We live in a society where there is a constant demand for your time, energy, and attention. Productivity is praised and slowing down is criticized. Rarely is it discussed how to reduce cortisol naturally.
From the moment we roll out of bed, the stress starts when the screens turn on, the social media scrolling starts, and the processed food and sugar intake ensues. Or perhaps the opposite occurs where your tasks of daily living have taken full flight, leaving you without a lick of food in your system hours after you’ve woken up.
And queue the hamster-wheel of STRESS!
Today we will talk about all things cortisol and these two things, stress and cortisol typically increase linearly with each other.
When your brain is faced with any sort of significant “task”, it’s often experiencing stress to some degree and will release a hormone called cortisol.
When you think about or feel stress, think cortisol.
Is stress always a bad thing?
Absolutely not! Cortisol can save our life. We need cortisol to actually respond to stress and protect ourselves. Cortisol can be a life-saving hormone, but cortisol can also be life-deteriorating when chronically high.
So what are you to do?!
What you should do now is keep on reading this article, because you will walk away knowing how to reduce cortisol naturally!
What Is Cortisol?
As mentioned above, the hormone cortisol is released into the bloodstream in response to stress.
When we are stressed, the body must properly respond to get us out of a dangerous situation, thus cortisol is pumped from the adrenal glands (triangular-shaped glands on the top of the kidneys) to help give your body that “fight or flight” sensation.
Cortisol is truly a lifesaver in certain situations. It helps:
- Absorb and assimilate the use of macronutrients coming in from food
- Increase blood sugar (when the body is demanding it)
- Influence your circadian rhythm and sleep/wake cycle
- Regulate blood pressure
- Increase energy when it’s slow or the body is in danger
How Does Cortisol Work?
To understand How to reduce cortisol naturally, it is crucial to know how cortisol rises and falls. The process of cortisol release and balance starts “upstairs”, aka the brain. When danger is sensed, cortisol is released to help the body adapt and survive.
For example, you could be slamming on your brakes as you blow past a cop on the highway, ruminating over whether you’ve overeaten calories for the day, or timing your 1-mile run, the brain is sensing fear and danger in the body.
However, we are more stressed from today’s life rythms and demands than ever before, and the intense physical and psychological efforts required to keep can disrupt homeostatic equilibrium or “balance” in our body’s stress response.
When these stressful situations become a daily occurrence, cortisol levels become chronically elevated. This can be better explained by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis).
The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis
The 3-way communication system involved in regulating cortisol levels is the HPA axis. These 3 areas of the body continuously communicate to keep all hormones, particularly cortisol, in balance. This is especially true when we face stressful situations.
Signaling of cortisol starts in the hypothalamus (the tiny command center located in your brain) and it goes a little like this:
- Hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH)
- Which signals to the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH).
- ACTH then tells the adrenal glands to make and release cortisol hormones into the blood.
Now, in a perfect world, cortisol is produced in high enough levels to respond to a stressful stimulus and then levels are brought down when the stressor is no longer present.
In the case of lots and lots and lots of stress, there is little opportunity for these levels to come back down to a normal and healthy range, making for the beginnings of HPA axis dysregulation.
For more on HPA axis dysregulation and adrenal health, check out our article about 4 secret tips to improve adrenal dysfunction.
The Diurnal Cortisol Curve
Cortisol rises and falls in a systematic way when stress is well managed and we are functioning properly. This is known as the ‘cortisol curve’ or ‘cortisol slope’ and it goes like this:
Upon waking in the morning: levels of cortisol surge an average of 50-60% within 30-45 minutes of waking.
- This is the highest cortisol will get all-day
As mentioned, cortisol helps us “get up and go” in the morning, which would make sense why the natural cortisol curve starts with a significant rise in this hormone upon waking.
Late morning entering early afternoon: levels of cortisol rapidly drop in the subsequent hours after waking.
Evening: levels of cortisol continue to drop slowly until reaching their lowest point around bedtime.
It’s a bit easier to visualize these patterns in order to bring this concept into context.
As you can see, when things are peachy and stress is not off the chart, you’ll find cortisol levels follow a natural rise and fall pattern from morning to evening. Not every person rises and falls perfectly between the high and low levels, but somewhere within these ranges is what you’d typically find.
