By Dr. Matthew Thorp, MD, Phd
Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands.
Your brain triggers its release in response to many different kinds of stress.
However, when cortisol levels are too high for too long, this hormone can hurt you more than it helps.
Over time, high levels may cause weight gain and high blood pressure, disrupt sleep, negatively impact mood, reduce your energy levels and contribute to diabetes, and lead to depression, the leading cause of suicide.
What Happens When Cortisol Is High?
Over the last 15 years, studies have increasingly revealed that moderately high cortisol levels can cause problems (1Trusted Source).
- Chronic complications: Including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis (2Trusted Source).
- Weight gain: Cortisol increases appetite and signals the body to shift metabolism to store fat (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
- Tiredness: It interferes with daily cycles of other hormones, disrupting sleep patterns and causing fatigue (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).
- Impaired brain function: Cortisol interferes with memory, contributing to mental cloudiness or “brain fog” (7Trusted Source).
- Infections: It hampers the immune system, making you more prone to infections (8Trusted Source).
In rare cases, very high cortisol levels can lead to Cushing’s syndrome, a rare but serious disease (1Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your levels. Here are 11 lifestyle, diet and relaxation tips to lower cortisol levels.
1. Get the Right Amount of Sleep
Timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol (10Trusted Source).
For example, a review of 28 studies of shift workers found that cortisol increases in people who sleep during the day rather than at night.
Over time, sleep deprivation causes increased levels (11Trusted Source).
Rotating shifts also disrupt normal daily hormonal patterns, contributing to fatigue and other problems associated with high cortisol (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
Insomnia causes high cortisol for up to 24 hours. Interruptions to sleep, even if brief, can also increase your levels and disrupt daily hormone patterns (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source).
If you are a night shift or rotating shift worker, you don’t have complete control over your sleep schedule, but there are some things you can do to optimize sleep:
- Exercise: Be physically active during waking hours and keep a regular bedtime as much as possible (17Trusted Source).
- No caffeine at night: Avoid caffeine in the evening (18Trusted Source).
- Limit exposure to bright light at night: Turn off the screens and wind down for several minutes before bedtime (19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source).
- Limit distractions before bed: Limit interruptions by using white noise, ear plugs, silencing your phone and avoiding fluids right before bed (21Trusted Source).
- Take naps: If shift work cuts your sleep hours short, napping can reduce sleepiness and prevent a sleep deficit (22Trusted Source).
SUMMARY:Keep a consistent sleep schedule, avoid caffeine in the evening, avoid sleep interruptions and get seven to eight hours of sleep daily to keep cortisol in a normal rhythm.
2. Exercise, but Not Too Much
Depending on the intensity of exercise, it can increase or decrease cortisol.
Intense exercise increases cortisol shortly after exercise. Although it increases in the short term, nighttime levels later decrease (23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source).
This short-term increase helps coordinate growth of the body to meet the challenge. Additionally, the size of the cortisol response lessens with habitual training (23Trusted Source).
While even moderate exercise increases cortisol in unfit individuals, physically fit individuals experience a smaller bump with intense activity (25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source).
In contrast to “maximum effort” exercise, mild or moderate exercise at 40–60% of maximum effort does not increase cortisol in the short term, and still leads to lower levels at night (24Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source).
SUMMARY:Exercise decreases cortisol at night. Intense exercise increases cortisol in the short term due to stress on the body, but still decreases it the following night.
3. Learn to Recognize Stressful Thinking
Stressful thoughts are an important signal for cortisol release.
A study of 122 adults found that writing about past stressful experiences increased cortisol over one month compared to writing about positive life experiences or plans for the day (28Trusted Source).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a strategy that involves becoming more self-aware of stress-provoking thoughts and replacing worrying or anxiety with a focus on acknowledging and understanding stressful thoughts and emotions.
Training yourself to be aware of your thoughts, breathing, heart rate and other signs of tension helps you recognize stress when it begins.
By focusing on awareness of your mental and physical state, you can become an objective observer of your stressful thoughts, instead of a victim of them (29Trusted Source).
Recognizing stressful thoughts allows you to formulate a conscious and deliberate reaction to them. A study of 43 women in a mindfulness-based program showed the ability to describe and articulate stress was linked to a lower cortisol response (30Trusted Source).
Another study of 128 women with breast cancer showed stress mindfulness training reduced cortisol compared to no stress management strategy (31Trusted Source).
The Positive Psychology Program offers a review of some mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques.
