How To Lower Cortisol Levels: 11 Helpful Tips To Add To Your Routine

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If you have spent much time looking into how to improve your health and reduce stress, you have likely come across information regarding cortisol.

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, and it causes a host of physiological ramifications, particularly when your cortisol levels are too high.

For this reason, many people are interested in how to lower cortisol levels, how to balance cortisol levels, and especially how to lower cortisol naturally.

In this article, we will discuss what causes high cortisol, what high cortisol symptoms are, how to reduce cortisol levels, and how to lower cortisol naturally.

We will cover the following: 

  • Why Is Having High Cortisol Bad?
  • What Causes High Cortisol?
  • How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally

Let’s dive in! 

The word Cortisol.

Why Is Having High Cortisol Bad?

Before we discuss strategies and tips for how to lower cortisol levels, it is helpful to explain why you may want to reduce cortisol levels or balance cortisol levels in your body.

There are numerous adverse sequelae that can occur with chronically-elevated cortisol levels.

The risk of these adverse effects of high cortisol is greater when cortisol levels are chronically elevated rather than elevated on an acute and then resolving basis.

Cortisol can be released under acute situations of physical and mental stress, such as in response to a high-intensity workout, fending off an illness or virus, or dealing with a stressful work situation on a short timeline.

If your body is relatively healthy and you have effective strategies in place for how to lower cortisol naturally or how to balance cortisol levels and regulate your nervous system, your cortisol levels will drop back down.

This means that your body will not be subjected to chronically high cortisol levels, which can significantly reduce or even prevent high cortisol symptoms or health risks of high cortisol levels. 

With that said, here are some of the potential health consequences of consistently high cortisol levels:

A person on a scale upset at the reading.

#1: High Cortisol Increases the Risk of Chronic Diseases

One of the primary reasons people are interested in how to reduce cortisol levels is to help reduce the risk of chronic illnesses that have been shown to be associated with chronic cortisol elevation.

High cortisol levels can increase the risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other chronic diseases.

#2: High Cortisol Levels Increase the Risk of Weight Gain

A primary symptom of high cortisol levels is weight gain.

Numerous studies have shown an association between high cortisol levels and weight gain, particularly in the abdominal region.

Therefore, if you feel like you are doing everything right from a diet and exercise standpoint and being mindful of your calories in versus calories out, but you are still gaining weight, you might want to look into whether you have elevated cortisol levels.

#4: High Cortisol Levels Can Impair Immune Function

Chronically high cortisol levels can impair the function of your immune system, causing you to get sick more often.

A person who can not sleep, lying awake in bed.

#5: High Cortisol Levels Can Affect Sleep

One of the high cortisol symptoms is poor sleep quality or difficulty sleeping. This can lead to lethargy and lack of energy simply because you are not getting enough rest. 

Additionally, even if you are able to sleep or may even find that you are sleeping more than normal, elevated cortisol levels can cause a lack of energy and an overall feeling of malaise.

#6: High Cortisol Levels Can Cause Difficulty Concentrating

Whether due to trouble getting enough sleep or low energy, or just an independent consequence of too much cortisol, another common symptom of high cortisol levels is difficulty concentrating, a lack of mental clarity, or a feeling of brain fog.

#7: High Cortisol Levels Increase the Risk of Cushing’s Syndrome 

Although not common, high cortisol levels can, over time, increase your risk of developing Cushing’s syndrome, which is a serious metabolic disorder.

A person at work stressed out.

What Causes High Cortisol Levels?

Because cortisol is the primary stress hormone, anything that causes physical or mental stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels.

Risk factors for elevated cortisol include chronic stress, certain medications such as prednisone or hormonal therapy, overactivity of the pituitary or adrenal glands, cancer of the pituitary or adrenal glands, obesity and other metabolic disorders, and overtraining with your exercise routine.

How to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally

The good news is if you are dealing with elevated cortisol—particularly if it is brought on by stress or lifestyle habits—there are different lifestyle habits and behaviors you can employ that can help reduce cortisol levels.

Here are some effective tips for how to lower cortisol naturally:

A variety of healthy foods in heart-shaped bowls.

#1: Follow a Nutritious Diet

A poor diet can increase cortisol levels, particularly if you eat too much sugar, regularly indulge in alcohol, and eat lots of processed and fried foods.

On the other hand, certain foods have been found to help lower cortisol naturally, including fresh fruits and vegetables, dark chocolate, green tea, legumes, healthy fats, and probiotics and prebiotics.

Fish oil supplements may also help balance cortisol levels and decrease inflammation in the body, which, if left unchecked, can cause elevated cortisol.

