way to keep cortisol down is to have fun and laugh.
Laughing promotes the release of endorphins and suppresses stress hormones such as cortisol. It’s also linked with better mood, reduced stress and perceived pain, lower blood pressure, and a stronger immune system.
Interestingly, both authentic and forced laughter can lead to lower levels of stress.
For example, laughing yoga — a form of yoga that promotes deliberate bouts of laughter — has been shown to lower cortisol levels, reduce stress, improve mood, and increase perceived energy levels.
Developing hobbies can also promote feelings of well-being, which may translate to lower cortisol. A study involving 49 middle-aged veterans showed that taking up gardening decreased levels more than conventional occupational therapy.
Another study involving 1,399 people showed lower cortisol levels in those who regularly engaged in hobbies they genuinely enjoyed.
Finally, studies have also shown relaxing music can decrease cortisol.
Summary: Tending to your own happiness can help keep cortisol down. If you’re feeling stressed, try listening to music or making yourself laugh.
6. Maintain healthy relationships
Friends and family are a source of great happiness in life, as well as great stress. These dynamics are played out in cortisol levels.
Cortisol is incorporated in tiny amounts into your hair. The amounts of cortisol along the length of a hair correspond to cortisol levels at the time that part of the hair was growing. This allows researchers to estimate levels over time.
Studies of cortisol in the hair show that children with a stable and warm family life have lower levels than children from homes with high levels of conflict.
Within couples, conflict results in a short-term elevation in cortisol, followed by a return to normal levels.
A study of conflict styles in 88 couples found nonjudgmental mindfulness led to a more rapid return of cortisol to normal levels following an argument. Therefore, practicing compassion and empathy toward your partner — and receiving it back — may better manage your cortisol levels.
Support from loved ones can also help reduce cortisol in the face of stress.
For example, one study showed that having an affectionate interaction (verbally or physically) with a romantic partner or platonic friend before a stressful activity resulted in lower stress-induced markers such as heart rate and blood pressure.
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Summary: Relationships with friends and family can lead to happiness and stress. Spend time with those you love and learn to forgive and manage conflict for better emotional and physical health.
7. Take care of a pet
Relationships with animal companions can also reduce cortisol.
In one study, interaction with a therapy dog reduced distress and cortisol during a minor medical procedure in children.
Another study involving 48 adults showed that contact with a dog was better than support from a friend during a socially stressful situation.
A third study tested the cortisol-reducing effect of canine companionship in pet owners compared with those who were not pet owners.
The latter group experienced a greater drop in cortisol when they were given canine companions, likely because pet owners had already benefited from the friendship of their animals at the beginning of the study.
Due to the well-known stress-reducing benefits of pets, many long-term care homes and university/college campuses have introduced pet therapy as a natural cortisol- and stress-reducing activity.
Summary: Several studies show that interacting with an animal companion reduces stress and lowers cortisol levels. Even if you do not own a pet, interacting with another person’s pet can reap similar benefits.
8. Be your best self
Feelings of shame, guilt, or inadequacy can lead to negative thinking and elevated cortisol.
For some causes of guilt, fixing the source will mean making a change in your life. For other causes, learning to forgive and accept yourself and others can help you move on and improve your sense of well-being.
Developing a habit of forgiving others is also critical in relationships.
One study of 145 couples compared the effects of different kinds of marriage counseling. Couples who received interventions that facilitated forgiving and conflict resolution techniques experienced reduced cortisol levels.
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Summary: Resolving guilt improves life satisfaction and cortisol levels. This may involve changing habits, forgiving others, or learning to forgive yourself.
9. Tend to your spirituality
If you consider yourself spiritual, developing your faith can also help improve cortisol levels.
Studies show that adults who expressed spiritual faith experienced lower cortisol levels in the face of life stressors such as illness.
Prayer is also associated with reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.
If you do not consider yourself spiritual, these benefits may also be available through meditation, developing a social support group, and performing acts of kindness.