There are a number of dysregulatory patterns that manifest with HPA axis dysfunction at hand. The above represents a person with a true elevation in cortisol as a result of ongoing stress, potential gut imbalances/infections, overexercising, an inflammatory diet, and/or poor-quality sleep.
The “fight-or-flight” response is in serious overdrive.
Over time, these cortisol levels may begin to actually decline to normal and then to subpar levels when chronic stress persists for too long, which you can learn more about in our article about adrenal dysfunction.
But right now we are here to discuss how to lower cortisol levels naturally, and in order to do so, we must discuss why cortisol is jacked-up in the first place!
Causes Of High Cortisol
You may have a pretty good idea about what dietary and lifestyle practices may lead to a high cortisol state. After all stress = cortisol! And we are all stressed to the max…
There will be the obvious situations where your heart is beating out of your chest or your body is acutely inflamed in response to an immediate and sudden stressor such as:
- breaking an ankle
- Getting stung by a bee
- slamming on your brakes as another driver runs a red light.
But ironically, these situations are less often the culprit of elevated cortisol, which becomes dysregulated after repeated low grade stresses that compound over days, to weeks, to months.
When thinking about chronic stress, you should be thinking about the type of stress that wears and tears on your mind, which is a form of stress that your body is not meant to be exposed to so frequently.
The body does not detect “danger” from the situations that create chronic stress until they persist long enough.
So, how do you really know whether you are making your body chronically stressed? And yes, you could be doing so without really realizing the harm that you’re doing to your hormones until everything comes to a front.
Consider asking yourself whether you…
- refuse to take proper lunch, eating as you work, and put out fires
- pull a late nighter in an effort to meet a work deadline, resulting in 5 or fewer hours of sleep
- pour that 5th cup of coffee and chug it to keep your energy afloat mid-afternoon
- skip breakfast, resulting in you grazing on chocolate and other desirable snacks by 3 pm
- do an intense workout first thing in the morning, with no food or after a poor night’s sleep
- have repeated disagreements with your significant other
There are a number of other potential scenarios, but these are some of the most commonly seen in individuals whose cortisol levels are chronically elevated.
And queue all the 1,200 calorie diets and juice cleanses!
Ever wonder why your body fat simply melts from your body during an initial weight loss plan?
A diet full of lint and ice cubes sounds like the recipe for your long-desired 6-pack, right?! In other words, many of these “fat-smashing” diets are characterized by scary low calories consisting of lean meat and veggies, multiple times a day for WEEKS on end!
So yes, it’s likely that you’ll see drastic changes in your body composition when your metabolism suddenly shifts from one higher in processed foods/calories to one that a growing toddler could safely survive on.
While you may see a significant drop in your pant size and a solid boost in your morale, following such a restrictive diet gives you weight loss as a trade off for ideal hormone health.
But I am clinically overweight/obese and am told to cut calories?!
While the tabloids and Instagram influencers may tell you to eat chicken and lettuce all day, hopefully, you’re beginning to wrap your head around the fact that losing weight in this fashion will only work for a short period of time. Continuing to eat significantly low calories will move you farther and farther away from your weight loss goals. Your hormones will come back with a vengeance, as demonstrated by your high levels of cortisol.
SO, even if you are living in a bigger body and your doctor has suggested that losing weight would likely benefit your overall health, it’s time to slowly get your food intake up.
Doing so will ironically do wonders for you metabolically and will put your body in a place to lose weight without sacrificing your hormonal health.
Symptoms That Your Daily Cortisol Is Too High
You can speculate whether you’re dealing with some degree of cortisol imbalance or adrenal dysfunction by looking for symptoms such as:
- Anxiousness throughout the day or evening
- Recurrent headaches
- Low heart rate or basal body temperature
- Brain fogginess or poor memory/focus
- Gut issues such as bloating, constipation, or general discomfort after eating
- Frequent waking during the night or trouble falling sleeping
- Unintentional weight gain or inability to lose fat.
If you’re unsure whether your symptoms or lack thereof are linked to your cortisol or overall adrenal health, you can always seek the help of a licensed medical professional to test your levels. They will be able to give you personalized tips and trips to lower cortisol naturally for your individual case.
