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 it.
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?
Long-term elevated cortisol has been associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis and may also impact fertility. Abnormal cortisol patterns have also been observed in people with depression.
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 shuts down increased cortisol production.
High cortisol symptoms
- Disrupted sleep
- Increased appetite
- Blood sugar problems
- Weight gain and increased belly fat
- Increased inflammation
- A weakened immune system
Should you get your cortisol levels tested?
If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to ask your doctor about a 4-point cortisol test to see if a cortisol imbalance could be behind your symptoms. 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. If your pattern looks different, it can signify a cortisol imbalance.
Here’s how to lower cortisol levels.
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.
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. When a group of people were sent to either spend time walking through a city or in a forest for 20 minutes, cortisol levels in the forest group were significantly lower. In another study, a group people spent time walking through a forest one day and through a city another day. The forest environment promoted lower cortisol, more parasympathetic nerve activity, lower blood pressure, and lower pulse rate than the city environment.
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. 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 get 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.