In this high-stress kind of modern world, everyone is looking for ways to reduce their cortisol levels naturally and as effectively as possible.
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone.
When your brain senses a stressor, it sends the signal for your adrenal glands to start releasing more cortisol into your bloodstream to help fuel your “fight or flight” mode.
As a result, a number of physiological changes take place.
Your heart rate increases, you start breathing more rapidly, your muscles tense up, and your brain prepares you to take action.
Obviously, this type of stress-induced fight or flight response was most helpful thousands of years ago when our ancestors came into contact with anything that threatened their lives.
It was useful and absolutely necessary for survival.
Today, however, our flight or flight mode is most an unnecessary and unwanted physiological response that gets triggered constantly by all sorts of everyday, non-life-threatening experiences — from work deadlines and late bill payments, to lost items and relationship problems.
Unfortunately, our bodies haven’t evolved as quickly as society has.
That reptilian part of your brain simply don’t know that your lost passport or heated argument with your husband isn’t, in fact, life threatening.
How Cortisol Makes It Harder for You to Lose Weight
Stress is just a part of life, and once a stressor is passed, your cortisol levels should naturally decrease back to normal levels.
Chronic stress, however, causes cortisol to be constantly elevated, which can impair some of your body’s other essential functions including your digestive system, reproductive system, immune system, and even your growth processes.
When cortisol levels are chronically elevated and other bodily functions are affected as a result, you tend to store more fat and have a harder time losing weight.
For us women, heightened cortisol levels cause us to store more fat in our abdominal area, making us look more apple-shaped.
Elevated cortisol levels is also associated with mental health issues like anxiety and depression as well as sleep problems like insomnia.
These conditions can certainly exacerbate cravings and emotional eating, making it all the more difficult to stick to a healthy diet.
Cortisol: Is It Really That Bad?
It seems pretty obvious that cortisol should get a bad rap. Stress is bad, and therefore cortisol is also bad, right?
To understand the real impact of cortisol, you have to look at both sides of the coin — including how it interacts with other hormones.
It’s true that cortisol can be both good and bad. And clearly, we already know a lot about how it can be bad.
What we forget to realize is that experiencing just enough stress can actually be a very good thing — in fact, good enough to burn fat.
Cortisol is also a fat burning hormone in addition to a fat storing hormone.
Whether it acts as a fat burning hormone or a fat storing hormone depends on what else is going on.
It’s never just cortisol’s fault on its own that you’re storing excess belly fat.
When it comes to women’s bodies, it’s important to understand that cortisol, insulin, estrogen, and testosterone all work together to either help or hinder your fat burning efforts.
You could be eating at a calorie deficit, but if your hormones are unbalanced, you’re still going to have a hard time losing weight.
Fat loss is far more than just a numbers game.
The worst mix you could possibly have is high cortisol interacting with insulin and imbalanced female sex hormones (higher testosterone and lower estrogen).
This is a recipe for disaster in terms of belly fat.
Insulin is most negatively impacted by excessive calorie consumption in the form of starchy carbs and sugar.
Ironically enough, higher stress/cortisol is exactly what causes most of us to crave more carbs and sugar, meaning that you can be trapped in a vicious cycle of stress-induced overeating that contributes to imbalanced sex hormones and fat storage in the abdominal area.
Now, chronically low cortisol levels aren’t good either. In fact, you want cortisol to be higher when you’re exercising.
During intense exercise is pretty much the only time that cortisol effectively works with your other fat burning hormones and growth hormone to promote the release of fat.
When you’re not exercising, you want your cortisol levels to go back down.
13 Ways to Lower Cortisol, Backed by Science
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the most effective ways to rebalance cortisol is through diet, exercise, and lifestyle.
Of course, there’s no magic pill or cure-all strategy to lowering cortisol in your resting state.
You really have to be willing to take a holistic approach when it comes to hormone balance — even when you might be receiving treatment from a doctor.
So, without further ado, here are some of the best ways that you can restore chronically elevated cortisol levels back to normal, backed by scientific research.
1. Stop Going on Diets
Your low-calorie diet might actually be making it harder for you to burn fat due to its effect on cortisol.
