Last modified on February 2nd, 2024
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Learning how to lower cortisol naturally can be a gamechanger for your overall health and how you feel. It can even help with issues like stubborn weight that you can’t seem to lose other ways.
If you’re struggling with stress, you might be looking for how lower cortisol could be your answer to better health. Elevated cortisol levels contribute to unwanted weight, sleep disturbances, and increased health risks. We’ll cut directly to the point with our guide, offering you straightforward ways you can lower cortisol naturally. We incorporate simple lifestyle changes and dietary tweaks, as well as recommendations on natural supplements to manage your cortisol levels more effectively.
Key Points On How to Lower Cortisol
Things to keep in mind about how to lower cortisol include:
- Elevated cortisol, often due to stress, can lead to serious health complications, including obesity, high blood pressure, Cushing’s syndrome, anxiety and depression. This all points to the importance of learning to regulate your cortisol levels naturally when possible to maintain your overall health and well-being.
- Effective methods to lower cortisol levels include prioritizing healthy sleep, practicing relaxation and mindfulness strategies, and engaging in moderate exercise regularly. It’s also beneficial to eat a healthy, balanced diet and build and maintain positive social relationships.
- Other strategies for cortisol management include monitoring your cortisol levels through medical testing and using natural supplements.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be a tool to manage chronic stress.
Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone originating from the adrenal glands. It responds to signals sent by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Cortisol is a necessary hormone that plays a role in many of our bodily functions, including metabolic control, the suppression of inflammation and immune system regulation.
If we encounter stressful situations, cortisol becomes active. It helps regulate bodily processes, including blood pressure, blood sugar levels and sleep patterns. Cortisol has a role in managing stress effectively through its involvement with the HPA axis. The HPA axis includes the hypothalamus, pituitary glands and adrenal glands.
These work together, ensuring the proper production of the cortisol hormone.
The adrenal glands responsible for producing cortisol are located on top of each kidney. The following steps explain how it works in the body.:
- Synthesis and release: Cortisol is synthesized and released by adrenal glands in response to signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This then signals the release of the pituitary gland’s adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then stimulates adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol.
- Stress response: Cortisol’s primary function is to prepare the body for a fight-or-flight response during stress. When faced with stress or danger, cortisol levels rapidly rise, providing the body with a burst of energy.
- Metabolism regulation: Cortisol regulates metabolism by influencing the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. It promotes the conversion of stored glycogen into glucose. Glucose then gets released into the bloodstream. The increased glucose availability provides your body with a quick energy source.
- Immune system modulation: Cortisol has anti-inflammatory properties that suppress the immune system. This is beneficial in short-term times of stress. Prolonged elevation of cortisol can, however, suppress your immune system to the point that you’re more susceptible to infections.
- Blood pressure regulation: Cortisol maintains blood pressure by increasing blood vessel responsiveness to other vasoconstrictors, such as norepinephrine.
- Circadian rhythm: Cortisol levels follow a circadian rhythm. They are highest, typically in the early morning, helping to wake your body up and providing the energy you need for your day. Then, as the day goes on, your levels should gradually decrease, reaching the lowest levels when it’s time for you to relax and sleep.
The HPA Axis and Cortisol Levels
The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis functions as a neuroendocrine system, playing a pivotal role in the body’s stress response and the regulation of a number of physiological processes. The HPA is especially important in the context of cortisol levels since it’s the primary hormone released in response to stress.
The process starts in the hypothalamus, a brain region. If your body perceives stress, it will release corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) into the bloodstream. CRH then travels to the pituitary gland, which releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH into the bloodstream).
ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands, which produce cortisol and other hormones. The adrenal cortex releases cortisol directly into the bloodstream, where it acts on the hypothalamus and pituitary gland through a negative feedback loop. When cortisol levels in the blood are high, it signals them to release CRH and ACTH. This negative feedback loop maintains the body’s balance of cortisol.
The HPA axis is primarily active during times of stress. While the acute stress response is adaptive, chronic activation of the HPA axis has adverse health effects.
The Effects of High Cortisol Levels
Again, short-term cortisol spikes can be helpful if you’re facing a stressful situation. However, long-term chronic cortisol elevation begins to negatively affect your physical and mental health.
Mental health effects of consistently high levels include:
- Anxiety and depression: Cortisol affects neurotransmitter balances, which causes these symptoms and contributes to changes in your mood regulation. You might also experience mood swings and irritability.
