You might know cortisol as the “stress hormone.” The adrenal glands automatically produce cortisol when we’re faced with high-stress environments or situations — it’s naturally released through the fight or flight reaction that’s triggered by stress.
While it’s true that cortisol benefits you when you’re in a dangerous or stressful situation, a cortisol imbalance over a long period of time can become problematic and has been linked to several health issues — both physical and mental — like high blood pressure, Cushing’s syndrome, heart disease, weight gain, sleep disturbances, lack of energy, and mood fluctuations. When your cortisol levels are high, your body experiences physical symptoms of stress and anxiety that can impact your mental health.
Fortunately, there are several easy shifts you can make through small lifestyle changes to help in reducing cortisol levels so your physical and mental health are at their best.
Read on to learn how to lower cortisol levels naturally through techniques such as dieting, exercising, journaling, stress therapy, and much more.
1. Eat a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet
One of the simplest ways to learn how to control cortisol levels is by focusing on what you eat. Eating a healthy diet based on whole and possibly plant-based foods might help stabilize and lower elevated cortisol levels. Some research suggests that reducing sugar intake might help optimize the levels of cortisol released during the fight or flight reaction.
“You are what you eat. Whatever we ingest into our body affects how it functions. Our dietary habits impact our central nervous, digestive, cardiac, and endocrine systems—a properly well-balanced and maintained diet can help keep the body functioning well. Overdoing anything is damaging to normal functioning.”– Talkspace psychiatrist Dr. Muhammad Munir
What foods fight cortisol?
Foods that can help balance and lower high cortisol levels include:
- Whole grains are rich in plant-based polyphenols and fiber, which can improve gut health and balance stress levels.
- Dark chocolate can buffer the stress response, according to research.
- All fruits and vegetables
- Lentils and legumes are high in fiber, stabilizing blood sugar levels and promoting gut health.
- Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids have been found to reduce stress.
- Green tea has L-theanine, a calming compound linked to stress reduction.
- Probiotics and prebiotics have positive mental health benefits and can reduce the waking cortisol response, according to studies.
Additionally, staying hydrated is vital as dehydration might cause cortisol levels to temporarily spike.
What foods make cortisol worse?
Some foods are known to cause cortisol levels to increase. To keep your levels down, avoid eating an excess of the following — but remember, moderation is key. You can enjoy your life and treat yourself occasionally — just don’t eat these foods all day, every day.
- Highly processed foods or meats
- Foods with trans fat
- Low fiber foods
- High sugar foods
- Foods with refined sugar
- High intake of caffeine or alcohol
- Low-fat yogurt
2. Add Supplements to Your Diet
Supplements can be great for overall physical health and mental well-being. If you want to know how to control cortisol levels and reduce stress, include these supplements and vitamins for stress in addition to a balanced and healthy diet. Be sure to talk to a doctor first about your cortisol levels and run any possible changes to your diet by them first.
- Ashwagandha: Studies show that high levels of ashwagandha can significantly reduce stress and substantially reduce excess cortisol levels, making ashwagandha for anxiety a promising approach for managing stress-related health concerns.
- Fish oil: In a randomized placebo-controlled trial, fish oil supplementation drastically reduced cortisol basal levels and perceived stress. Another study found that high omega-3 intake might result in lower cortisol levels.
- Rhodiola: Rhodiola can prevent chronic stress and normalize cortisol levels, according to some research.
3. Practice Deep Breathing Exercises
The art of deep breathing for stress reduction dates back thousands of years. Controlled breathing exercises stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the fight or flight system with what’s commonly referred to as “rest and digest.” Research has found that deep breathing and meditation for stress are great techniques for decreasing cortisol levels.
4. Reduce Your Caffeine Intake
While 1 cup of coffee a day doesn’t harm or significantly alter your cortisol levels, according to research, too much can stimulate levels — both at rest and during mental stress. Reducing how much caffeine you consume may also help with reducing cortisol levels.
5. Ensure Adequate Sleep
During times of stress or not, getting enough sleep is always important. In studies, poor sleep quality has been intrinsically linked to mental and physical health complications. Given this connection between sleep and mental health, prioritize sleep and create a healthy sleep habit to optimize your cortisol levels.
6. Exercise Regularly
We all know that working out is good for our health — it releases “feel good” endorphins that create and stabilize a positive mood, and the physical benefits are clear. But how does exercise reduce stress exactly? It’s simple. Regular exercise lowers cortisol levels and improves stress management, creating a calming effect on the body, although excessive workouts can increase cortisol production, so it’s important to balance your activities if the goal is optimal cortisol levels.
8. Indulge in Hobbies
Taking the time to find something you love to do, like a hobby, and indulging in it is a form of self care. Practicing self care is a great way to reduce stress if you want to know how to decrease cortisol.
9. Spend Time Outdoors
Being outdoors has long been associated with positive effects on mental health. One recent study found that spending 20 minutes or longer in nature can reduce cortisol levels by a whopping 18.5% per hour.
10. Maintain a Good Bedtime Routine
You can reduce stress and maintain healthy cortisol levels by creating a regular nighttime routine and practicing good sleep hygiene. Take a bath, turn out the lights, and withdraw from the digital world to properly relax the mind.
Managing Stress for a Healthier Life with Talkspace
Managing stress is critical — from maintaining positive mental health to improving professional and personal relationships to stabilizing hormone levels, including cortisol. Using the stress management techniques here can be a powerful first step, but sometimes you might need more.
If you’re looking for help managing your stress and reducing cortisol levels, Talkspace makes the process accessible and affordable. Reach out today to learn more about how to get started with online therapy.
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