Calorie-restricted diets have actually been shown to increase cortisol levels.
As if that weren’t enough of a reason to stop depriving yourself, other research suggests that stress management actually plays more of an important role in your overall health than trying to constantly eat healthy. A
fter all, trying to stick to a rigid diet is stressful enough — both on the body and the mind.
You’re much better off in the long run focusing on eating healthy foods that you actually enjoy eating while remaining aware of your portions and eating habits.
If macro tracking and calorie counting stress you out, it’s probably time to ditch it — or at least change your perception of its purpose by using it as more of a guide and source of nutritional education.
2. Make Leisurely Nature Walks a Habit
One of the best forms of physical activity you can do to lower stress and thus cortisol is leisurely walking.
This isn’t the kind of fast-paced power walking that gets your heart rate up. It’s the kind of slow-paced walking that feels natural and relaxed.
This low-intensity form of exercise can even offer an added stress-relieving effect when done in a nature setting.
A study on the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” showed that participants who immersed themselves in a forest environment had lower cortisol levels in their saliva samples compared to participants who only spent time in city environments.
The forest bathing participants also experienced lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, higher parasympathetic nerve activity and lower sympathetic nerve activity.
3. Practice Yoga
A lot of people practice yoga as a form of physical exercise, to increase their flexibility, or to manage pain.
True yoga, however, is a complete form of mind-body therapy that has both physiological and psychological stress relieving effects.
Research has shown that yoga can help reduce cortisol levels thanks to its direct effect on the hypothalamus — a part of your brain and endocrine system that can sense the amount of cortisol in your bloodstream and send the signal to adjust the amount accordingly by either increasing or decreasing it.
Of course, you’re not going to want to do an intense vinyasa yoga flow or power yoga session if you’re looking to lower cortisol.
Instead, try restorative yoga (“Yin” yoga) for a slower-paced practice that’s designed to have a soothing, relaxing effect on both the mind and body.
4. Start a Mindfulness Meditation Practice
Being mindful simple means paying attention.
It involves bringing your awareness to a certain point of focus in the current moment.
This could be a sensation in your body, your breathing, your thoughts, a smell, a taste, or something right in front of you that you can see.
Like exercise, mindfulness is a way to train the brain to become stronger and healthier.
A strong and healthy brain means that you’ll have more control over your reactions toward stressors.
In one particular study, a group of participants were taken through a four-day mindfulness meditation course while having their blood samples taken both before and after the course.
Cortisol levels in the blood samples taken after the course were shown to be significantly lower than the levels found in the blood samples before the course started.
5. Enjoy Some Live Music Every Now and Then
Almost everyone has experienced an immediate mood boost and stress relieving effect from listening to a favourite song, but now there’s actually evidence that the effect can be strengthened by watching and listening to live music.
When study participants had saliva samples taken both before and after attending a concert, cortisol levels were shown to be much lower afterward, compared to before.
There’s also some evidence that certain genres of music such as classical, ambient, and instrumental have stress relieving and focus enhancing effects on the brain — but don’t let that stop you from going to a concert if you love rock, pop, country, rap, or anything else.
6. Do Some Gardening
You may not consider yourself to have much of a green thumb, but if you’re willing to learn, you can definitely reap the benefits of a well nurtured garden — both in the forms of flowers/fruits/vegetables as well as stress relief!
In one very interesting study, 30 participants were asked to complete a stressful task and then assigned to engage in 30 minutes of either gardening outside or reading indoors.
Although both the gardeners and readers showed decreased cortisol levels according to saliva samples taken after the stressful task and then again after the gardening and reading, shockingly, it was the gardeners who showed the most significant decrease in cortisol levels.
As if that weren’t interesting enough, the gardeners experienced restored mood states while the readers experienced further deterioration of their mood states.
7. When Expecting Stress, Have High Expectations of Self-Control and Distract Yourself
The negative impact of a particular stressor can be mitigated just by doing the right thing before you expect to experience a stressful reaction.
Instead of obsessing about what could go wrong or overthinking it, research suggests that we should either work toward increasing our expectations about how much control we’re able to have over the stressor and try to distract ourselves in the meantime.