- Cognitive impairment: Prolonged cortisol exposure at high levels can interfere with new memory formation, the retrieval of existing ones and overall cognitive function.
- Sleep problems: Elevated cortisol can disrupt your normal circadian rhythm, leading to problems falling or staying asleep. Sleep disturbances can also contribute to worsening stress and mental health symptoms.
- Suppressed serotonin: Cortisol can suppress serotonin production. Serotonin is the key neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation. Low levels are linked to depression.
The physical effects include:
- Suppressed immune system: You may be more susceptible to illnesses and infections.
- Weight gain: Cortisol can increase your appetite, especially for sugary and high-calorie foods. Elevated cortisol levels tend to contribute to abdominal fat, especially a cortisol belly.
- Digestive problems: If you’re experiencing problems with nutrient absorption and GI symptoms, it could be due to the effects of elevations in cortisol on your digestive system.
- Cardiovascular complications: Chronic stress and elevated cortisol raise the risk of heart-related problems like high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.
- Hormonal imbalances: Cortisol is part of the endocrine system, and it interacts with other hormones. Chronic elevations can affect hormone balance, affecting thyroid and reproductive hormones, among others.
- Insulin resistance: Elevated levels contribute to insulin resistance and can lead to metabolic issues and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Skin problems: Cortisol contributes to skin issues like eczema and acne.
Signs of Chronically Elevated Cortisol
While these symptoms vary depending on the person, the severity of the problem and other individual factors, general signs that your cortisol is persistently elevated can include:
- Weight gain, especially around the abdomen
- Muscle weakness and wasting
- Bone density reduction
- Skin issues
- Digestive problems like bloating and indigestion.
- Increased blood pressure
- Depression and other mood disorders.
- Fatigue and weakness
- Changes in menstrual cycle.
- Reduced libido.
- Frequent illnesses.
- Hair loss or thinning
- Headaches or migraines
Reasons for Chronically Elevated Cortisol
A number of factors can cause elevated cortisol levels. One of the most common is chronic stress. Prolonged periods of stress activate your body’s stress response continuously, elevating cortisol levels. Chronic stressors, both psychological and physical, contribute to the dysregulation of your HPA axis.
Cushing’s syndrome is a medical condition characterized by excessive cortisol production. This is either due to a tumor in the adrenal glands, known as adrenal Cushing’s syndrome, or excessive production of ACTH by a tumor somewhere else. This is known as Cushing’s disease.
Other reasons for elevations in your cortisol levels include:
- Alcohol: Chronic or excessive alcohol consumption can disrupt your cortisol regulation. Alcohol affects the adrenal glands and HPA axis. Alcohol is primarily metabolized in the liver. Liver dysfunction due to drinking excessively can contribute to cortisol dysregulation.
- Sleep deprivation: Getting too little or poor-quality sleep disrupts the normal diurnal rhythm of cortisol.
- Medications: Medications like corticosteroids elevate cortisol levels and can suppress your natural production.
- Mental health conditions: Anxiety disorder and chronic depression are two mental disorders in particular that are associated with changes in cortisol regulation.
- Obesity: Fat cells, known as adipose tissue, produce cortisol. With obesity, there may be an increase in visceral fat, leading to elevated cortisol. This can then lead to a cycle where cortisol promotes the storage of abdominal fat, and there’s further cortisol production.
- Inflammation and chronic illnesses: Certain chronic illnesses or inflammatory conditions can persistently overactivate the immune system. This leads to increased cortisol production because the body is responding to inflammation.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Women with PCOS may have elevations in their cortisol levels, often because of insulin resistance.
- Genetics: These factors can play a role in cortisol regulation, with some people potentially being more susceptible to cortisol dysregulation because of genetic variations that affect their HPA axis.
While not a direct cause of high cortisol, certain nutrient deficiencies can play a role and can contribute to HPA axis dysfunction. These include:
- Vitamin C supports the adrenal gland. Inadequate levels can impact adrenal function, influencing cortisol production.
- Vitamin B5, which is pantothenic acid, is involved in the synthesis of coenzyme A. This is needed for adrenal hormone production, including cortisol.
- Vitamin B6 is part of the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter influencing mood. Low levels can indirectly affect cortisol regulation. Low B6 levels can impact the synthesis of serotonin and your stress response.
