Cortisol, also known as the "stress hormone," is a steroid secreted by your adrenal glands that helps regulate your body's response to stress. Cortisol is most commonly known for stimulating gluconeogenesis (the production of new glucose), which is essential for keeping your brain and other organs functioning when you're under stress.
However, cortisol is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and immune-system regulator. It can inhibit the inflammatory cytokines that are released when your body is under duress, like when you're experiencing stress. This is one of the reasons why many experts believe that cortisol is a major anti-aging hormone. The more stress you experience, the more cortisol you release—which can be a good thing, since it can help keep your body running efficiently.
However, chronic stress, like the kind experienced by many people in today’s fast-paced society, can overtax your body. Your adrenal glands become less efficient at producing cortisol, a condition called “adrenal fatigue.” When your cortisol levels get too low, it can result in major health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and depression.
In this article, we’re diving into what cortisol is, the effects of elevated levels, and 27 evidence-based ways to lower cortisol levels.
What is cortisol, and why should I care?
It's a steroid hormone produced by your body
Cortisol is a hormone that is produced and secreted by the adrenal glands, a pair of organs on top of each kidney. The primary purpose of cortisol is to increase blood sugar which helps your body respond to stress. (Source)
It's secreted in response to stress
Like other stress hormones (e.g., adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine), cortisol is a response to perceived threats and/or stressors. Stressors can include a wide range of factors, including a lack of sleep, inadequate nutrition, exposure to toxins, injury, illness, fear, and more. (Source, Source)
It can have negative consequences
In the short-term, cortisol stimulates the fight-or-flight response, which is critical for survival. However, it also suppresses the immune system, which can lead to greater susceptibility to infection and illness. Chronically elevated cortisol levels can have negative health effects including a higher risk of heart disease, depression, and cognitive impairment. (Source)
What are the effects of elevated cortisol?
Our bodies were designed to handle short bursts of stress followed by periods of relaxation and rejuvenation. However, many of us live in a state of "perpetual stress," which can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels.
Excess cortisol can lead to weight gain, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and memory loss. It can also affect your metabolism, making it more likely that you'll gain weight around the waist and develop high blood pressure. There's also some evidence that high levels of cortisol are related to an increased risk of developing osteoporosis.
In addition to the negative effects on our mental and physical health, chronically high cortisol levels have been linked to several chronic conditions, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. One of its most well-known effects is on the immune system. Cortisol can suppress the immune system to aid in recovery after an acute stressor, but chronically elevated cortisol can wreak havoc on the immune system, throwing it out of balance and increasing the risk for chronic inflammation and autoimmunity.
What are the signs and symptoms of elevated cortisol levels?
High levels of cortisol in the body — whether due to stress, diet, or lifestyle — can trigger a myriad of unwanted side effects and symptoms. The most common signs and symptoms of cortisol include:
Weight gain — particularly around the stomach, upper back, and face
The production of cortisol in your body follows a circadian rhythm — dropping to its lowest point around midnight and peaking right before we wake up. When we’re sleep deprived, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is hyperactivated. Because the HPA axis modulates the sleep-wake cycle, an overactive HPA axis can result in fragmented sleep, a drop in overall sleep time, and decreased restorative sleep. One easy intervention to explore is incorporating a wind-down routine, like turning off your TV, computer, and phone at least an hour before you go to sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep, try taking a warm bath or reading a book for 15 minutes before bed. (Source)
Move more, but move smart
Exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce cortisol spikes, as it has been shown to directly inhibit the enzyme that triggers cortisol production. Incorporating movement also increases the production of endorphins — your body's natural morphine — which can further reduce stress and anxiety. However, a large body of evidence also shows that prolonged aerobic exercise can increase cortisol levels; researchers have found that endurance athletes, like marathon runners, tend to have higher levels of cortisol than non-endurance athletes. Your best bet is to mix it up and find a balance between intense, short-term exercise and longer, less intense workouts. (Source, Source).