How to Reduce Cortisol Naturally
Now, you’re smart and can probably suspect that having your body on high alert for too long is going to begin causing issues. Functions in the body may become impaired such as a sluggish digestive system, poor immunity, or impaired reproductive function.
So with that being said, let’s get to the main event… The information you’ve all been waiting for.
How do I lower cortisol naturally without blowing a month’s salary on supplements or somehow moving to a monk monastery?!
Well, it comes down to making intentional changes to your diet and lifestyle, which are the hardest thing for people to do, yet the things that will move the needle the most.
Decrease Daily Life Stressors
This is a loaded one! We all know stress is a normal facet of life, but begin thinking about what aspects keep you from living your best life on a daily basis.
What keeps you up at night? What makes you anxious and nervous to think about? You get the point.
You know that saying “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
This statement could not hold more truth than with this situation at hand. You will not be able to naturally reduce your cortisol levels if you do not change the things that got you here in the first place.
With that being said, let’s discuss some natural ways to reduce cortisol!
2. Sleep Like A Pro
Sacrificing sleep in order to read that one last email, stay up for 1 more Netflix episode, or scroll on social media while in bed is the comfortable, popular thing to do.
But skimping on the quantity and quality of your sleep matters. Why? Because sleep directly influences cortisol levels. Research has shown that sleep deprivation causes your body to secrete more cortisol during the day.
Less sleep = more cortisol
It makes sense, right? Sleep recharges our body to have adequate energy for all facets of our day, so cortisol is going to be pumped out in higher amounts in an effort to keep the body alert in the case of sleep deprivation.
This all comes back to HPA axis dysfunction. Normally sleep is initiated when the HPA axis is the least active. So, when you sleep less, the HPA axis is more stimulated, thus CRH (which eventually stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol) is hyperactive.
One study evaluated the effects of sleep deprivation on nighttime and daytime cortisol levels and found that cortisol levels 41% higher in sleep-deprived individuals compared to controls .
Poor Sleep and Performance
As mentioned, inadequate sleep yields an elevation of cortisol through HPA axis dysregulation, which may also negatively impact performance due to the adverse effect on cognitive function, alertness, inflammation, and overall stamina.
5 Thing To Help You Sleep Like a Pro
- Shut off electronics or any source of blue light at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed. Do not work from your room/bed if possible.
- Create a nighttime routine such as:
- Evening meditation
- A warm shower or bath
- Reading or journaling
- Consider basic supplementation of magnesium glycinate, which serves as a natural relaxation agent.
- Refrain from eating too close to bedtime. If needing a post-dinner/nighttime snack, have a small protein/carb snack 1-2 hours before bed. Examples below
- Berries and nut butter
- Homemade cookie dough power bites
- Rice cake topped with hummus
- Cut caffeine intake by 12 pm at the latest
3. Eat Enough Food!
One of the most effective ways to jack up your cortisol levels is to undereat food!
Cortisol, as you know, is secreted in response to stress, and when the body is in a calorie deficit, aka your body expends more calories than it’s taking in, biological functions start to downregulate and cortisol levels increase.
Why? Your body calls on the superhuman hormone, cortisol, to keep you alive!
Food keeps up alive, so when energy availability (from restricting calories) is scarce, cortisol is pumped out in higher amounts to carry out the role that adequate food is not able to fulfill.
Your body can safely and effectively lose weight by being in a caloric deficit, but only when the body is metabolically safe. Most people dealing with elevations in cortisol from under-eating are those who are chronically dieting for months to years on end.
Is this you? Do you:
- feel hungry all the time?
- constantly fill up on high-fiber vegetables in an effort to satisfy your insatiable hunger?
- wake up between 2-4am feeling wired and unable to fall back asleep?
- feel hungrier after you start eating?
- no longer experience weight loss despite lowering calories?
- feel weak when trying to lift weights or get through an intense workout?
These are several scenarios that could indicate whether you’re putting yourself at a high risk of HPA axis dysregulation and elevated cortisol levels.
While we cannot give exact calorie recommendations here because every single person’s needs vary based on height/weight, activity level, sport, other health issues, etc. a few steps you can take to ensure you’re meeting nutritional needs include:
- Crushing a balanced breakfast within 1-2 hours of waking
- NOT avoiding food when you’re hungry in an effort to “save calories for later”
- Ensuring every meal includes a protein, carbohydrate, and fat source
- Eating every 3-4 hours for blood sugar stability
- Eat food within an hour of starting and finishing your workout.