- Zinc is involved in the function of enzymes needed for steroid hormone metabolism, including cortisol.
Can You Test Your Cortisol Levels at Home?
While you may feel like you have symptoms of high cortisol, it’s hard to know without testing them. You can get a baseline with an at-home test using saliva. These kits measure cortisol levels in your saliva to provide a snapshot of your levels throughout different times of the day. Saliva cortisol testing is used to assess what’s known as the diurnal or daily rhythm of cortisol, which generally follows a set pattern throughout the day.
While saliva cortisol testing can be useful, it’s not as accurate as a blood test used in a clinical setting.
Cortisol levels vary naturally throughout the day, peaking in the morning and reaching their lowest level in the evenings, which is why the at-home testing is done in a certain way.
The first sample is usually collected within 30 minutes of waking up to capture peak levels. Then, an afternoon sample may be taken around 4-5 hours after a morning sample. A third sample may be collected in the early evening, and some test kits ask for a nighttime sample, usually right before bed.
These kits measure cortisol at specific times, providing insights into how you respond to stress and observing natural fluctuations in levels throughout the day.
How to Lower Cortisol Naturally
There are natural ways to lower cortisol based on certain lifestyle changes.
- Regular exercise: Exercising stimulates endorphin release, which helps promote feelings of well-being. Exercise also helps regulate your HPA axis, which reduces the excessive production of cortisol. You can improve your mood, reduce stress levels, and sleep better if you exercise on a consistent basis. While physical activity is a critical way to manage cortisol levels, you don’t want to overdo it. For example, exercise that’s too strenuous can have the opposite effect. Moderate-intensity exercise is often ideal for managing stress, combating chronic illness and regulating your stress and cortisol response.
- Adequate sleep: During deep sleep, your cortisol levels will usually decrease, which allows your body to recover and keep a healthy diurnal cortisol rhythm. Restful sleep also promotes hormonal balance, reduces cortisol levels during the day and improves your body’s ability to deal with stress.
- Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Mindfulness strategies like deep breathing and meditation can help activate your relaxation response, improving stress resilience, lowering cortisol levels, and improving emotional well-being.
- Healthy diet: The food we consume impacts our cortisol levels, and certain choices can help reduce them. For example, caffeine can raise cortisol, as can added sugar and refined grains. Foods that stabilize blood sugar levels and are nutrient-rich can prevent fluctuations that otherwise trigger cortisol release. Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids stabilize energy levels, reduce inflammation and, in turn, lower cortisol naturally.
- Social connection: Having a social support network and emotional support can trigger the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that counteracts the effects of cortisol. A strong, supportive social network also contributes to emotional well-being, can help lower stress and regulates your response to stress.
- Laughing: It sounds silly, quite literally, but when you laugh and enjoy activities, you release endorphins, which can help if you’re dealing with too much cortisol.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: CBT is a talk therapy approach that helps you identify and change your negative thought patterns and behaviors. It changes your perception of stressors and modulates your response to stress. CBT can also help you develop better coping mechanisms.
- Hydration: Dehydration activates your stress response, increasing cortisol levels.
- Reduce caffeine intake: Caffeine is a central nervous stimulant that can lead to chronically high cortisol levels. It stimulates the release of cortisol through the activation of the HPA axis. Peak increases in cortisol levels usually occur within 30 to 60 minutes after consuming caffeine.
How to Lower Cortisol Levels with Supplements
While you can make lifestyle changes to lower cortisol naturally, some supplements can help. Remember to always speak to a doctor about any new supplements you try. Some of the natural supplements to naturally lower high cortisol levels include:
Ashwagandha is one of the best supplements for naturally lowering cortisol. It’s an adaptogenic herb that may help modulate your stress response by balancing cortisol levels. Ashwagandha interacts with the HPA axis and has anti-inflammatory effects as well.
Typically, doses of ashwagandha to lower cortisol range from 300 to 600 mg per day, and it may be taken with meals or as directed on the product label.
Rhodiola rosea is also an adaptogen, and it’s believed to regulate the stress response. It may lower cortisol levels naturally if they’re too high and increase your body’s resistance to stress. Common doses range from 200 mg to 600 mg a day. It’s often taken in the morning because it can have energizing effects.
