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5 Proven Ways to Lower Cortisol Naturally

5 Proven Ways to Lower Cortisol Naturally

By Erin Heger, Insider

Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone, often called the stress hormone, that plays a key role in your body's stress response. It is also known as the "fight or flight" hormone, helping you manage stressful or dangerous situations.

When your brain perceives a threat, like a car suddenly stopping in front of you on the freeway or an unexpected noise in your house, it sends a signal to your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones — including cortisol and adrenaline — to tell you to escape or prepare for conflict. This release of hormones can cause your heart rate to increase, your breathing to quicken, and your muscles to tense.

Once the threat has passed, your hormone levels should go back to normal, but for some people under chronic stress, cortisol levels remain elevated. Over time, these high cortisol levels can cause other health issues, like decreased immune system function, digestive problems, chronic fatigue, depression, and weight gain.

Finding healthy ways to deal with stress can help lower cortisol levels and regulate your body's stress response. Here's five ways to do it.



1

Practice relaxation techniques

Meditation, deep breathing, and other means of relaxation — like massage and yoga — have all been shown to lower cortisol levels, says Dalia Lorenzo, MD, neurologist at Miami Neuroscience Institute.

For example, a 2013 study published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on 30 medical students found a significant decrease in cortisol levels after the participants participated in a mindfulness meditation.

In addition, a 2017 study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that doing just one session of hatha yoga can lower cortisol levels.

If you're feeling stressed at night, and need to lower cortisol levels in order to relax and fall asleep, you can also try these breathing exercises for sleep.


2

Improve your diet

Researchers have discovered a significant relationship between cortisol and food, Lorenzo says. High cortisol levels can alter the brain's reward system to favor consumption of foods high in sugar and fat, which further increases cortisol levels, setting up a cycle that's difficult to break.

Stress can affect food preferences, increasing cravings for "comfort foods," and high cortisol levels can also increase appetite. In a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Basic and Clinical Endocrinology, researchers found that high levels of cortisol were associated with low-quality food choices for people with type 2 diabetes.

To help improve cortisol levels and break the cycle, try cutting back on foods with little nutritional value that are high in sugar and fat, such as:

  • Fast food
  • Processed snack foods like chips, cookies, and candy
  • Soda and fruit juice


On the other hand, eating whole grains may help stabilize mood and reduce stress. Foods that contain fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium are also good choices because they can increase energy levels and keep cortisol low.

To regulate cortisol levels and manage stress, increase your intake of high-quality foods that contain these nutrients, including:

  • Salmon
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Almonds




3

Get enough sleep

The secretion of cortisol is also intimately tied to sleep. "Sleep may appear to be a passive state to most people, but it is actually a very important time where the brain and endocrine system are actively engaged in 'housekeeping and restorative functions' that are crucial for health," Lorenzo says.

Not getting enough sleep — less than 7 or 8 hours per night — makes your body more likely to produce cortisol. In fact, many studies have shown higher levels of cortisol in people who experience sleep deprivation.

Most people need about 7 hours of sleep a night for the brain to cycle through all the sleep stages, Lorenzo says. Variations in these cycles that occur for shift workers, night workers, or people with chronic insomnia can lead to higher cortisol levels.

If you struggle with sleep, establishing a regular bedtime and waking up around the same time each day can help reset your body clock, Lorenzo says. You should also avoid caffeine or vigorous exercise in the evening and practice good sleep hygiene by avoiding screens before bed and sleeping in darkness.



4

Care for a pet

Cultivating long-term relationships with pets are one way to help regulate cortisol levels, Lorenzo says, particularly for people who may live alone or not have a robust social network.

In fact, a 2019 study conducted by researchers at Washington State University found that just 10 minutes spent petting a dog or a cat can significantly decrease cortisol levels. Therapy dogs are especially beneficial for people with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as children in stressful situations.

A 2016 study published in Social Development examining the effect of pet dogs on children's stress found a lower cortisol response among children ages 7 to 12 years old who had their pets with them while being exposed to a stressor.



5

Dedicate time to activities that promote happiness

People who describe themselves as happy show overall lower levels of cortisol, Lorenzo says.

Happiness is of course relative and what brings happiness to one person may not to another, but for the most part, the key characteristics of people with healthy cortisol levels include:
Build a strong social support system

Having people you can go to when you're stressed, such as a trusted family member or reliable friend, can help improve your body's ability to deal with stress and build resilience.


Cultivate conflict management skills

The ability to successfully solve conflicts and navigate disagreements — whether that be with a coworker, a partner, or a friend — can help build healthy relationships.

"Stress management techniques and harmonious, low conflict relationships are important in preventing chronically elevated cortisol levels," Lorenzo says.

You can practice conflict management skills by taking deep breaths when you're feeling frustrated and listening before speaking.


Laugh

Though it can be difficult to laugh in stressful situations, it is actually a powerful stress reliever. A 2008 study published in American Psychological Society found that even just the anticipation of laughter reduces cortisol levels.

Some simple ways to add more laughter to your life include:

  • Watching funny television shows or movies
  • Reminiscing with friends and family
  • Follow funny accounts on social media



Get outside

Some research has found that even just 20 minutes spent in nature can lower cortisol levels.

Being outdoors and exercising also stimulates the release of endorphins, which can improve your mood and decrease stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline.



The bottom line

Cortisol plays an important role in many functions of the body, including your immune system and digestion. But too much cortisol for too long can cause other health problems and even increase your risk of disease.

Overall, practicing relaxation techniques, eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep can help you manage your stress and regulate your cortisol levels.

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