Try a quick session of yoga
A recent study showed that even a single session of yoga can significantly reduce cortisol, decrease norepinephrine, and increase parasympathetic activity. The practice of yoga also helps to cultivate mindfulness, which is one of the keys to unlocking the sleepy hormone melatonin. (Source)
Get a massage
Yep, you read that correctly — science backs the benefits of treating yourself to a massage. Studies have shown that massage therapy is beneficial for patients dealing with chronic conditions, ranging from depression to hypertension. One study conducted by the University of Miami Medical School found that cortisol levels were reduced by 31% with regular massage. In addition, epinephrine and norepinephrine levels (two other key hormones that are key players in the "fight-or-flight" response and are linked to stress) were also lowered. (Source, Source)
Meditation has been shown to lower cortisol levels, improve immune system function, and even slow aging. If you're new to meditation, you can ease into a routine without much time — multiple studies show that meditating daily for just 10 minutes can significantly lower stress hormone levels and blunt cortisol spikes. There are many ways to meditate, but the goal is to focus your attention on being present. Simply focusing on your breath can help quiet your mind and allow you to experience a state of deep relaxation. (Source, Source, Source, Source, Source, Source)
Ditch the sugar
Sugar is a primary culprit of chronic stress in the American diet. An excess of sugar triggers the release of cortisol and other stress hormones, which in turn contribute to the development of chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, and an increased risk of heart disease. Sugar is added to the vast majority of processed foods in America and is particularly prevalent in all types of breakfast cereals, baked goods, and snack foods (another reason to read your labels closely!). If you’re craving something sweet, opt for dark chocolate, which has been proven to decrease cortisol levels in highly stressed individuals. (Source,Source)
Researchers have found a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and high cortisol. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to issues such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, oxidative stress, and atherosclerosis, or a narrowing of the arteries. These chronic conditions themselves can be taxing on the body, thereby elevating cortisol levels. Sun exposure is one of the most efficient ways to boost your vitamin D levels, especially in the winter months, so remember to get outside for at least 20 minutes a day without sunscreen when possible. (Source, Source)
Add more prebiotics to your diet
In 2015, researchers found that people who consumed prebiotics had lower levels of cortisol than a placebo. You can get your fill of prebiotics from whole foods like fruits, veggies, and legumes — resistant starch is one of the most potent ways to boost your prebiotic intake. (Source)
Chew your food slowly
Remember how your mom told you to slow down at the dinner table as a child? There was a scientific basis for her wisdom. A Tokyo Dental College study looked at the effects of slow chewing vs. fast chewing on salivary cortisol and found that chewing food quickly increases stress (and hence, cortisol). Chewing slowly and mindfully allows the stomach to send a signal to the brain that it's full. (Source)
Throw in some tai chi
A University of Utah study showed that tai chi can help to lower cortisol levels after just 12 weeks of practice. The effects appear to be long-lasting as well — after the initial 12 weeks, cortisol levels in the blood remained lower than normal even during times of stress. The authors of the study suggest that tai chi may be an effective means of reducing cortisol levels and the risk of stress-driven diseases. (Source, Source)
Practice the 4-7-8 breathing exercise
This exercise, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, is one of the most basic breathing exercises and can be done anywhere at any time. To do it, you need to breathe in through your nose for a count of four seconds, hold your breath for a count of seven, and then breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight seconds. You can do this for five to seven cycles to start, and then add one cycle each day for a week until you're up to 15 cycles. Other forms of deep breathing like diaphragmatic breathing—consciously breathing from your diaphragm—have been shown to reduce cortisol by activating the body’s natural relaxation response. (Source, Source)
Get a pet
In addition to providing unconditional love and friendship, pets can also benefit your health in a variety of ways. Pets can be calming and provide a sense of security to people, and there is substantial scientific evidence demonstrating that pet ownership reduces stress and improves mood. Research shows that dog and cat owners have lower levels of cortisol when under stress than non-pet owners, and the presence of pets in the home can lower overall cortisol levels. You don’t need to own one either — just petting a dog or a cat (whether yours or someone else’s) has been shown to significantly decrease stress hormone levels and increase oxytocin, endorphins, and other healing hormones. (Source, Source)
While we all know that maintaining strong, supportive relationships is important for health, research shows that relationships can also buffer the negative effects of stress. A Swedish University study showed that social interaction, touch, and support from a partner, family, or friend can stimulate the release of the hormone oxytocin which lowers stress and cortisol levels. (Source, Source)
Herbal adaptogens are a class of stress-mitigating plants that help the body cope with stress by normalizing the response to stressful stimuli. Research has shown that adaptogens— including ginseng (Source), ashwagandha (Source), rhodiola (Source), and holy basil (Source) — have a direct effect on cortisol levels.