Phosphatidylserine taken as a supplement may help regulate cortisol levels before and after stressful events. It has a potential calming effect and is involved in the communication between cells. Dosages typically range from 100 mg to 600 mg a day, and they may be taken in divided doses throughout the day, ideally with food.
Magnesium is involved in numerous enzymatic reactions. These reactions include ones related to the stress response. It may help modulate the activity of the HPA axis, reducing cortisol levels. Magnesium is best absorbed with food, and a standard range is between 200 mg and 400 mg a day.
Naturally found in tea leaves, L-theanine is also a popular supplement that is thought to promote calm and relaxation, reducing cortisol levels by influencing the brain’s neurotransmitters. It can be taken throughout the day, or it may be used before bed. L-theanine doses typically vary between 100 mg and 200 mg daily.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA, which are found in fish oil, are anti-inflammatory and may help positively influence the stress response system. Omega-3 supplements can be taken with meals, and a common recommendation is to have around 1,000 mg a day of a combination of EPA and DHA.
You can also incorporate more healthy fats in your diet in general, even outside of taking an omega-3 acid.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that may counteract the effects of stress on the body and support the health of the adrenal glands. The recommended vitamin C dose is 90 mg for men and 75 mg if you’re a woman, but people often take much higher doses. Liposomal vitamin C is the best-absorbed supplemental form.
How to Lower Cortisol with Somatic Exercises
Somatic exercises involve conscious body awareness and movement to improve physical function and reduce muscular tension. They can lower stress and may indirectly help lower cortisol naturally.
When you engage in somatic exercises like gentle stressing or mindfulness movement, you help activate your body’s relaxation response, which counteracts the cortisol-releasing stress response.
Other benefits of somatic exercises, particularly for stress and naturally lowering cortisol, include:
- Somatic practices emphasize the mind-body connection and stress management. They teach one to recognize and release tension, leading to a more relaxed physiological state.
- These exercises can help promote relaxation so that you can sleep better and get good quality sleep, and enough of it is a requirement for cortisol regulation.
- Somatic exercises often focus on releasing muscle tension and contribute to relaxation, which can indirectly influence cortisol levels.
- Engaging in somatic exercises can increase positive feelings and contribute to an overall sense of well-being, which helps counteract stress and may modulate cortisol.
The Relationship Between Gut Health and Cortisol
Another area of research to look at if your goal is to manage your stress response and lower cortisol is your gut health. The gut-brain axis communicates via a network of signals between your central nervous system and the enteric nervous system in your GI tract. This affects the hormonal, immune, and neural pathways.
Elevated cortisol can influence gut motility and reduce blood flow to your digestive system. The reduced blood flow affects the composition of the gut microbiota. Prolonged or chronic stress can lead to inflammation in the GI tract, which can affect the function of the gut barrier and may be linked with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
The gut microbiota consists of the microorganisms that live in the gastrointestinal tract, and they can influence the HPA axis. The gut microbiota can impact your stress response and cortisol regulation.
Microbes in the gut ferment dietary fiber to produce short-chain fatty acids like butyrate. Taking a short-chain fatty acid supplement or consuming more fiber may have anti-inflammatory effects that can positively affect the HPA axis and modulate cortisol levels.
There’s also research to show that some probiotics can modulate the stress response and cortisol levels.
A balanced, diverse diet supports gut microbiota diversity, and that can regulate cortisol. Additionally, a healthy gut is needed so you can properly absorb nutrients, and having adequate nutrient status of vitamins and minerals helps your HPA function optionally, contributing to cortisol regulation.
What does all this mean? If you want to avoid having your cortisol levels rise too much, or you want to lower your cortisol levels currently, think about making sure you’re eating gut-healthy foods and consider taking a short-chain fatty acid supplement and probiotic.
Final Thoughts—How to Lower Cortisol Naturally
If you’ve wondered how to lower cortisol naturally, you’re not alone. It’s a common question as more people learn about the impact of adrenal health and look towards ways to reduce stress and begin lowering cortisol levels and other stress hormones. There are ways that you can lower your cortisol naturally, but it can take time. Adaptogen supplements, for example, often take several weeks up to a few months to fully start to show their beneficial effects. Still, the comprehensive benefits that it can have on your health to make this effort are impressive.
Of course, this isn’t medical advice, and if you have questions about how to lower cortisol naturally, your own cortisol levels or supplements, please speak with a healthcare professional.