Right now, likely more than ever, people across the world are stressed. With so much uncertainty surrounding the effects the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the global population, it's hard not to feel anxious and blue.
This means that your cortisol levels are probably higher than usual, which also means it's of utmost importance that you figure out how to lower cortisol. To help, we reached out to several experts and conducted research to gather 15 science-backed tips on how to lower cortisol levels naturally, so your immune system can remain strong during these unprecedented times.
Cortisol is your body's main stress hormone. The adrenal glands pump it out every time you are frazzled or alarmed. That's why we best know cortisol as helping fuel your body's "fight-or-flight" instinct. Ever feel uneasy after a close call while driving on the highway or get startled by your alarm in the morning? That's cortisol at work.
While we most often associate this hormone with negative things, cortisol plays an essential role in our lives. A certain amount of cortisol is healthy for the body, as it has anti-inflammatory properties and it's required for our bodies to function optimally.
RELATED: Your guide to the anti-inflammatory diet that heals your gut, slows the signs of aging, and helps you lose weight.
Having the right balance of cortisol levels is essential for human health. So, it should come at no surprise that too much cortisol (and the stress that precipitates it) can lead to negative side effects. (Weight gain, in particular.)
"When placed in a stressful situation, our body responds by releasing hormones, including cortisol. As more cortisol is released, it raises blood sugar levels, which can lead to weight gain, mainly around the abdomen and face," says Bonnie Balk, RD a registered dietitian and Health & Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics.
And there's even more to it than that. "Although there are many studies suggesting the connection between stress levels and weight gain, the connection may be from another cause," Balk adds. "As people experience stressful situations, they tend to turn to their 'therapist,' which is often cakes, cookies, or other sugar/salty/oily comfort food, which leads to weight gain. As abdominal fat seems to raise cortisol levels, it contributes to this unhealthy cycle."
The good news is that there are 10 natural, evidence-based ways—including dietary shifts and lifestyle changes—that can help you lower your cortisol levels.
A 2005 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that caffeine increases cortisol secretion even in people at rest. Because caffeine can stimulate cortisol production and increase blood pressure, Krista King, MS, RDN, of Composed Nutrition, offers a solution to lower cortisol: "Try doing a caffeine reset. Gradually decrease the amount of caffeine you have each day by swapping it out for a caffeine-free or lower caffeine alternative."
You should avoid foods that have been heavily processed and pumped full of added chemicals and sugars if you're looking for how to lower your cortisol levels. "One way to combat high cortisol levels, stress, and weight gain is to reduce (or cut out) simple sugars," says Balk. The main foods that fall under this high-sugar category include:
While these sugary goodies might give you a temporary jolt of energy (and the inevitable, cortisol boost) Balk suggests focusing on other sources of energy. "As your body still needs to receive sugar to fuel itself, focus on having complex carbohydrates rather than simple sugars." Jim White RD, ACSM, and the owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios adds that fiber-rich foods, protein, and healthy fats will also help keep your cortisol levels within the normal range.
Because alcohol often puts people at ease and makes them feel relaxed, you might think that it has the ability to lower cortisol levels. In fact, the exact opposite is true. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that men who had just one drink a week saw a three percent rise in their cortisol levels, and those levels can be even higher if you're under a tremendous amount of pressure.
"We see people using alcohol to help relax; however, alcohol is a depressant. While yes, in the moment you may feel 'better,' alcohol causes several issues that appear later on," says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, who serves on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living.
"Also, alcohol can also depress your mood. Couple a depressed mood with stress (or existing depression) and you may find yourself in a terrible rut," she adds. "Alcohol can also disrupt deep sleep, so not only will you be hungover after a night of drinking, but you may also feel sick and lack a good night's sleep!"
"Drinking enough water that your body requires per day can help your body regulate cortisol levels better," says White. "When our body dehydrates it can be seen as a stressor within the body, which could affect cortisol levels."
According to a 2018 study of young soccer players, even mild dehydration can lead to an increase in one's cortisol levels. In other words, if you're looking to keep your cortisol levels at bay, don't be afraid of a little H2O.
Though it can be tricky at times, sticking to an eating schedule is a great way to keep stress (that darn cortisol trigger) under control. This is in part because it takes the guesswork out of when your next meal will be, which in and of itself can be a source of anxiety. In turn, sticking to a schedule can also help prevent stress-eating, another habit that can contribute to an uptick in cortisol levels, especially since we tend to reach for cortisol-boosting sweets and comfort foods when we're overloaded.
