5 natural ways to reduce stress and cortisol levels

Find out the best way to keep your mental and physical health in check and lower your cortisol levels.

In times of stress, the adrenal glands release hormones known as adrenaline and cortisol around the body as part of the fight-or-flight response. Short-term stress is normal and sometimes even helpful, but long-term (chronic) stress can cause complications. If your cortisol levels are consistently high, you may develop symptoms. 

Symptoms of high cortisol levels include: 

  • Weight gain  
  • Acne 
  • Mood disorders 
  • Fatigue  
  • Flushed face 
  • Difficulty concentrating  
  • Difficulty sleeping  

High cortisol levels are usually caused by stress but in some cases, continuous high levels of cortisol could be down to problems with the pituitary or adrenal glands such as Cushing’s disease. This condition is rare but requires prompt medical input if it’s picked up.  

Most of the time, slightly raised cortisol levels are benign, and you can often lower your levels with some simple lifestyle changes.  

How to naturally reduce stress and cortisol levels  

1. Manage stress 

Priority number one is to manage the most likely cause – stress. Chronic stress not only increases cortisol levels but can also increase your risk of other health problems, such as [1]: 

  • Increased heart rate  
  • Decreased pain threshold  
  • Muscle tension  
  • Changes in appetite  
  • Sleep-related problems 
  • Insulin resistance 
  • High cholesterol 
  • Cardiovascular disease 

Managing stress can be quite a difficult task, even more so if you don’t realise that you are stressed. Most people may not be aware that they are stressed – having a daily check-in through guided meditations or journaling may be a useful practice to promote self-awareness.  

If tackled the right way, managing stress is achievable.  

Specific tips to tackle stress include: 

  • Listening to music that relaxes you  
  • Getting out in nature  
  • Removing stressful triggers  
  • Meditation  

You can read even more tips in our blog: ten top ways to de-stress

2. Move your body  

Regular exercise is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress — it’s great for the body and mind. It can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, counteract depression, and dissipate stress – all through the balancing of stress hormones [2].  

However, regular exercise doesn’t mean sweating your stress out in a spin class every day (though if that’s something you enjoy, keep going — many people would love to have this level of enthusiasm). If you’re feeling stressed, it’s best to think of exercise as just moving your body in a way that feels good to you.  

Moving your body could include: 

  • Going for a walk  
  • Dancing it out  
  • Yoga, tai chi, or qigong 
  • Doing housework  

It doesn’t have to be intense, and sometimes the less intense the better when you’re stressed as overdoing it as a form of releasing stress could lead to overtraining and burnout – which we don’t want. 

We have even more tips on how to get your body moving in our blog: how to move more without going to the gym.  

3. Cut down on the caffeine  

Caffeine is a stimulant that raises cortisol levels in the blood [3]. This could explain some of the symptoms you get when you drink too many cups of coffee, such as: 

  • Feelings of unease 
  • Jitters  
  • Anxiety  

Therefore, if you’re a regular tea or coffee drinker, cutting down could be one of the quickest ways to lower your cortisol levels. Don’t forget that caffeine sometimes hides in fizzy drinks, energy drinks, and protein bars.  

4. Create good sleeping habits  

Getting enough sleep is important for managing cortisol levels. However, when cortisol is raised, falling asleep can be difficult. 

High cortisol levels later in the day can trigger sleep problems like insomnia [4]. This why even if you’ve had a stressful day and feel exhausted, you may feel like you can’t sleep.  

If you are struggling to sleep, try: 

  • Limiting screen time  
  • Meditating 
  • Reading for 20 minutes  
  • Moving your body  

You can find more tips on how to get a good night’s sleep in our blog: sleep – the best medicine?  

5. Eat a balanced diet  

Eating a healthy and balanced diet helps to keep your blood sugars stable. There is a strong link between blood sugar levels and cortisol. And conditions with more variable blood sugar levels such as diabetes are associated with higher cortisol levels [5]. 

It also works the other way, so keeping an eye on what you eat can keep your blood sugars stable and therefore your cortisol levels steady.  

Foods that may increase cortisol levels include: 

  • Foods with a high glycaemic index 
  • Refined sugars  
  • High levels of refined carbohydrates  
  • Saturated fats  

To keep your levels steady, try to keep your diet as balanced as possible. The Eatwell Guide is a great reference if you’re unsure of where to start. You could also try out the Mediterranean diet as this has also proven to lower cortisol levels [6]. 

How do I measure my cortisol levels?  

Cortisol levels can be measured through blood or salivary testing. It's important you take your test at the right time, as cortisol levels vary greatly throughout the day.  

If you're looking to monitor your cortisol levels, we recommend our Cortisol Saliva Stress Test — it allows you to check your levels at four different points during the day.  
This is a great test to see how stress may be impacting your health. You can repeat your test a few months later to see if lifestyle changes have improved your results. 


References  

  1. Mariotti, A. (2015) “The effects of chronic stress on Health: New Insights Into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication,” Future Science OA, 1(3). Available at: https://doi.org/10.4155/fso.15.21.  
  2. Exercising to relax - harvard health publishing (2020) Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax (Accessed: January 23, 2023). 
  3. Lovallo, W.R. et al. (2006) “Cortisol responses to mental stress, exercise, and meals following caffeine intake in men and women,” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 83(3), pp. 441–447. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2006.03.005. 
  4. Hirotsu, C., Tufik, S. and Andersen, M.L. (2015) “Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions,” Sleep Science, 8(3), pp. 143–152. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002. 
  5. Joseph, J.J. and Golden, S.H. (2016) “Cortisol dysregulation: The bidirectional link between stress, depression, and type 2 diabetes mellitus,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1391(1), pp. 20–34. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13217.
  6. Shively, C.A. et al. (2020) “Mediterranean diet, stress resilience, and aging in nonhuman primates,” Neurobiology of Stress, 13, p. 100254. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ynstr.2020.100254. 

 

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