We spend more time than ever before glued to our screens. Research shows that the blue light emitted from electronics can disrupt sleep, increase cortisol levels, and suppress the pineal gland's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. So before bed, switch off your devices (yes, even your phone) and read a book. (Source)
Limit your coffee consumption
Caffeine is a stimulant that can make you feel more alert, but at the same time, it can also increase cortisol levels and disrupt your sleep at night. One study showed a correlation between caffeine consumption and increased cortisol by 30% after just one hour. Regular caffeine consumption can subsequently double your cortisol levels. If you're having trouble falling asleep at night, try avoiding coffee and other caffeinated drinks six hours before bedtime. For best results, limit your daily intake of coffee and other caffeinated drinks to one to two cups. (Source, Source)
Research has shown that laughter releases endorphins, which can reduce pain and lower cortisol levels. In one study, laughter improved the short-term memory of older adults and decreased their cortisol levels by nearly 50%. Take a couple of minutes each day to seek out funny videos, sketches by your favorite comedian, or participate in a fun activity, that will lead to a good laugh. (Source)
Choose the right music
Music is a powerful stress-reducer and can be used to lower cortisol levels and induce relaxation. Studies have shown that music therapy can reduce cortisol levels by as much as 27% in children. Another study showed a significant reduction in cortisol and pain among patients who listened to music during a medical procedure. Listening to music was also shown to have a greater impact on the reduction of patient stress levels before surgery. (Source, Source, Source, Source)
Prioritize deep sleep
With each passing decade, our sleep quality and quantity declines, which is thought to be at least partially responsible for age-related declines in metabolism. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can impact the amount of slow-wave sleep you get, which is critical because that’s when the body restores itself. While your body is at rest, your immune system, gut, and brain all benefit from the physiological changes that occur during deep sleep. (Source, Source)
Adjust your posture
According to studies, standing tall for just two minutes can lower your cortisol by 25%. Researchers found that switching from low-power body language (arms crossed, hunched over, closed up, slumped shoulders, nervous) to high-power body language (opened up, tall, relaxed, confident) impacts your hormones. Taking on a “power posture” reduces feelings of stress and anxiety, which in turn reduces cortisol. (Source, Source)
Studies have shown that well-hydrated runners have lower cortisol levels than dehydrated runners. Every organ in our body needs water to function properly, so a lack of proper hydration can be a source of stress on the body. One study found dehydration of even 2.5% of one’s body mass resulted in a significant increase of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine––-the body’s stress hormones. (Source, Source)
Try bright light therapy
Bright light therapy is a treatment that exposes you to bright, full-spectrum light (10,000 lux) for thirty minutes to one hour. Light therapy helps lower cortisol levels by increasing amounts of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood and promotes restful sleep. By taking advantage of the benefits of bright light therapy, you can help mute the effects of cortisol on your brain and body. This form of therapy can be a good option to explore if you live in a region that is marked by shorter days and reduced access to sunlight (as an added bonus, light therapy successfully relieves the symptoms of nonseasonal major depressive disorder (MDD) as well). (Source, Source, Source)
Write down three things you're grateful for
Research has shown that cultivating gratitude can help you cope with stress by increasing positive emotions and helping you reframe your perspective. In one study, practicing gratitude decreased cortisol levels by 23% in the treatment group, while in others gratitude has been shown to boost life satisfaction, positive affect, and optimism. (Source)
Schedule an acupuncture session
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical treatment that has been used for thousands of years. In recent years, there has been a growing body of research to support the effectiveness of acupuncture for anxiety and stress-related disorders. In a study of rats with IBS, researchers found that acupuncture relieved symptoms associated with the condition while lowering corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) levels, a precursor to cortisol. (Source)
Spending time in nature has been shown to lower cortisol levels and reduce the perception of stress. One study showed that walking in a natural setting coupled with mindfulness practice, had a significant impact on participants’ stress levels and overall well-being, compared to those who walked indoors. Other research shows that students who spent a few minutes looking at a nature scene before taking a math test scored higher than students who looked at a cityscape. (Source, Source)
Test out transcranial stimulation
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, or TMS, is a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate targeted regions of the brain. Studies suggest that TMS might be used as an alternative to pharmacological treatments for depression as well. According to research, the treatment may also be effective in lowering cortisol levels. TMS has been shown to increase dopamine (known as a “feel-good” neurotransmitter) and serotonin levels, which aids in reducing stress. Similarly, transcranial direct current stimulation, a non-invasive procedure that uses low voltage electrical currents to stimulate the neurons directly under the electrodes, has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels.(Source, Source, Source)
Try neurofeedback therapy
Neurofeedback is a completely non-invasive, drug-free treatment that uses EEG (electroencephalography) to train the brain to self-regulate. The brain learns to produce the optimal frequency and amplitude of its electrical activity, which is measured via electrodes attached to the head. In one study, researchers reported a statistically significant decrease in cortisol levels after a single session of neurofeedback therapy. (Source)