Stress is the body’s response to a potential threat that may be related to physical and psychological factors. Learn about the role of cortisol in stress and how to lower cortisol.
Cortisol is one of the hormones produced by the adrenal cortex. It is involved in many metabolic processes, such as helping to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels. In addition, it plays a role in the awakening process after sleep. When you wake up, your hormone levels rise, peaking after 30 minutes and then gradually decreasing throughout the day.
Cortisol is also called the “stress hormone”. When your body feels threatened, physically or psychologically, your brain sends a signal to your adrenal glands, and they release cortisol in response. This hormone improves concentration, blood circulation, and glucose synthesis – this helps the body release additional energy to cope with stress more effectively.
Despite the benefits of cortisol, frequent or prolonged increases in cortisol levels can be harmful to the body. For example, chronic stress causes cortisol dysfunction, which leads to inflammation, depression, and accelerated cell aging. It is also associated with the development of osteoporosis, muscular dystrophy, and decreased antitumor immunity.
Chronic stress occurs as a result of repeated exposure to situations that result in the release of stress hormones, including cortisol.
We’ve compiled nine evidence-based ways to naturally lower cortisol levels and manage stress. This will help your body to experience a state of mobilization less often to eliminate a potential threat.
This article is for educational and informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose or treat or replace professional advice.
1. Identify the factors provoking stress
Threats to life or change of scenery are irritants that provoke anxiety and can become a trigger or stress factor. These irritants include physical pain, relationship or work problems, and financial difficulties. It is, of course, impossible to predict when you will hit the chair with your foot. But some types of triggers can be learned to recognize.
One of the first steps to relieve stress is to understand what is causing it. I don’t want to remember and think about unpleasant situations. But a stress diary can help you recognize stimuli so you can be less responsive to them. It is not necessary to remember all the details of an unpleasant event – it is enough to write down the fact and try to analyze why the incident caused you a negative reaction.
With a stress diary, you can find practical ways to deal with these situations. For example, avoiding quarrels, learning to build personal boundaries in relationships and at work, and saying “no” in time. Moreover, you will be able to identify hidden causes of stress like hanging on social media.
2. Learn to recognize thoughts that cause stress
Reflecting on negative and traumatic events is a trigger for the synthesis of cortisol. British scientists conducted a study in which participants recorded their most negative memories for 20 minutes over three days. The results showed that this caused the participants to have high levels of cortisol. Scientists attribute this to long-term effects on the entire body.
Also, the scientific community highlights the role of anxiety and looping on negative thoughts in stress levels. It has been proven that negative thinking not only increases cortisol levels but also badly affects the production of oxytocin, a hormone that calms the nervous system.
The mental practice of mindfulness is one way to combat negative thinking and helps lower cortisol levels. Hungarian scientists conducted a meta-analysis of ten studies on the relationship between meditation and stress hormone levels. The results showed that meditation has a positive effect on people living under stressful conditions, but especially on patients with depression and PTSD.
3. Pay attention to the quality of your sleep.
A person who has slept well will find it easier to deal with the effects of stress and unpleasant situations. But it’s not just the quality and duration of sleep that affect cortisol levels. What time you go to bed and wake up also plays a role. Research shows that people who work night shifts and sleep during the day are more likely to have elevated cortisol levels.
Shift work under the age of 40 is associated with a higher body mass index (BMI) and higher cortisol levels.
Cortisol can be elevated due to lack of sleep, especially in the evening after a lack of sleep. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system is responsible for the production of cortisol. When a threat to the body appears, a part of the brain, the hypothalamus, synthesizes special substances that are sent to the pituitary epididymis. He, in turn, sends a signal to the adrenal glands. In response, the adrenal cortex releases cortisol, some of which again enters the brain, affecting the thinking process. This relationship between the brain and the kidneys is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is also responsible for regulating sleep cycles. Stress, illness, or poor nutrition can activate the axis. Subsequently, this can worsen your sleep and increase cortisol.
Sleep hygiene is one of the deciding factors in its quality. Try to create an environment in which the amount of noise and light is minimal. This will help blackout curtains, eye masks, earplugs.
Tips for Improving Sleep Quality to Reduce Cortisol Levels:
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time.
- Wash bedding and sleepwear regularly – fresh scent helps the body to relax
- Try not to use devices that emit blue light (TV, phone, tablet) 2-3 hours before bed
- Avoid caffeinated drinks in the afternoon
- Avoid excessive strength and cardio activities two hours before bed.
4. Exercise regularly
Exercise can either increase or decrease cortisol levels, depending on the duration and intensity of the exercise. Despite the benefits of playing sports, it is still a load and stress for the body. Therefore, as a result of intense exercise, cortisol usually rises briefly, but then falls at night.
