Reducing stress, lowering cortisol, and staying healthy
Cortisol helps our bodies handle stress, but what happens when we feel stressed all the time? Lowering cortisol naturally can help improve overall health and well-being.
We all face unexpected stress in our day to day lives. Maybe your car broke down in the middle of the highway, or you have a big presentation at work, or your teacher pulls out a pop quiz. And while all of those situations can feel scary or overwhelming, our bodies are uniquely adapted to respond to acutely stressful situations. We call it our “fight or flight” response. When faced with stress, our bodies secrete a hormone called cortisol that works quickly to flood our bloodstream with glucose, the primary fuel source for our brains and muscles. Cortisol also inhibits insulin, a hormone that normally pulls glucose out of the blood stream and stores it for use later. Finally, cortisol works with hormone epinephrine to speed up your heart rate and pump all that fuel-rich blood through your body. Now primed and prepped for action, with the help of cortisol your body can take on the situation at hand.
Too much cortisol can be harmful
But what happens when acutely stressful situations turn into whole stressful days, stressful weeks, or entire stressful years? Maybe you’re going through a divorce, or took a new job with long hours, or are suddenly taking care of a sick loved one. Maybe you’re hunkered down at home in the middle of a pandemic, scared to go to the grocery store and hoping you won’t lose your job. The amount of constant stress we face in today’s world is unprecedented, and our bodies are paying the price. For, as well-adapted as we are to handle acute stress, chronic stress can wreak havoc on our health in a variety of ways.
Lowering cortisol can improve overall health
When stress is constant, so is our release of cortisol, which can lead to:
- Increased inflammation
- Elevated blood pressure
- Insulin resistance
- Weight gain
- Heart disease
- Neurodegenerative disorders
- Compromised immune function
- Fertility issues
- Chronic fatigue
Over the past several months, COVID has caused alot of us to have to adapt and change the way we lead our day to day lives, which would cause an understandable level of stress and therefore a rise in cortisol. The increase in stress response is something I have noticed in not only my work with my clients, but also in myself! From shifting to a work from home lifestyle, external stress from COVID and other current events, and many other factors, I was feeling drained, no energy, irritable, trouble sleeping, the works! And it wasn’t until I was doing some research and self reflection (hey dietitians are humans too!) I really began to look into the role that cortisol was playing on my daily routine, and what I can do to reduce cortisol.
How to Lower Cortisol Naturally
Lowering our cortisol levels can be beneficial in so many ways, but we know that reducing stress isn’t always as easy as it seems. That’s why we think it’s important to go over a few ways to lower cortisol levels that might feel a little more useful than the old “Don’t worry, be happy” approach. Here are 11 evidence-based ways to lower your cortisol naturally.
High intensity exercise, especially when done early in the morning, on an empty stomach, or without enough rest in between workouts can raise cortisol levels and contribute to chronic stress. Lower intensity workouts not only won’t raise cortisol levels, but can effectively reduce them. Lots of exercises can be done at lower intensities, like walking, cycling, or swimming (think about keeping your heart rate and level of exertion low). Other types of low intensity exercise might include yoga and stretching, or doing things around the house like gardening and washing the car. What’s most important is that you choose an activity that feels right for you.
It’s important to stay hydrated, especially during and after exercise as research shows that cortisol levels raise in response to dehydration and sweat loss. Even when your exercise is low intensity, be mindful about drinking fluids before, during, and after activities. Staying hydrated throughout the day is beneficial to all your body systems, so try taking a refillable bottle with you to work, school, and extracurriculars and sipping on it regularly.
Caffeine is a stimulant and raises cortisol levels even when the body is at rest. It can have additive effects on individuals who are already under mental stress. Caffeine can have especially detrimental effects when consumed later in the day, when your natural cortisol levels should be dropping to prepare you for a restful night of sleep (we call this your circadian rhythm). Even if you are under the impression that “caffeine has no effect on me” because you’ve been drinking it regularly for many years, research suggests that regular consumers are not immune to its effects on cortisol levels. Consider slowly cutting back on the amount and frequency of caffeine in your day.
Cut back on alcohol
Chronic heavy drinkers are likely to experience elevated cortisol levels over time. Modest consumption (one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) may not produce the same sharp increases in cortisol in comparison, but do experience cortisol elevation. It is important to recognize, too, that alcohol can have a negative impact on our sleep cycle which may contribute to changes in our normal cortisol fluctuations.