Summary: For those with spiritual inclinations, developing faith and participating in prayer can help manage cortisol. Whether you’re spiritual or not, performing acts of kindness can also improve your cortisol levels.
10. Eat a nutritious diet
Nutrition can influence cortisol for better or for worse.
While all foods can be enjoyed in moderation, being mindful of the foods you eat may alleviate symptoms of stress and help you better manage your cortisol levels.
Regular high added-sugar intake may result in elevated cortisol levels. Interestingly, a high sugar diet may also suppress cortisol release during stressful events, making it more difficult for your body to handle stressful situations.
What’s more, one study found a diet high in added sugar, refined grains, and saturated fat led to significantly higher cortisol levels compared with a diet high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and polyunsaturated fats.
Research has shown a strong relationship between a healthy gut microbiome — all the microbes living in your gut — and improved mental health. Therefore, consuming foods to support a healthy gut may help reduce stress, anxiety, and improve your overall health.
Other foods that help manage cortisol include:
- Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains a high amount of flavonoids, which have been shown to buffer stress reactivity in the adrenal glands, resulting in lower cortisol release.
- Whole grains. Unlike refined grains, whole grains are rich in plant-based polyphenols and fiber, which may support stress levels and gut health.
- Legumes and lentils. They’re high in fiber, which supports a healthy gut while also managing blood sugar levels.
- Whole fruits and vegetables. Whole fruits and vegetables contain an abundance of antioxidants and polyphenolic compounds that fight cell-damaging free radicals.
- Green tea. Green tea contains a calming compound known as L-theanine, which has been linked to reduced stress and increased mental alertness.
- Probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are friendly, symbiotic bacteria in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Prebiotics, such as soluble fiber, provide food for these bacteria. Both probiotics and prebiotics are linked to better gut and mental health.
- Healthy fats. A diet high in unsaturated fat and low in saturated fat is associated with better overall health and mental well-being. In particular, omega-3 fatty acids are best linked with brain health and reduced stress. Good sources include fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
- Water. Dehydration has been linked to a temporary increase in cortisol levels, making it even more important to drink water throughout the day.
Summary: For better gut and mental health, opt for a nutrient-dense diet full of whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and foods high in prebiotics and probiotics.
11. Take certain supplements
In addition to a nutrient-dense diet, certain supplements may also support lower cortisol levels.
Fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to reduce cortisol.
One 3-week randomized controlled trial showed that a combined supplementation of fish oil at 60 mg per day and docosahexaenoic acid (252 mg/day) significantly lowered cortisol levels in response to a stressful task, compared with a placebo.
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Another longitudinal cohort study involving 2,724 participants showed those with high omega-3 levels in the blood were associated with lower levels of inflammation and cortisol.
Though you can get omega-3s in your diet from fish, you can also opt for a fish oil supplement. Speak with a healthcare professional first to make sure it’s right for you.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen herb widely used in traditional medicine to treat anxiety and help people adapt to stress.
One randomized controlled trial in 60 adults showed a significant reduction in cortisol levels after taking 240 mg of ashwagandha extract for 60 days, while the control group showed no significant changes.
Other studies have also shown ashwagandha extract (200–300 mg per day) to be effective in reducing cortisol levels and reducing symptoms of anxiety. That said, larger studies are still needed.
If you’re interested in trying ashwagandha, be sure it’s from a reputable company and speak with a healthcare professional first.
Summary: Fish oil and ashwagandha extract may help reduce anxiety and cortisol levels in the body, though more research is still needed.
Cortisol is a hormone that is released during times of stress. While important for reacting to physiological and psychological stressors, chronically high cortisol can lead to poor health.
Along with speaking with a healthcare professional, adopting healthier lifestyle habits can help naturally reduce your cortisol levels.
If you’re looking for a natural way to reduce your cortisol levels and overall stress, be sure to try the simple lifestyle tips above.