4. Choose Anti-inflammatory Cortisol Lowering Foods
Before we learn how to reduce cortisol levels naturally, you must know how your diet could be contributing to elevated cortisol levels.
There could be 2 scenarios:
- High intake of highly refined, inflammatory foods that are packed with trans fats, added sugars, and artificial chemicals.
There is a direct correlation between individuals with impaired blood sugar such as in Type 2 Diabetes and cortisol levels.
A recent 2020 study revealed how the stress hormone cortisol is associated with an increased blood sugar in individuals with type 2 diabetes.
- You’re eating “too clean” of a diet in which your overall calorie intake is too low, especially carbohydrates.
A common theme seen in individuals, especially females, is cutting most sources of carb-dense foods such as: oats, rice, quinoa, cereal and replacing these foods with non-starchy vegetables like salad greens, broccoli, cauliflower rice, etc. to feel full without the added calories.
If it’s not carbs that are cut, it’s dietary fat sources like avocado, butter, oil, animal fats (beef, steak), nuts, etc because these foods are higher in calories.
The problem with both of these scenarios is that overall energy intake is insufficient for the demands of the body, and the body typically rebels by craving sugar and salty foods later in the day.
WHICH AGAIN ADDS TO THE HIGH CORTISOL PICTURE!
So, while eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables is key for immune function and maintaining optimal biological function, ensuring that high-density sources that are rich in nutrients and carbohydrate content is essential when it comes to fueling your workouts properly and lowering cortisol naturally.
- Protein: quality chicken, turkey, beef, fatty fish, eggs, lamb, etc
- Carbohydrates: rice, oats, chickpea/lentil pasta, potatoes, quinoa, etc
- Fat: avocado/avocado oil, olive oil, nuts/seeds, grass-fed butter, ghee, coconut/coconut oil
The moral of the story, we are trying to focus on foods that relax muscles and reduce stress.
Choosing nutrient-dense and antiinflammatory whole foods that lower cortisol levels will not only nourish your body for optimal performance and health but also help reduce cortisol naturally!
5. Practice Restorative Vs. High-Intensity Exercise
Where are my adrenaline junkies at?!
We all know that person, or maybe you are that person, that doesn’t feel like they got a workout in unless they are laying on the ground gasping for breath by the end of it.
High-intensity exercise can be phenomenal for improving your overall fitness, especially if dealing with poor blood sugar control or having a significant amount of weight to lose. However, relying on high-intensity exercise every day of the week makes for a hormonal disaster in individuals who are already experiencing high levels of outside life stress and heightened cortisol levels.
High-intensity exercise is a high cortisol producing activity and when levels are high day after day, this hormone begins to negatively affect the body.
To combat the negative effects of this, consider incorporating more restorative exercise such as:
Alternating from very cortisol-spiking exercise to stress reduction will not only help your hormones and allow the body to reach a state of “rest-and-digest”, your body composition, mood, libido, energy, and focus will all improve.
Hopefully after reading today’s article, you have a deeper understanding of your extremely vital, lifesaving, yet complicated hormone, cortisol. Living in a society that constantly demands your energy and attention makes for cortisol imbalances unless a conscious effort is made to attenuate the effects that this cortisol can have on your overall health.
Doing the same things you’ve always done will not make for change, so leaning into the discomfort of slowing down and decreasing stressors is going to be your meal ticket when learning how to reduce cortisol naturally.
Now, there are a million and one supplements out on the market that may entice you for their ability to “balance hormones” and “reduce cortisol” and while some of these may be found useful, healing a stressed body needs to be the primary focus to see major changes.
Some anti-inflammatory supplements can be a phenomenal addition, but nothing takes the place of addressing the underlying nutrition and lifestyle changes, aka the root!
If things still feel off despite making a few changes, you may want to consider investing in the guidance of a practitioner to assess your hormones and diet and make individualized recommendations to get help for the root of your constant fatigue, stress, anxiety, and chronic inflammation. If you would like to get in touch with us and set up virtual coaching, you may do so here: virtual coaching packages.