Imagine you’re on your way to a crucial job interview. You’re stuck in traffic and worried you’ll miss the appointment. You can’t take an alternate route, and time is ticking.
If you could see your cells, you would realize that your body is most likely responding by releasing cortisol, a “stress hormone.”
Stressful situations, lack of sleep, and even busy lifestyles can elevate cortisol levels in your body. However, when cortisol levels stay high for long periods of time, it can have a negative effect on your health. Fortunately, you can easily and naturally lower your levels of this stress hormone.
What Does Cortisol Do?
Cortisol is a stress hormone that plays a role in your body’s fight-or-flight response, which is how your body reacts to stress or threats. When you’re in danger, your body prepares to either stay and “fight” or run away and “flee.”
In prehistoric times, the fight-or-flight response was crucial for our ancestors to survive attacks from enemies or animals. But you don’t have to be in a jungle fighting tigers to feel ongoing stress. Our bodies have similar reactions to less life-threatening issues, like stressful meetings at work or arguments with loved ones. A daily, busy lifestyle alone may lead to high cortisol levels.
Cortisol affects many parts of your body. It increases your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscle tension, and blood sugar levels. This is why your heart pounds, you sweat, and experience heavy breathing when you’re in a stressful situation.
Cortisol also slows down certain body processes, like digestion and reproduction, to conserve energy. Cortisol can even suppress the immune system, increasing your risk of infection.
Normal Cortisol Levels
Cortisol levels can vary based on gender, age, health history, and time of day. In general, your cortisol levels are higher in the morning and decrease as the day progresses. Its levels are lowest at midnight.
From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., normal levels range from 10 to 20 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL). Around 4 p.m., normal levels range from 3 to 10 mcg/dL. All this can change with daily stress.
Time of the Day Cortisol Levels (mcg/dL)
6 a.m. to 8 a.m. 10 to 20
Around 4 p.m. 3 to 10
Your adrenal glands, hypothalamus, and pituitary glands control cortisol levels in your body. Together, they form what scientists call the “hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis.”
What Causes High Cortisol Levels?
The hypothalamus (located in the brain), pituitary gland, and adrenal glands all play a role in releasing cortisol into your bloodstream. The following factors can lead to elevated cortisol:
· Chronic stress
· Certain prescription drugs
· Sleep deprivation
· Excessive caffeine intake
· Poor diet
· Physical issues with the pituitary or adrenal glands
Unfortunately, the stress response rarely if ever shuts down in many people. We worry about work, stress about kids, or bicker about chores with our partner — all of which trigger the release of cortisol. Sleep deprivation and poor diets can also increase cortisol levels, as can drinking a lot of caffeine.
The side effects from certain drugs may also include raising your cortisol levels. For example, birth control pills for contraception, or corticosteroids, typically prescribed for autoimmune diseases, can raise cortisol.
Occasionally, problems with your pituitary gland, a small organ in the brain, or problems with your adrenal glands can elevate cortisol levels.
Common High Cortisol Symptoms
High cortisol levels can lead to a variety of symptoms. Too much cortisol has a negative effect on your health, and continued exposure may lead to what doctors call Cushing’s syndrome (also called hypercortisolism). Cushing’s typically leads to weight gain around the mid-section, face, and upper back, with weight loss from legs.
High cortisol levels can also cause adrenal fatigue, which happens when your adrenal glands are in overdrive from producing this hormone. Other common symptoms of elevated include:
· Weight gain in the face, stomach, and chest
· General obesity
· High blood pressure
· High blood sugar or type 2 diabetes
· Easily bruised skin
· Muscle weakness
· Purple stretch marks on the stomach and other parts of the body
· Mood swings or depression
· Irregular menstrual cycles in women
· Excess hair on the face and other parts of the body in women
· Lower fertility in men and women
The Best Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels
If you’re wondering how to lower cortisol levels, relatively simple lifestyle and diet changes can help. In addition, specific supplements and herbs may also normalize cortisol levels. Below, we’ve listed several natural options.
Improve Your Diet
Studies show that stress often affects your eating behaviors; in particular, you may crave foods high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates. Shifting to a plant-based diet centered around fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats is naturally anti-inflammatory.
The incredible array of healthy antioxidants you get from eating this way helps reduce both physical stress within your body (“oxidative stress”) and emotional stress — both of which influence cortisol. There is also a specific anti-inflammatory diet you can follow.
Try stress-relieving foods, including dark chocolate, walnuts, avocado, garlic, figs, Swiss chard, dulse seaweed, citrus fruits, and pumpkin seeds (which are also rich in amino acids).
Avoid dehydration — which can raise cortisol — by drinking plenty of water. Also, consider drinking green tea because experts believe it lowers cortisol.
Manage Your Stress
One of the most important ways to lower cortisol involves healthfully managing your stress. Consider deep breathing exercises or focusing your mind on a soothing word when you begin to feel stressed. Some people like to visualize tranquil scenes and practice being happy in their mind’s eye.
Finding ways to relax can help you reduce stress. Try these suggestions:
· Listen to calming music
· Read a book or magazine
· Try gardening
· Play with a pet
· Spend time outdoors
· Get a massage
· Take a warm bath
· Write in a journal
· Go for a walk or hike
Develop Healthy Relationships
Relationships, whether friendships, children, parents, workmates, or life partners, often cause a lot of our stress. Learning how to have healthy relationships goes a long way to lowering stress — and hence cortisol. Try these simple but powerful suggestions.
· Learn to manage your time and expectations
· Know your boundaries, and when to say no
· Talk with family and friends about your worries
· Forgive, and ask for forgiveness
· Learn when to compromise, and when not to
· Try counseling or therapy
Get Enough Sleep
Over time, poor sleep habits can raise cortisol levels. Strive to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Try these tips to improve your slumber:
· Make your bedroom an inviting place to sleep
· Engage in relaxing activities before bedtime
· Keep all electronics out of the bedroom
· Stick to a sleep schedule
· Invest in a good mattress and comfortable pillows
Points To Remember;
When you’re under stress, your body releases cortisol. Too much of this stress hormone can hurt your health. High cortisol symptoms can range from weight gain to muscle weakness. However, there are natural ways to manage it — from meditation to yoga to adaptogenic herbs.
The most important step to lowering cortisol is managing stress in your life, because the two go hand in hand. I recommend eating a healthy, plant-based diet, finding ways to relax, exercising, and having fun.
You may also want to try supplements like holy basil, lithium orotate, or omega-3 fatty acids. Getting enough sleep, staying grounded to the earth, meditation, yoga, and aerobic exercises can also help you manage stress.
About the author, Jay Vilar is a Nutritional Therapist Practitioner that works with his clients to improve their health symptoms through integrated holistic nutrition practices in the Washington, DC and Boston, MA Area.