Stressed out all the time? It could be throwing your cortisol levels off their natural pattern. Learn how to recognize the signs of high cortisol and how to lower cortisol levels naturally.
Cortisol is one of the main hormones produced by the adrenal glands. It’s known as the stress hormone because it’s released during times of physical and emotional stress. It increases your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and breathing rate to give you a natural energy boost to take on whatever stressor is coming your way.
That’s a good thing in the short term, but being chronically stressed can lead to high cortisol levels all the time, and that can have a serious impact on your health.
How does cortisol affect your health?
When your body senses that it’s in a high stress situation, it releases cortisol, which elevates your heart rate, increases blood pressure, and gives you an overall energy boost you experience when stressed. At the same time, the high levels of cortisol in your blood signal cells to turn off other, nonessential processes—like regulating your metabolism, for example—so your body can focus on the threat at hand. But cortisol does more than just prepare your body to mobilize in the face of an oncoming stressor. In fact, most cells in your body have cortisol receptors that receive cortisol and use it in their own processes, like regulating blood sugar, reducing inflammation, or even forming memories, so it’s not all bad. The problem happens when stress is constant, and regular bodily functions are interrupted regularly.
There are several health risks from chronic stress, as long-term elevated cortisol has been associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis. It may also impact fertility. One study of over 400 women trying to get pregnant found that women with the highest levels of alpha-amylase—an enzyme that marks stress—were 29 percent less likely to get pregnant after a year of trying.
Chronically elevated cortisol can also play a role in mental health, often commonly presenting in people with anxiety and depression. Reducing cortisol levels have been found to improve symptoms of these mental health disorders. Abnormal cortisol patterns can also interfere with your ability to form memories, contributing to brain fog.
If your cortisol levels are abnormally high, you can reduce them by shifting your body from the stress response, or autonomic nervous system, to the relaxation response, or parasympathetic nervous system. This shift shuts down increased cortisol production and can help any processes that may have been thrown off to return to normal functioning.
High cortisol symptoms
Since cortisol affects so many areas of our body’s functioning, the symptoms of high cortisol can look different for everyone—and they may even present differently at different times. The following are a few of the most common symptoms to look out for:
- Disrupted sleep
- Increased appetite
- Blood sugar problems
- Weight gain and increased belly fat
- Increased inflammation
- A weakened immune system
- Mood swings
Should you get your cortisol levels tested?
If you’ve been experiencing any symptoms of high cortisol, you may want to ask your doctor about a 4-point cortisol test to see if a cortisol imbalance could be at play. For the at-home test, you collect saliva first thing in the morning, before lunch, before dinner, and before bed.
The results show your cortisol levels throughout the day. A normal cortisol pattern starts high in the morning and slowly decreases throughout the day, reaching its lowest point at night, priming you for sleep. If your pattern looks different, it may signify a cortisol imbalance.
Here’s how to lower cortisol levels.
At Parsley Health, we work with our members everyday on lowering cortisol levels and reducing chronic stress. Since everyone’s lifestyle is different, and the stressors in your life aren’t the same as the stressors in, say, your best friend’s life, it’s important to come up with an action plan that is personalized to you and your lifestyle. Typically, this starts with addressing the root cause of your stress and making changes to your diet, exercise, supplement routine with the support of your Parsley Health clinician and health coach. Once your cortisol levels are restored, the goal is to help you understand the stress response, learn how to manage stress, and develop a consistent mindfulness practice so you have the tools to prevent future spikes.
Here are some of our top tips for lowering cortisol levels naturally:
1. Try meditation.
Meditation activates the body’s relaxation response through the HPA axis, the central stress response system. This lowers cortisol and slows your breathing rate, relaxes muscles, and reduces blood pressure. It also stimulates regions of the brain that control worrying. People who completed an online mindfulness program for one hour a week for eight weeks reported a 31 percent decrease in stress levels a year after the program.
Along with meditation, a consistent mindfulness practice has also been shown to lower cortisol levels by helping you take on worry and anxiety with focus and understanding. With more awareness of your thoughts, as well as the physiological signs of stress like an elevated heart rate, you can identify and address the stressor before it becomes a long term problem. One study found that women who were able to describe and accept their stressor had lower cortisol levels.