#2: Get Enough Sleep

One of the primary risk factors for elevated cortisol levels is insufficient sleep, poor sleep hygiene, or sleep conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea or insomnia.

In fact, even just the timing of your sleep can impact cortisol levels. 

For example, studies have found that the sleep schedules of night shift workers can increase cortisol levels even if they are getting enough sleep.

A person in bed asleep.

In other words, sleeping during the day can independently elevate cortisol levels relative to sleeping at night.

Shift work has been associated with numerous adverse health conditions, including weight gain, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, type two diabetes, depression, and other mental health issues.

Insomnia has also been linked to an array of deleterious health conditions, including high cortisol levels, which may be one of the primary underlying causes of the consequences of insomnia.

In many ways, insomnia and high cortisol levels form somewhat of a “chicken-or-egg” scenario, such that insomnia or insufficient sleep can raise cortisol levels, and high cortisol levels can interfere with getting high-quality sleep or may even cause insomnia.

A person exercising at a gym.

#3: Exercise Consistently, But Include Rest

Cortisol isn’t inherently a bad hormone. 

It serves important functions in the body and is produced after healthy activities such as exercise to help stimulate the sequela to rebuild and repair your muscles and tissues so that you get stronger.

As your body adapts to your fitness routine, the pulsatile surge of cortisol after your workout will be smaller, and if you have effective strategies in place for how to balance cortisol levels, cortisol will drop back down within several hours after your workout is over.

Furthermore, numerous studies have found that consistent exercise is one of the best ways to improve overall health, reduce stress, and improve the quality of sleep, all of which can reduce cortisol levels.

Research has also shown that getting regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage acute stress and increase your resilience to future stress and the health consequences of stress, including elevated cortisol levels.

A person doing yoga at home.

Thus, the overall benefits of exercise being an effective means to reduce cortisol outweigh the acute increase in cortisol after a high-intensity or long-duration workout.

However, things can be taken too far, and when many people are interested in how to reduce cortisol levels, they miss the important caveat that too much exercise, particularly chronic overreaching, and overtraining, lead to high cortisol levels.

For example, studies have found that when you are training too intensely and not giving your body adequate rest and recovery, levels of cortisol rise significantly. 

Make sure that you have at least one rest day per week, if not two or more, depending on your fitness level, the type of workouts you are doing, as well as the intensity and duration.

If you are feeling worn out from your exercise routine, it is likely a sign that you need extra rest or a sign of high cortisol, and you should take days off until you are feeling better.

#4: Try Breathwork

Deliberate, slow breathing exercises can reduce cortisol levels and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “rest and digest“ nervous system.

Studies have found that deep breathing exercises can indeed be a good strategy for how to decrease cortisol levels naturally.

A yoga class.

#5: Start Yoga or Tai Chi

Mindfulness movement practices, such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong, have been shown to help decrease cortisol levels.

#6: Listen to Relaxing Music

Relaxing or calming music might not be on your go-to workout playlist, but if you want to decrease cortisol naturally, there are many studies to suggest that listening to relaxing music can be quite effective at lowering cortisol.

#7: Drink Green Tea

L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea. It has been found to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. At higher doses, this amino acid may also help decrease levels of cortisol.

#8: Do Things You Love

It shouldn’t take much goading to encourage you to spend more time doing the things you love, but if you need an extra push to assuage whatever guilt you might feel indulging in your favorite hobbies, here’s one: studies have found that people who regularly engage in things that they enjoy have lower levels of cortisol.

A group of friends laughing.

#9: Get a Pet

Of course, a pet can be a big commitment, so you should not take on the responsibility of owning a pet if you do not have the time, energy, or means to do so.

However, if you are an animal lover and would like a pet, evidence suggests that caring for a pet can provide many health benefits, including reducing cortisol levels and lowering stress.

#10: Love Yourself

Loving yourself and having a good sense of well-being rather than harboring feelings of guilt, inadequacy, or shame can help naturally lower cortisol.

#11: Laugh

Laughter not only feels great, but it also releases endorphins, improves mood, decreases stress and pain, lowers blood pressure, and suppresses cortisol and other stress hormones.

The good news is that even if you struggle to find things that are genuinely funny to laugh at, studies have found that even forced or deliberate laughter can lower cortisol levels naturally and provide many of the same health benefits of laughing.

It may feel awkward at first, but perhaps even the mere fact that you are making a fake laugh will cause you to laugh at yourself and experience genuine laughter and joy!

For more ideas about how to feel happier and reduce stress, check out our guide to “happy hormones“ here.

A person laughing and holding onto his glasses.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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