SUMMARY:“Stress mindfulness” emphasizes self-awareness of stressful thoughts and signs of body tension. Becoming more aware of stress and its triggers is the first step to successfully coping with stress.
4. Learn to Relax
Various relaxation exercises have been proven to reduce cortisol levels (32).
Deep breathing is a simple technique for stress reduction that can be used anywhere. A study of 28 middle-aged women found a nearly 50% reduction in cortisol with habitual deep breathing training (33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source).
A review of several studies also showed massage therapy can reduce cortisol levels by 30% (35Trusted Source).
Multiple studies confirm that yoga can reduce cortisol and manage stress. Regular participation in tai chi has also been shown to be effective (36Trusted Source, 37Trusted Source, 38Trusted Source).
Studies have also shown relaxing music can decrease cortisol (39Trusted Source, 40Trusted Source, 41Trusted Source).
For example, listening to music for 30 minutes reduced cortisol levels in 88 male and female college students compared to 30 minutes of silence or viewing a documentary (42Trusted Source).
Helpguide.org has a brief guide to several relaxation techniques like those used in these studies.
SUMMARY:Many relaxation techniques are proven to lower cortisol. Examples include deep breathing, yoga and tai chi, music and massage.
5. Have Fun
Another way to keep cortisol down is simply to be happy (43Trusted Source).
A positive disposition is associated with lower cortisol, as well as lower blood pressure, a healthy heart rate and a strong immune system (43Trusted Source, 44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source).
Activities that increase life satisfaction also improve health and one of the ways they do this may be through controlling cortisol.
For example, a study of 18 healthy adults showed cortisol decreased in response to laughter (46Trusted Source).
Developing hobbies can also promote feelings of well-being, which translate to lower cortisol. A study of 49 middle-aged veterans showed that taking up gardening decreased levels more than conventional occupational therapy (47Trusted Source).
Another study of 30 men and women found that participants who gardened experienced greater cortisol reductions than those who read indoors (48Trusted Source).
Part of this benefit may have been due to spending more time outdoors. Two studies found decreased cortisol following outdoor activity, as opposed to indoor activity. However, other studies found no such benefit (49Trusted Source, 50Trusted Source, 51Trusted Source).
SUMMARY:Tending to your own happiness will help keep cortisol down. Taking up a hobby, spending time outdoors and laughing can all help.
6. Maintain Healthy Relationships
Friends and family are a source of great happiness in life, as well as great stress. These dynamics are played out in cortisol levels.
Cortisol is incorporated in tiny amounts into your hair.
The amounts of cortisol along the length of a hair even correspond to cortisol levels at the time that part of the hair was growing. This allows researchers to estimate levels over time (52Trusted Source).
Studies of cortisol in hair show that children with a stable and warm family life have lower levels than children from homes with high levels of conflict (52Trusted Source).
Within couples, conflict results in a short-term elevation in cortisol, followed by return to normal levels (53Trusted Source).
A study of conflict styles in 88 couples found nonjudgmental mindfulness or empathy led to a more rapid return of cortisol to normal levels following an argument (53Trusted Source).
Support from loved ones can also help reduce cortisol in the face of stress.
A study of 66 men and women showed that for men, support from their female partners reduced cortisol in response to public speaking (54Trusted Source).
Another study showed that having an affectionate interaction with a romantic partner before a stressful activity benefited heart rate and blood pressure more than support from a friend (55Trusted Source).
SUMMARY:Relationships with friends and family can lead to happiness and to stress. Spend time with those you love and learn to forgive and manage conflict for better emotional and physical health.
7. Take Care of a Pet
Relationships with animal companions can also reduce cortisol.
In one study, interaction with a therapy dog reduced distress and resulting cortisol changes during a minor medical procedure in children (56Trusted Source).
Another study of 48 adults showed that contact with a dog was better than support from a friend during a socially stressful situation (57Trusted Source).
A third study tested the cortisol-reducing effect of canine companionship in pet owners compared to non-pet-owners (58Trusted Source).
Non-pet-owners experienced a greater drop in cortisol when they were given canine companions, likely because pet owners had already benefited from the friendship of their animals at the beginning of the study.
Interestingly, pets experience similar benefits following positive interactions, suggesting animal companionship is mutually beneficial (59Trusted Source).
SUMMARY:Several studies show that interacting with an animal companion reduces stress and lowers cortisol levels. Pets also benefit from positive relationships with their humans.
8. Be Your Best Self
Feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy can lead to negative thinking and elevated cortisol (60Trusted Source).