"Recognize if and when you are engaging in stress eating: Try to keep a regular eating schedule where you avoid ever getting too hungry and avoid ever stuffing yourself to the brim," advises Miller. "Before grabbing a snack, take a minute to ask yourself if you are truly hungry. You may find that you are really just stressed and looking for something to munch on or you are bored. Try to structure an eating routine where you eat a meal/snack every 3-4 hours while awake."
Try writing down what you eat in an effort to get a better idea of when you stress eat. "Keeping a food journal for a week can help you pinpoint the times where you indulge in comfort foods or when you make sensible, healthier choices," says Balk. "If dinner before a big test or meeting tends to be fried 'comfort food,' it's worthwhile to stop the cycle and replace that emotion with a healthier choice or receive consolation another way."
Every dietitian we spoke with mentioned the positive impact an adequate night's sleep can have on one's cortisol levels. Cortisol rises and falls based on our sleep cycles: it's highest just after we wake up and lowest right before we hit the hay. So, it's no surprise that sleep and cortisol levels are so heavily interconnected.
"Due to cortisol levels being linked to circadian rhythm, making sure you are getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night will help keep cortisol levels normal," explains White. "This can also help keep the fat off." According to Wake Forest researchers, people who sleep five hours or less put on two and a half times more belly fat, while those who sleep more than eight hours pack on slightly less than that.
Believe it or not, a good chuckle can go a long way when it comes to lowering your cortisol levels. "One way to reduce cortisol that does have research support is through deep, heartfelt laughter," says Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD. "Studies have shown that 10-20 minutes of deep heartfelt laughter reduces serum cortisol."
White concurs, noting even a good mood can help get the job done: "Have something that you look forward to every single day that can boost your mood," he says. "This can help lower cortisol levels and reduce levels of stress."
"High-intensity exercise over about 15-20 minutes can stimulate cortisol production," says King. To decrease it, you need a different form of exercise. "To help lower cortisol levels try shifting from high intensity to moderate and lower intensity exercise like strength training, yoga, pilates, and walking," she says.
Per a study in The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, low-intensity exercise actually results in a reduction in circulating cortisol levels.
By contrast, that same study from The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation showed that moderate- to high-intensity exercise provokes increases in circulating cortisol levels. In other words, when it comes to exercise, more may not be better. A separate 2012 study confirmed that long-term cortisol exposure was significantly higher in endurance athletes.
As clinical psychologist Candice Seti, PsyD—a.k.a. The Weight Loss Therapist—put it, "Skipping the second trip to the gym and taking it easy can also be good for reducing cortisol levels. [We have evidence] that over-exercising can actually lead to an increase in the hormone. This, in turn, can lead to slower weight loss."
There's a reason why people drink tea to relax. Research shows that tea lowers cortisol levels. Additionally, there is evidence that drinking about a half cup of green tea each day may reduce the risk of developing depression and dementia. Regular tea consumption has also been associated with better heart health. Just this year, the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology published a new study on tea and heart disease. The study revealed that those who drank tea three times per week staved off coronary heart disease on average 1.5 years more than those who didn't drink it as regularly or at all.
Imagine if a doctor prescribed you a nature pill, or instructed you to take a walk outdoors to help treat your stress levels. How would you react? A study from 2019 that was published in the journal, Frontiers in Public Health found that taking a 20 minute-long walk (at the minimum) in nature significantly lowers cortisol levels.
"Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription," said Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, associate professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of this research in the study said in a statement. "It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose."
Perhaps one of the easiest and fastestways you can reduce stress is by simply meditating. For example, in 2013 researchers at UC Davis published a study in the journal Health Psychology on meditation and cortisol levels. What they found? Intentionally focusing the mind on what's occurring in the present, rather than letting it drift to past and future experiences, was associated with lower levels of cortisol.
"The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol," said Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center and author of the study in a statement.
Yoga and meditation in many respects go hand-in-hand, with regard to positive health outcomes. A study from 2017 that was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that daily meditation and yoga practices were attributable to lower stress levels. For three months, participants practiced mediation and yoga daily. After the retreat, participants demonstrated alterations in "inflammatory pathway signaling" which indicated their resilience to fluctuations in stress levels improved. Another impressive outcome? Several participants showed improvements in depression and anxiety as well.
Believe it or not, there are a few foods that may help with keeping cortisol levels stable.
For example, a 2019 study published in the journal Antioxidants looked at the impact dark chocolate consumption had on participants' cortisol levels. The results of the small-scale study suggest that consuming just 25 grams of dark chocolate (think 2 squares of Ghiradelli's Intense Dark, 86 percent cacao) each day may lower overall cortisol levels.