When a person is stressed, their adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol. In short bursts, this can help people adapt to stressful events or danger. Over long periods, though, high cortisol can be harmful.

For many, the most direct way of reducing cortisol is reducing stress. Lowering stress levels may mean the body makes less cortisol.

In other cases, high cortisol is the result of an underlying medical condition or a side effect of a medication. A doctor can advise on how to manage this.

Here we consider some practical ways of lowering cortisol levels to help ensure that the body manages stress appropriately.

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Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. It contributes to many bodily processes, playing a role in:

The body increases cortisol production as part of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This helps the body adapt to potential danger. Cortisol is also naturally higher in the morning, decreasing gradually throughout the day.

Sometimes, cortisol levels can become unusually high due to chronic stress or an underlying medical condition. Certain medications can also elevate this hormone.

High cortisol puts the body in a state of alertness. A person may feel “on edge” or tense. This can affect a person’s ability to concentrate or sleep.

During times of stress, high cortisol may also come with other physical symptoms of stress, such as:

  • a racing heart beat
  • shaking
  • sweating
  • lightheadedness

Cortisol that remains high for a prolonged period may also reduce the body’s immune response, making it harder to fight infections. It can also result in Cushing’s syndrome, which is a group of symptoms that include:

  • high blood pressure
  • a flushed face
  • muscle weakness
  • increased thirst
  • urinating more frequently
  • mood changes
  • weight gain, especially in the face and abdomen
  • osteoporosis
  • bruises or purple stretch marks on the skin
  • decreased sex drive
  • irregular periods
  • increased body hair in females

In many cases, the brain and adrenal glands can regulate cortisol on their own. When stress has gone away, the body will stop making cortisol and the levels will return to normal.

However, people with chronic stress, certain medical conditions, or who take certain medications can have cortisol levels that are higher than usual. They may want to try some techniques for lowering cortisol, such as:

1. Lowering stress

Stress is a trigger for cortisol production, so lowering stress also lowers cortisol in many cases. People who want to lower their cortisol levels can try:

  • Setting priorities: The most direct way to reduce stress is to avoid stressors where possible. People can do this by thinking about things in their life that cause stress and whether they are avoidable or unavoidable. For avoidable stressors, consider whether they are priorities. Anything that is not could be something to give up.
  • Stress management: This involves learning to better cope with stress that is unavoidable. Some examples of this include mindfulness and self-help techniques.
  • Mental healthcare: When stress is the result of a mental health condition, such as anxiety, then mental health treatment may help reduce it. People can speak with a therapist to learn how to identify anxious thoughts and gradually replace them with more balanced ones.

2. Trying relaxation techniques

People experiencing stress can also try relaxation techniques. These are practices that activate the “relaxation response” as opposed to the stress response. This allows the body to stop producing stress hormones.

Some examples to try include:

  • breathing exercises
  • guided meditation
  • walking meditation
  • yoga or tai chi
  • visualization

3. Eating a balanced diet

A person trying to lower their cortisol levels should eat a balanced diet, paying particular attention to their sugar and caffeine intake.

Some foods that may help to keep cortisol levels stable include:

  • bananas
  • garlic
  • dark chocolate, although this contains caffeine

Other foods that contain antioxidants can also help reduce oxidative stress. Some good options include:

  • foods high in vitamin C, such as fruits
  • black or green tea
  • probiotic foods, such as yogurt and kimchi

Drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration also helps to keep cortisol levels lower.

4. Avoiding caffeine

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.

A person should note that some foods that may help lower cortisol and oxidative stress, such as dark chocolate and tea, also contain caffeine. They may wish to consume these in moderation and not close to bedtime.

5. Getting enough sleep

A bad night’s sleep or more prolonged sleep deprivation can affect levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Getting adequate sleep and having a regular sleep-wake schedule may help reduce cortisol levels.

6. Maintaining a good bedtime routine

A good bedtime routine can be a useful tool for getting longer and higher-quality sleep. This may involve a combination of relaxing activities that help a person unwind, such as:

  • bathing or showering
  • stretching
  • reading a book or audiobook
  • journaling
  • meditating

People should get into the habit of turning off all screens and relaxing before heading to bed. For example, it may help to turn off phones and any other potential distractions.

7. Taking up a hobby

Hobbies can be both relaxing and rewarding, taking a person’s mind off stressors and giving them something to focus on.

For example, an older pilot study on substance misuse treatments found that gardening led to decreased levels of cortisol among veterans. It also seemed to improve quality of life more than conventional occupational therapy.

Other stress-relieving hobbies can include:

  • drawing or painting
  • crafting
  • cooking
  • creative writing
  • playing a musical instrument

8. Laughing and having fun

It is hard to feel stressed when having a good time, so finding time to have fun may also lower a person’s cortisol levels.

Laughter has many therapeutic benefits. It can help reduce cortisol and increase serotonin, which helps regulate mood. It may also improve social relationships.

9. Exercising

Being physically active is beneficial to health and can improve a person’s mood. However, intense exercise can 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.

As a result, low- or moderate-impact exercise may be a good option for people with high cortisol levels. The best type and amount of exercise depends on a person’s unique circumstances, so it is advisable to ask a doctor about this.

10. Building 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, they can cause a great deal of stress. If conflicts happen regularly, it may boost the well-being of everyone involved to try to resolve the cause.

11. Getting a pet

Some studies indicate that having a pet can lower cortisol levels.

One study measured levels of cortisol in 101 children undergoing stress tests. The children participated along with a caregiver and their pet dogs. The researchers assigned them to a waiting room with either their dog present, parent present, or alone.

The children then performed school-like tests in another room and provided saliva samples.

The results showed that having a dog present significantly buffered children’s rise in perceived stress compared to those who were alone or with a parent.

12. Stopping smoking

There is some evidence that smoking may impact cortisol levels, as well as sleep quality. A 2019 study found that participants who smoked had higher cortisol levels than participants who did not. They also had lower sleep continuity, meaning they woke up more often.

13. Taking supplements

Many lifestyle changes can reduce cortisol levels. However, if they are not possible or not working to reduce the levels, the next step may be speaking with a doctor about supplements.

A small 2019 study found that taking Omega-3 fatty acids reduced cortisol levels in nurses experiencing burnout. The participants took the Omega-3 for 8 weeks and reported improvements in emotional exhaustion.

A double-blind study from 2019 also found that the herb ashwagandha reduced cortisol, particularly morning cortisol levels.

However, it is important to note that scientists are still learning about how ashwagandha works. It appears to also impact serotonin and GABA levels in a similar way to antidepressants. There is also a possibility that it may cause withdrawal if a person stops using it.

So far, scientists also know ashwagandha is not suitable for people with:

It can also interact with medications that affect blood glucose, blood pressure, and the thyroid and is unsuitable during pregnancy.

A person should always speak with a doctor before trying a new supplement, especially if they already take medication.

Having too much cortisol in the blood can be damaging to health, particularly if cortisol levels remain high over an extended period. In many cases, the most direct way to lower it is to reduce things that trigger its production. For many people, this means reducing stress.

By making simple lifestyle changes to relax the nervous system and reduce exposure to stress, people may notice an improvement in their well-being.

In cases where high cortisol has links with an underlying condition or medication or does not respond to lifestyle changes, people should speak with a doctor.