When 74 participants were asked to either write about how they can influence a stressful situation to have better control over it (expectation), write a gratitude letter (gratitude), or write about something that totally distracted them (distraction), the results showed that both the expectation and distraction exercises showed the greatest decreases in cortisol levels.
8. Take Advantage of Aromatherapy Tools
Aromatherapy is a holisitic healing system that involves using natural plant extracts in the form of essential oils to treat common ailments and to bring balance back to the mental, emotional, and physical states.
The most common way to use aromatherapy is by inhalation — by diluting essential oils first and then using them in a diffuser, spritzing them in the air, or applying them topically.
Inhaling essential oils stimulates the olfactory system and sends signals to the brain, affecting the limbic system and leading to changes in mood, emotions, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing pace, memory, hormones, and stress.
Although there are lots of different essential oils out there to try, lavendar and rosemary are two specific oils to consider using first for being associated with lower cortisol levels.
9. Don’t Bottle Up Your Emotions
It’s no secret that negative emotions are a source of stress.
Unfortunately, not all of us have been raised or taught to be deeply in touch with our emotions — especially if we perceive those emotions as seemingly selfish or irrational. So instead, we stuff them away and try to pretend they’re not there, which of course only contributes to stress.
A study compared the cortisol levels of 83 participants before and after they engaged in an emotional freedom technique for one hour, a psychotherapy group involving supportive interviews, or no treatment at all.
The emotional freedom technique group showed significant decreases in cortisol levels compared to the other two groups in addition to significant improvements in anxiety, depression, and overall severity of distress symptoms.
You can practice your own emotional freedom technique by simply checking in with yourself on a regular basis, engaging in self-talk, journaling, talking to a friend or your spouse, or if necessary, speaking to a counsellor or therapist.
10. Get Some Sunlight
Did you know that your cortisol levels fluctuate in accordance with your circadian rhythm?
Depending on what time of day it is and where you are in your sleep/wake cycle, your cortisol levels will either be naturally higher or lower.
Research has shown that bright light exposure during the two most significant rising and falling states of the circadian rhythm (when cortisol is naturally highest during the day) can help reduce cortisol levels.
Dim light exposure, on the other hand, had little to no effect.
It’s best to get some light exposure first thing in the morning, when cortisol is naturally highest after coming out of your sleep state.
You can do this naturally by going outside for a short walk or artificially by purchasing a light therapy lamp.
11. Stop Sacrificing Your Sleep
Sleep is absolutely essential for stress management.
It’s perhaps the number one thing that affects your stress levels the most.
Research has shown that even just a few hours short of what you need for adequate sleep is enough to throw off your circadian rythym and stress response. And they affect you longer than just the day after a bad night’s sleep.
It turns out that both partial and total loss of sleep is worse the second day, even after returning to normal sleep.
Aim to get at least 7 to 8 hours of good quality sleep a night.
You can increase your chances of a good night’s sleep by avoiding caffeine and alcohol late in the day, avoiding screentime before bed, engaging in activities that promote mental and physical relaxation, making your sleep environment as dark as possible, and lowering the temperature at night to be between 15 to 21 degrees Celsius.
13. Try “Grounding” Your Body At Night
If you want to take your stress relieving sleep efforts even further than the basics, you might want to try a practice known as “grounding” or “earthing” the body.
This basically involves creating a physical connection via electrical frequencies between the body and the Earth.
In a study where 12 participants reported sleep dysfunction, pain, and stress at night, they were given the opportunity to sleep with a conductive mattress pad for a period of eight weeks to see if it would improve their symptoms.
Results showed signiciant improvements in cortisol levels — particularly during nighttime sleep.
The participants were also able to partially restore their circadian rhythms while also reducing or completely eliminating symptoms of sleep dysfunction, pain or stress.
If you don’t have the budget for a conductive mattress pad, you can easily practice grounding your body to the Earth in your waking state simply by walking barefoot in the grass, sand, or dirt.
What’s Your Favourite Stress Relief Technique?
The goal of this blog post was to share some of the best cortisol lowering methods proven by science, but stress relief can way beyond what was mentioned above — especially in terms of personal experience and preference.
I’d love to hear your favourite way (or ways) to destress.
Let me know in the comments!