Fuel up with carbohydrates
Of the macronutrients, carbohydrates have the unique ability to affect cortisol levels when you don’t consume enough of them. Carbohydrates are our bodies’ preferred fuel source, so it makes sense that when deprived of them, our bodies feel stressed. The Dietary Guidelines suggest that we get 40-60% of our calories from carbohydrates. Signs that you aren’t consuming enough might be frequent headaches, brain fog, and fatigue. Aim to consume carbohydrates at every meal (three meals per day) and with snacks.
Eat enough calories
Calorie restriction and dieting can be psychologically stressful, but did you know that it also puts serious physical stress on your body too? Cutting calories significantly raises cortisol levels, which can ultimately work against your weight loss goals as cortisol can signal to your body to store more calories as extra pounds. It’s important to eat enough calories to fuel your body, even if you’re trying to achieve weight loss. Not sure what “enough calories” is for you? Don’t rely on an online calorie calculator that knows nothing about you– we’re happy to help you figure it out in a one-on-one consultation.
Get off the yo-yo diet cycle
In addition to chronically under-fueling your body, the cycle we know as “yo-yo dieting”, or dieting to lose weight, regaining weight, and dieting to lose weight again, contributes to rising cortisol levels too. Intuitive eating (learn more about it here) can help you ditch the harmful yo-yo cycle, fuel your body, reach your healthiest weight, and reduce stress around food and eating.
Make meal planning easier
Not only is calorie restriction raising your cortisol and harming your body, but the act of calorie counting and calorie monitoring can also contribute to unnecessary stress. It can be hard not to rely on calorie counts to make meal choices, especially when nutrition labels and restaurant menus tend to highlight this information and low-calorie foods are considered “healthier.” But seeing food in terms of calories only blatantly disregards all the other important aspects of eating like if the food you’re eating is physically and emotionally satisfying. Not sure how to approach meal planning without counting calories? Our book Nourished: 10 Ingredients to Happy, Healthy Eating includes tips on how to implement intuitive eating and recipes that are flexible, easy, and delicious.
Try more anti-inflammatory foods
Inflammation, which can result from injury, chronic disease, or exposure to environmental irritants, can also raise cortisol over time. The incorporation of anti inflammatory foods, rich with antioxidants and essential nutrients, has been shown to be effective in reducing inflammation. Try adding some of the following foods into your routine:
- Fatty fish or fish oil like salmon, mackerel, and sardines
- Eggs (yolks included)
- Nuts like walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and hazelnuts
- Seeds like pumpkin, flax, sunflower, chia and hemp
- Dark leafy greens like kale, collards, and spinach
- Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and potatoes
- Berries like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and acai berries
- Fresh fruit like red grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, and apricots
- Dried fruit like raisins, dates, and plums
- Canola, olive, corn, safflower, and rapeseed oils
- Dark chocolate
A lot of research has been done on the importance of mindfulness-based stress reduction and its effectiveness in lowering cortisol and improving health outcomes. Mindfulness involves grounding yourself in the moment and looking inward to observe what’s going on in your mind while still being aware of your external surroundings. In allowing yourself to experience the moment and feel your emotions without judgment or distraction, mindfulness teaches you how to find peace and acceptance in challenging situations.
Mindfulness is most commonly practiced through yoga and meditation, but you can practice mindfulness in many different ways. Breathing exercises use your breath as an anchor as you emotionally navigate the moment. Mindful eating draws focus to your internal hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues at mealtimes. Even an act as simple as taking 5 minutes to lay on the floor and do a mental body scan from head to toe can help you feel less stressed and more grounded. Try incorporating mindfulness techniques into your daily routine (possibly into some of the activities mentioned next!) and see what works best for you.
Perform daily acts of self care
Of course, self care comes in many forms. Calling a friend, reading a book, using aromatherapy, taking a hot shower or bath, going for a walk, journaling, learning a new skill, reciting affirmations, or taking a dance break can all be wonderful ways to de-stress. When things feel particularly dire or overwhelming, it can be beneficial to go by the 5-minute rule: Even if you really don’t feel like it, set a timer, and do one of these activities for 5 minutes. If you don’t feel any better when the timer is done, you can stop– but often 5 minutes is enough time to get grounded and feel your mindset change.
If life feels a little more stressful than usual right now, you’re not alone. Reducing your stress and cortisol levels may help you start to feel better physically and mentally, and can support your long term health goals.
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Kristin specializes in eating disorders and intuitive eating, and is an advocate for weight-inclusive care for all her clients.