2. Swap intense workouts for gentle exercise.
The length and intensity of your workouts can have a big impact on your cortisol levels. High intensity exercise, around 80 percent of your maximal oxygen uptake, even when done for just 30 minutes significantly elevates cortisol levels. Consistent long-duration exercise can also raise your cortisol level.
When scientists studied the cortisol concentrations in the hair of endurance athletes, they found higher concentrations than in non-endurance athletes. Lower intensity workouts on the other hand, like yoga, can reduce cortisol levels by deactivating the stress response, increasing parasympathetic activity, and decreasing norepinephrine.
3. Eat a healthy carb at dinner.
It might sound counterintuitive, but a small serving of a healthy carb at dinner like quinoa, brown rice, squash, or sweet potato can actually regulate blood sugar levels and help you have a better sleep. Cortisol and insulin have an inverse relationship, meaning when cortisol is high, insulin is low, so that healthy carb in the evening spikes your insulin and lowers your cortisol. This helps you to relax and prepare for bed and a restful sleep.
4. Get outside.
If your current lifestyle leaves you lacking in time spent outdoors, a dose of nature could be just what you need to help lower cortisol levels. In onestudy, researchers had a group of people spend time walking through a forest one day and through a city another day. The results found that the forest environment promoted lower cortisol, more parasympathetic nerve activity, lower blood pressure, and lower pulse rate than the city environment. But if you can’t escape the city, making a point to get outdoors, no matter where you are, can help calm your body. Even spending just 20 minutes a day outdoors has been found to improve cortisol levels and reduce stress.
5. Rewire your sleep schedule.
Sleeping in time with your body’s biorhythms and getting enough quality sleep can help you lower your cortisol levels naturally. Time, length, and quality of sleep have all been found to influence cortisol levels, so optimizing your sleep cycle from start to finish plays an important role in lowering cortisol levels. Ideally, getting to bed by 10 p.m. will help you avoid a late evening cortisol spike which could make it hard to get to sleep and sleep soundly. This also takes advantage of natural melatonin production, which starts around sunset to help you wind down.
Research in the Journal of Nursing Research found that shift workers who sleep during the day have higher daytime cortisol and get less sleep per day than people who sleep at night, so if your job allows, it’s best to adjust your sleep schedule accordingly. And if you have little control over when you get to sleep, do your best to create a good sleep routine—like avoiding caffeine and alcohol and limiting screen time before bed—to optimize the sleep you do get.
6. Do things that make you happy
Whether it’s connecting with friends and family or trying out a new hobby, spending time doing things that make you genuinely happy may help reduce stress and lower cortisol levels. Improving your disposition to become more positive can be a big part of improving your overall health. Studies show that positive affect can not only decrease cortisol, but also improve heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers. One study even found that laughter can decrease stress.
7. Reduce your sugar intake
Has it become a habit to reach for that hidden stash of candy every time you’re stressed? You’re not alone. Turns out, this is actually your body’s physiological response, since high cortisol can affect your brain’s reward system, making you crave foods high in sugar and fat. Once you eat that food, it just reinforces these feelings and makes you crave them even more next time. These frequent or excessive sugar surges are known to increase cortisol levels and create a cycle that’s difficult to break. Instead of processed, sugar-rich foods, try reaching for foods high in fiber or omega-3s, which will help keep your cortisol levels steady. And if you need help cutting your sugar habit, learn how to do a sugar detox here.
8. Try an adaptogenic herb
Adaptogens are a group of fungi and plant-derived compounds that help the body adapt to stress and are known for their ability to reset the body and restore natural functioning. Re-establishing healthy, pre-stress cortisol levels is one of the many benefits of including these supplements in your diet. Ashwagandha, one of the most popular members of this group, has been shown to significantly reduce cortisol levels and calm anxiety. Ginseng and rhodiola are some of our other favorite adaptogens that may help balance your cortisol levels. Try adding these to your morning smoothie, coffee, tea, or even baked goods or discussing further with your Parsley Health clinician or health coach to receive recommendations on high quality brands and specific adaptogens that may work best for you.