A program to help identify and cope with these kinds of feelings led to a 23% reduction in cortisol in 30 adults compared to 15 adults who did not participate (61Trusted Source).
For some causes of guilt, fixing the source will mean making a change in your life. For other causes, learning to forgive yourself and move on can improve your sense of well-being.
Developing a habit of forgiving others is also critical in relationships. One study of 145 couples compared the effects of different kinds of marriage counseling.
Couples who received interventions that facilitated forgiving and conflict resolution techniques experienced reduced cortisol levels (62Trusted Source).
SUMMARY:Resolving guilt improves life satisfaction and cortisol levels. This may involve changing habits, forgiving others or learning to forgive yourself.
9. Tend to Your Spirituality
If you consider yourself spiritual, developing your faith can also help improve cortisol.
Studies show that adults who expressed spiritual faith experienced lower cortisol levels in the face of life stressors such as illness.
This was true even after studies took into account the potential cortisol-lowering effects of social support from faith-based groups (63Trusted Source, 64Trusted Source).
Prayer is also associated with reduced anxiety and depression (65Trusted Source).
If you do not consider yourself spiritual, these benefits may also be available through meditation, developing a social support group and performing acts of kindness (66Trusted Source).
SUMMARY:For those with spiritual inclinations, developing faith and participating in prayer can help control cortisol. Whether you’re spiritual or not, performing acts of kindness can also improve your cortisol levels.
10. Eat Healthy Foods
Nutrition can influence cortisol for better or for worse.
Sugar intake is one of the classic triggers for cortisol release. Regular, high sugar intakes may keep your levels elevated (67Trusted Source).
Consuming sugar is especially linked to higher cortisol in obese individuals (68Trusted Source).
Interestingly, sugar can also reduce the amount of cortisol released in response to specific stressful events (69Trusted Source).
Taken together, these effects explain why sweet desserts are good comfort foods, but frequent or excessive sugar increases cortisol over time.
Additionally, a few specific foods can benefit cortisol levels:
- Dark chocolate: Two studies of 95 adults showed that consuming dark chocolate reduced their cortisol response to a stress challenge (70, 71Trusted Source).
- Many fruits: A study of 20 cycling athletes showed eating bananas or pears during a 75-km ride reduced levels compared to drinking water only (72Trusted Source).
- Black and green tea: A study of 75 men found 6 weeks of drinking black tea decreased cortisol in response to a stressful task, compared to a different caffeinated drink (73Trusted Source).
- Probiotics and prebiotics: Probiotics are friendly, symbiotic bacteria in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi. Prebiotics, such as soluble fiber, provide food for these bacteria. Both probiotics and prebiotics help reduce cortisol (74Trusted Source).
- Water: Dehydration increases cortisol. Water is great for hydrating while avoiding empty calories. A study in nine male runners showed that maintaining hydration during athletic training reduced cortisol levels (75Trusted Source).
Studies have proven that at least two nutritional supplements can lower cortisol levels.
Fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to reduce cortisol (76).
One study looked at how seven men responded to mentally stressful testing over three weeks. One group of men took fish oil supplements and the other group didn’t. Fish oil reduced cortisol levels in response to stress (77Trusted Source).
Another three-week study showed that fish oil supplements reduced cortisol in response to a stressful task, compared to a placebo (78Trusted Source).
Ashwagandha is an Asian herbal supplement used in traditional medicine to treat anxiety and help people adapt to stress.
A study of 98 adults taking an ashwagandha supplement or a placebo for 60 days showed that taking 125 mg of ashwagandha once or twice daily reduced cortisol levels (79).
Another study of 64 adults with chronic stress showed that those who took 300-mg supplements experienced reduced cortisol over 60 days, compared to those who took a placebo.
SUMMARY:Cortisol-reducing foods include dark chocolate, tea and soluble fiber. Avoiding excess sugar consumption may also help keep your levels down. Fish oil supplements and an Asian herbal medicine called ashwagandha have both been shown to help reduce cortisol levels.
The Bottom Line
Over time, high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and depression.
At PHASE IV we look closely at lifestyle and other serious contributing factors that lead to health problems, as well as the symptoms you may already be feeling. PHASE IV provides nutrition programs aimed at reducing cortisol immediately. With a prescription exercise program that regulates intensity, frequency, and duration, you will reduces cortisol, chronic pain, and soreness from doing too much exercise. Take the guess work out doing what is best for you and your family today.