At the same time, moderate-intensity exercise does not lead to an increase in stress hormone levels. Like vigorous exercise, moderate exercise is associated with a decrease in cortisol levels at night.
With regular exercise, cortisol levels can be controlled. And in addition to lowering the stress hormone, sports have a good effect on the microbiota. But it’s best to avoid strenuous evening workouts that will keep you awake. Physical activity isn’t just good for the body – many doctors recommend it to improve mental health as well.
5. Find something to do
Learning how to relax is really beneficial, especially if you want to manage stress. A new hobby is one way that also helps you learn a new skill. It doesn’t matter what you do, the main thing is that you enjoy the activity.
American scientists conducted a study of 50 former combatants who experienced depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or substance abuse. They practiced gardening and occupational therapy for a month. The results showed a decrease in stress and a decrease in cortisol.
Think about what activity you will enjoy – perhaps it is drawing, music, or gardening.
6. Laugh often.
Laughter is good not only for the soul but also for the body. It is a natural way to overcome stress and reduce cortisol levels. A study published in 2008 found that even the anticipation of laughter leads to a decrease in blood levels of cortisol, as well as two other stress hormones, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
Laughter lowers not only stress hormone levels, but also blood pressure.
If you are having a fun and interesting time, you are unlikely to experience a lot of stress at the same time. This is why it is so important to plan your time and visit interesting places and events.
7. Communicate with animals
It has been scientifically proven that contact with animals is associated with decreased cortisol levels. Scientists have studied how interaction with animals affects stress and found that long-term interaction with dogs, even strangers, as well as pet ownership, has a positive effect on cortisol levels. In addition, the interaction between man and dog increases the level of oxytocin in both.
Pets are associated not only with reduced stress levels but other health benefits as well. For owners of cats, dogs, parrots, and other pets, it is easier to focus attention. Also, animals have a positive effect on blood pressure and help to avoid feelings of loneliness.
8. Add cortisol-lowering foods to your diet.
Nutrition affects not only metabolic processes in the body but also the level of cortisol. Certain foods, such as sugar, can increase the amount of stress hormone.
Neurotransmitter chemicals are responsible for transmitting signals to the nervous system and controlling mood. And hormones and food are responsible for their production.
How to reduce cortisol through nutrition
Foods rich in polyphenols can help reduce stress hormone levels. For example, the long-term health benefits of drinking green tea are scientifically proven – drinking as little as half a glass a day reduces the risk of depression and dementia.
Eating the foods in the table below will help control your stress hormone levels:
|Dark chocolate||Green tea|
|Plant fibers||Probiotics (yogurt)|
Remember that seizing stress only provides temporary relief and can lead to eating disorders, weight gain, and blood sugar problems. During times of stress, try to choose foods containing plant fiber – fiber provides a feeling of fullness for a long time and regulates blood sugar levels.
Regular sugar intake is associated with long-term high cortisol levels and is associated with a higher risk of heart disease in overweight men.
The gut microbiota contains trillions of bacteria that are beneficial to your health. They strengthen the intestinal lining, fight inflammation, regulate the immune system, and even mental health. This is why it is important to take care of the composition of the gut bacteria.
Among the inhabitants of the gut microbiota are probiotic bacteria that reduce cortisol levels and, consequently, stress. Among them are the bacteria Lacticaseibacillus rhamnosus and L. farciminis.
Probiotic foods help maintain healthy gut bacteria. Dairy drinks like kefir and yogurt, as well as fermented foods like kimchi, contain certain strains of probiotic bacteria. They help reduce stress-induced cortisol levels. Research shows that one Lactobacillus strain, L. Plantarum 299v, reduces exam stress in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
With the Atlas Microbiota Test, you can learn about the bacterial diversity of your gut as well as assess the level of probiotic bacteria.
9. Spend time in nature
The noise of the big city, rush, and traffic jams are part of the life of many people, but not everyone realizes the degree of the negative impact of such an atmosphere on physical and mental health. Even a park or nature reserve within the city limits is a great opportunity to recover and relax.
Forest therapy is a part of life for most Japanese people. They call her “shining-Youku” which translates to “forest baths.” This is the practice of walking in a park or forest for 2-4 hours, which includes contemplation of nature and deep breathing. As proved by scientists, this pastime reduces cortisol levels, normalize heart rate and blood pressure.
Deep breathing reduces heart rate, improves mood, and reduces stress.
There is no one-size-fits-all method of dealing with stress – every organism and brain is unique. Good sleep, proper nutrition, and regular physical activity are the basis for a healthy body. Now you also know what other scientifically proven ways to prevent and reduce stress.
Make a note:
- Identify stress triggers
- Learn to recognize thoughts that cause stress
- Pay attention to the quality of your sleep
- Exercise regularly
- Find something to do
- Laugh often
- Get a pet
- Eat more cortisol-lowering foods
- Spend time in nature