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How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally (Practical Tips)

Stress is a normal part of life. Even though the average human spends very little time running from saber-tooth cats or scrounging for the last of the winter berries before a storm rolls in, we still carry the genes that wired us for survival back when we were humble cave folk.

The problem is, we were never meant to experience long-term, chronic anxiety.

When that happens, our bodies produce the stress hormone – cortisol – at far higher levels than evolution ever intended for the short-term fight-or-flight response.

This can have significant health consequences, even for otherwise healthy people. Anyone who has ever experienced ongoing stress (i.e. everyone) understands the distraction, jitters, poor sleep, and dietary dysregulation that comes with it.

We’ll take a look at exactly what cortisol is, what causes high levels of it, and how it affects your health.

We will also consider the popular notions of adrenal fatigue and burnout, how to lower cortisol levels naturally with diet and lifestyle changes, and when you need help from a pro.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is the main stress hormone that gives us energy for fight-or-flight situations. It is produced by the adrenal glands located near your kidneys. In order to understand how it functions, though, let’s first take a look at a more basic bodily tool: hormones.

“Hormones are chemicals that coordinate different functions in your body by carrying messages through your blood to your organs, skin, muscles and other tissues,” explains the Cleveland Clinic. “These signals tell your body what to do and when to do it.”

Cortisol tells your body to get ready to run or raise your fists. It increases blood sugar for energy, shuts down nonessential functions, and suppresses inflammation – all helpful in a crisis.

Essentially, the cortisol hormone tells your body “Let’s get this done, like, now!

If you’re being chased by a wolf, this is super helpful. But what if you have a big report due at the office and your boss is being a you-know-what?

Less helpful, because while stressful, this situation is not life-threatening.

It’s important to note that the problem stems from higher than normal levels of cortisol. At appropriate levels, this hormone helps to regulate your blood pressure and blood sugar, and it helps you get up in the morning.

At high levels, though, it begins to interfere rather than assist with all of these processes.

A picture of kidneys with a clock
Where does cortisol come from?

What Causes High Cortisol Levels?

Modern life is busy and chaotic. Many of us suffer from overwork, overwhelm, over-socialization, and oversaturation of media.

We are continuously bombarded by competing messages.

“Sugar and alcohol are fun and cool!”

“Sugar and alcohol make you fat and unhealthy!”

“Doing X is so bad for you!”

“X is fine in moderation; live a little!”

“Work hard every day to become a financial success!”

“Slow down and live in the moment … you can’t take it with you!”

From television to social media, self-help books and blogs to word-of-mouth advice, we receive massive amounts of input on the daily. Sorting between these contradictory pieces of advice is exhausting.

Now add in everything else, including:

  • Chronic stress and anxiety about work and finances
  • The crushing weight many of us feel about politics, economics, and global conflict
  • Overworking and lack of relaxation
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Doom-scrolling, especially before bed

Plus, some medications can increase your cortisol, even basic and common ones such as oral contraceptives. Corticosteroids prescribed for asthma, cancer, or joint conditions can also cause trouble.

It’s true that Cushing syndrome, the recognized pathology resulting from too much cortisol, is rare, only affecting about 40 to 70 people in every million. Even if you don’t have a medical condition, though, high cortisol can still cause significant issues.

The truth is, cortisol is now an all-too-present companion for many in the modern world. Since our bodies have glucocorticoid receptors all over, its long-term presence at high levels affects nearly every system.

A stressed woman grasps her head and looks at her phone
stress and high cortisol levels

Why High Cortisol Levels Can Negatively Impact Your Health

Prolonged high cortisol levels can cause a number of symptoms, including:

Other signs of high cortisol include:

  • Irregular periods
  • Getting sick more often than usual
  • Unexplained anxiety and depression
  • Low libido

High cortisol levels are popularly associated online with a few additional conditions, including adrenal fatigue and burnout.

Let’s take a quick look at the myths and facts of each to fully round out your understanding of the issues.

Is Adrenal Fatigue Real?

While “high cortisol” and “adrenal fatigue” often get discussed together, adrenal fatigue isn’t recognized by conventional medicine.

Adrenal insufficiency is a medical condition, but it has to be “diagnosed by blood tests and special stimulation tests that show inadequate levels of adrenal hormones,” says the Mayo Clinic.

Watch out for online trends purporting to help with adrenal fatigue and balancing cortisol levels, and never take adaptogenic herbs or other supplements without consulting a medical provider. While these may have a basis in scientific studies, you should never self-prescribe herbs and supplements, as some of them are very powerful.

What About Burnout?

Unlike adrenal fatigue, burnout is very real. While it isn’t a medical diagnosis, experts agree that it is a recognizable cluster of emotions, including disconnection, feelings of pointlessness or ineffectiveness, and psychological weariness.

Burnout isn’t the same as high cortisol, but it can cause it.

“When people are under stress, their bodies undergo changes that include making higher than normal levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine and norepinephrine,” Washington University psychiatrist Dr. Jessi Gold told The New York Times.

Signs of burnout and/or high cortisol may include:

  • Changes in eating habits, eating more or less than normal
  • Sleeping at odd times, needing naps
  • Being distracted
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion

The problem is, we often ignore burnout.

“It’s really easy to blow off your own symptoms, especially in our culture, where we’re taught to work hard,” Dr. Gold said. “Anything you can do to regain an element of control can be really helpful.”

Now let’s take a look at some of the best ways to lower cortisol levels naturally.

How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally Through Diet and Nutrition

Naturally, life is hectic.

You’re probably juggling a lot and the idea that you have to take on some chronic condition probably feels overwhelming.

Luckily there are things you can do to lower cortisol levels naturally that have big effects. Let’s take a look at the most actionable and realistic dietary steps that even busy working parents can make right away.

A woman sits by the window sipping a cup of tea peacefully
how to lower cortisol levels naturally

Eat a More Balanced Diet

Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains all help to balance your blood sugar and metabolism and keep you regulated.

Plus, avoiding processed foods and simple sugars is better for maintaining normal blood sugar levels.

Unfortunately, stress makes us want to do the opposite of eating well.

Indeed, “Cross-species evidence shows that conditions of chronic and acute stress increase the intake of, and preference for, caloric-dense palatable foods,” reported a study in the journal Nutrients. This is “ a phenomenon thought to be explained by the mitigating effects of comfort foods on the activity of the stress-response network.”

Or in layman’s terms: Hate work? Eat cookies! Other animals do it too!

In all seriousness, who hasn’t turned to Stouffer’s mac and cheese or a package of Oreo’s when life just feels too heavy? Pair that with Netflix and you’ve got yourself a real mood-boosting recipe, at least for a while.

And on Friday night, that’s just fine.

The same study above showed that eating comfort foods actually does help to physiologically moderate the effects of cortisol following an “acute physiological stressor.” Comfort foods calm us down.

However, most of the time, you should opt for whole foods and a produce-rich diet.

Prioritize Vitamins and Minerals

Foods rich in vitamin C, magnesium, and Omega-3 fatty acids are potential ways to help manage your cortisol naturally. Try to get these from whole-food sources.

For example, get your vitamin C from oranges, your magnesium from dark chocolate (shucks!), and your omega-3s from wild-caught salmon.

Stay Hydrated

Some studies indicate that dehydration may be linked to higher cortisol levels. Although these studies are limited in nature, most of us have experienced that a headache or bout of grumpiness can be mitigated by chugging a glass of water or sipping on a nice cup of tea.

Just make sure not to conflate all liquids with water. While beverages such as tea are overall pretty hydrating (though potentially not as much as water due to the diuretic effect of caffeine), other drinks such as soda or juice don’t have the same effect.

Reduce Caffeine Intake

According to studies, “Caffeine is a widely consumed pharmacological substance that alters cortisol responses at rest and in response to various stressors.” It works on men and women in different ways: “Caffeine may elevate cortisol by stimulating the central nervous system in men but may interact with peripheral metabolic mechanisms in women.”

In either case, it’s not good for you.

It can disrupt your sleep, enhance feelings of anxiety, cause somatic changes, and increase cravings. If you’re trying to balance your hormones, it’s helpful to reduce your intake or cut it out altogether.

Drink Alcohol Sparingly

Alcohol can affect your blood sugar levels. For this reason, doctors caution diabetics against it, and everyday folks would do well to heed the warning.

That’s not to say you can’t drink (though here at Soberish we think not drinking is pretty great), but you should watch your intake if you want to keep your cortisol in check.

Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Cortisol Levels

You can also make a number of lifestyle adjustments to help manage your cortisol levels. Some of the easiest and most effective of these changes include:

  • Regular physical activity, including types that are particularly beneficial, such as yoga and swimming
  • Popular stress management techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness
  • Good sleep hygiene, e.g. reducing electronics before bed, removing them from the bedroom, and reading or journaling before sleep
  • Laughter and play
  • Relaxing hobbies such as art, music, writing, cooking, and crafting
  • Focusing on your most important relationships, the ones that make you feel safe and seen

You might also consider getting a pet, but remember: the pet’s needs matter too. Only get one if you have the time and mental energy to form a friendship-like bond with your animal.

When to Seek Professional Help

Sometimes high cortisol levels may require medical intervention.

Endocrinologists and therapists can help. You may need physical tests and medication, or you may need therapy for a specific trauma or general anxiety condition. Remember, it’s okay to ask for medication if you need it.

And take heart: there is a way forward. With a few simple steps and dedicated effort over the next few months, chances are you can find a less stressed-out version of yourself sooner than you think!

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