Who isn’t feeling overwhelmed with stress these days? Fatigue and trouble focusing seems to have become a “normal” part of our modern lifestyles.
Does any of this sound familiar?
These are the main symptoms of high cortisol levels, also known as the “stress hormone.” Understanding the impacts of cortisol on the body can help you recognize any problems and implement strategies to lower your cortisol levels naturally.
Cortisol is an essential hormone in the body produced by your adrenal glands. Cortisol is involved in regulating your metabolism, along with several other functions:
Under normal conditions, cortisol levels tend to be highest in the morning and lowest at night. However, this pattern is affected by your daily routine of active and resting periods.
When you experience a crisis (real or imagined), adrenaline is the hormone associated with the resulting “fight or flight” response. However, cortisol is the hormone that causes sugar to be released into your bloodstream, fueling reactive muscles and keeping your brain on high alert.
During a crisis, both adrenaline and cortisol surge to allow your body to respond quickly. These hormones recede once the danger has passed so your body can return to its normal functions.
If your stress levels remain high or are sent into overdrive by a hectic lifestyle or ongoing crisis, then your body never gets back to “normal.” Instead, your body remains on high-alert all the time, and your cortisol levels can become chaotic. This pattern sets you up for serious health consequences like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
Luckily, there are positive steps you take to reduce your cortisol levels naturally. These diet and lifestyle changes can significantly improve your stress levels and boost your energy and focus so you can get back to feeling calm and in control.
Because high cortisol levels contribute to high blood pressure and diabetes, the best diet to naturally reduce cortisol levels is one that supports your heart. A plant-based diet packed with vegetables, fruits, and nuts puts you in the best possible position for lowering your stress levels.
Reducing the amount of meat you eat and focusing instead on minimally processed plant foods and fatty fish provides your body with all the essential nutrients it needs for a healthy heart, good hormone regulation, and a powerful immune system.
Foods that help stabilize your blood sugar (i.e., have a low glycemic index) include leafy greens and non-starchy vegetables, which you can easily incorporate into a heart-healthy diet. Stable blood sugar levels are critical for those with high cortisol.
One study tracking 6,814 participants over six years has shown that people with normal blood sugar have a daily pattern of cortisol that is higher in the morning and lower at night. On the other hand, people with type II diabetes had a flatter cortisol profile without the predictable spikes and drop-offs.
Other research has shown that improving your gut function can positively affect your health and hormones, reducing your stress and cortisol levels. Probiotic supplements can help get your gut on track and ensure that you’re getting the most out of the foods you’re eating.
Focus on incorporating the following foods into your diet:
At the same time, minimize the following foods in your diet:
Moving your body helps utilize the sugar released from high cortisol levels. Exercise also releases “feel good” hormones like endorphins that help counteract stress responses.
If you’re suffering from high cortisol levels, low-intensity exercises are ideal for reducing the amount of cortisol circulating in your body.
In your exercise, incorporate activities like:
Avoid the following in your exercise regimen:
The goal is to get your body moving daily while not working out so intensely that you trigger cortisol release due to the physical stress. That means keeping within the 40-60% range of your target heart rate during your chosen exercises.
When your body is dealing with excess cortisol levels, it’s crucial to find ways to reduce your overall stress. Taking time each day for activities that make you feel happy and relaxed can have lasting benefits for your health and your cortisol levels.
Self-care means to “take care of yourself,” to take actions that foster your sense of health and well-being. Self-care is not a luxury—it’s an essential part of building a healthy lifestyle, reducing stress, and getting your cortisol levels under control naturally.
Self-care looks different to different people, but studies have shown that a wide range of activities can result in positive health effects and lowered stress. The most successful approaches are those that allow time for self-care every day.
Focus on activities that bring you joy, which might include:
High cortisol levels interfere with sleep and can lead to sleep disorders. You can take action to improve your sleep patterns, which in turn will help lower your cortisol levels naturally. This can include things like going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, minimizing activities before bedtime, engaging in self-care, and making sure you remove distractions like phones, gaming devices, tablets, computers, and TVs.
Food and drinks containing caffeine, sugar, or alcohol can also impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Avoid these to improve your sleep patterns and restore natural cortisol patterns associated with healthy sleep.
Focus on implementing these daily lifestyle habits:
Avoid the following to improve your sleep patterns:
Along with eating a healthy diet, exercise, and self-care, natural supplements can improve your sleep, including magnesium, melatonin, and valerian root.*
A double-blind, randomized study with 45 participants has also demonstrated the benefits of using an intra-nasal spray containing lavender and fennel essential oils. The spray reduced salivary cortisol levels by 37–54% percent over the saline control group when used once daily at bedtime over the three-month study.
Your body needs ample water to function properly. Lack of water, or hypohydration, can have negative health consequences. Your fluid intake can affect hormone concentration in your blood and help to flush toxins out of your body by way of your kidneys.
Caffeine has a significant impact on hydration and cortisol levels. In a double-blind crossover trial involving 98 healthy adults, caffeine levels were controlled to 0 mg, 300 mg, or 600 mg per day for five days, and then a caffeine challenge was administered.
The study found measurable increases in cortisol secretion during the afternoon in healthy participants consuming caffeine throughout the day. Participants did not develop complete tolerance to the caffeine in terms of its effects on cortisol levels. That means you just don’t “get used to” having a lot of caffeine in your system.
You can try natural coffee substitutes as a way of cutting down on caffeine while still getting that energy fix you may have come to rely on.
Remember that sugary drinks are no substitute for water either. Energy drinks that combine sugar and caffeine can lead to serious health issues, including problems with your heart, blood vessels, anxiety, sleep problems, digestive issues, and even dehydration.
During the day, drink ample amounts of:
Avoid the following to manage your stress levels:
Natural supplements can help lower cortisol levels and help you regain your energy and focus.
Ashwagandha is a great place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed, having difficulty focusing, or struggling to get through your day.* This supplement has been used for thousands of years in India and is a safe, natural supplement for improving overall health and wellness.
Other supplements that might help reduce cortisol levels and stress include:
Stress is an ongoing part of our lives, but feeling constantly stressed can lead to elevated cortisol levels that put you at risk for serious health complications.
You can naturally reduce cortisol levels by improving your diet, getting regular exercise, practicing daily self-care, improving your sleep, staying hydrated, and using natural supplements.
No one wants to feel tired and stressed all the time. These six steps will put you on the road to a healthy lifestyle that will unleash your energy and help you bounce back from life’s daily challenges.
Sue Senger, PhD - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice