When a person is stressed, the adrenal glands release the steroid hormone cortisol.
Cortisol is the body's primary stress hormone, and it plays a role in many bodily functions, including controlling blood sugar levels. The level of cortisol in the blood is usually higher in the morning and gradually decreases throughout the day.
Cortisol also plays a role in:
- regulating the body's sleep-wake cycles
- managing how the body utilizes carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- reducing inflammation
- controlling blood pressure
Here we consider some practical ways of lowering cortisol levels to help ensure that the body manages stress appropriately.
The body relies on effective communication between the following three parts of the body to release the correct amount of cortisol:
- the adrenal gland
- the pituitary gland
- the hypothalamus, which is part of the brain
Between them, they stimulate the production of cortisol when the body needs it and block it when the levels need to drop back down.
Both too much and too little cortisol can have an adverse effect on the body.
High cortisol level symptoms
Excess cortisol could result from a tumor or as a side effect of some medications.
Too much cortisol can lead to Cushing's syndrome. Symptoms include:
- high blood pressure
- a flushed face
- muscle weakness
- increased thirst
- urinating more frequently
- changes in mood, such as feeling irritable or low
- rapid weight gain in the face and abdomen
- bruises or purple stretch marks appearing on the skin
- decreased sex drive
Some people may also find that their periods become irregular or stop altogether.
Too much cortisol can also cause other conditions and symptoms, including:
Low cortisol level symptoms
Too little cortisol could cause Addison's disease. Symptoms of this condition include:
- muscle weakness
- gradual weight loss
- changes in mood
- areas of the skin turning darker
- low blood pressure
If the communication between the brain and the adrenal gland is functioning correctly, the body should be able to increase and reduce cortisol production as necessary.
However, levels of cortisol can sometimes remain high even after the resolution of a stressful situation. This can have a negative impact on health.
The following simple tips may help to moderate cortisol levels:
1. Lowering stress
People trying to lower their cortisol levels should aim to reduce stress.
They can do this by removing themselves from stressful situations, where possible, or learning how to cope with stress better.
People can learn to recognize the triggers for their stress and try to manage these proactively to reduce instances of worry or anxiety and decrease feelings of tension.
People who learn how to cope when stressful thoughts arise will manage their cortisol levels better. In cases where this proves too difficult, some medications can contribute to improved stress tolerance and lower cortisol levels.
2. Eating a good diet
A person trying to lower their cortisol levels should eat a healthful, balanced diet and pay attention to their sugar intake.
Some foods that may help to keep cortisol levels stable include:
- dark chocolate
- bananas and pears
- black or green tea
- probiotics in food such as yogurt
- probiotics in foods containing soluble fiber
Drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration also helps to keep cortisol levels lower.
3. Sleeping well
The amount of sleep that a person has can affect their cortisol levels.
A bad night's sleep or more prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol in the bloodstream.
Therefore, it is essential for people to pay attention to the amount and quality of sleep they have and try to limit the chance of disruptions.
4. Trying relaxation techniques
People experiencing stress can try to manage it by experimenting with relaxation techniques.
Meditation, mindfulness, and even simple breathing exercises can help a person deal with stress more effectively.
5. Taking up a hobby
Hobbies can be a rewarding and satisfying way to lead a fuller and healthier life, and they can lead to an increased sense of well-being.
A study on substance abuse treatments found that gardening led to decreased levels of cortisol. It also seemed to improve quality of life more than the conventional occupational therapy.
6. Learning to unwind
People relax in different ways, so understanding what works on a personal level can be beneficial.
Research has shown that relaxation exercises and listening to relaxing music can both reduce cortisol levels, but whatever helps an individual to manage their stress will be beneficial.
7. Laughing and having fun
It is hard to feel stressed when having a good time, so finding time to have fun can also lower a person's cortisol levels. One study showed cortisol levels decreasing in response to laughter.
Being happy and having a positive outlook appear to be related to lower cortisol levels, and happiness has other benefits too, such as lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system.
Being physically active is beneficial to health and can improve a person's mood.
Intense exercise can, however, trigger an increase in cortisol levels, as this is the body's way of coping with the additional stress that the exercise places upon it.
The appropriate amount of exercise depends on various factors, including a person's physical fitness, and these factors play a part in how much cortisol the body will release during exercise.
9. Avoiding caffeine at night
People trying to lower their cortisol levels should avoid consuming food and beverages containing caffeine in the evening. Caffeine can interfere with a good night's sleep, and sleeping well can keep cortisol levels low.
10. Maintaining a good bedtime routine
A good bedtime routine usually results in longer and higher-quality sleep. People should get into the habit of turning off all screens and just relaxing before heading to bed.
It will usually also help to keep phones, and any other potential distractions turned off. Limiting fluid intake before bedtime can also minimize the likelihood of disturbed sleep.
11. Having good relationships
Stable, loving relationships with partners, friends, and family can be vital when it comes to leading a happy and fulfilled life, and they can help a person get through stressful periods.
If relationships are unhappy and unhealthy, however, they can cause a great deal of stress.
One study indicated that a person's cortisol level can rise after an argument with their partner. Another reported that children with a happy and secure family life have lower levels of cortisol than those living in homes where there is regular conflict.
12. Getting a pet
Some studies indicate that having a pet can lower cortisol levels.
One study measured levels of cortisol in children undergoing a standard medical procedure. Those who had a dog present during the procedure had lower cortisol levels than those who did not.
Another found that contact with a dog was more beneficial for cortisol levels than a supportive friend during a stressful situation.
13. Taking supplements
Both fish oil and an Asian herbal supplement called ashwagandha have shown the ability to reduce cortisol levels, so taking these supplements alongside a healthful diet could be beneficial.
Having too much cortisol in the blood can be damaging to health, particularly if cortisol levels remain high over an extended period.
Trying to lower stress levels is the best way to lower cortisol. By making simple lifestyle changes to live a healthier, more active life, people can reduce the amount of stress they experience, and keep their cortisol levels normal.