Cortisol: Try These 13 Strategies to Soothe the Stress Hormone

Cortisol

Cortisol, known as the body’s “stress hormone,” tends to have a bad rap. Yet, this remarkable molecule is so much more. Cortisol plays a key role in your survival and in many important functions in the body. Indeed, the role cortisol plays in your body’s fight-or-flight stress response can be life-saving. It triggers the release of glucose, which allows for fast energy and slows or turns off nonessential processes in the body, so the body can handle the threat at hand.

Among many important day-to-day functions, cortisol is critical in managing your metabolism, immune response, blood sugar, circadian rhythm (the sleep/wake cycle),  and inflammation, to name a few.

It’s only when cortisol levels get too high for prolonged periods that the hormone becomes a health liability (hence, that bad reputation). For example, during the pandemic, many people experienced persistent stress and raised cortisol levels. Elevated levels of cortisol are linked to depression, anxiety, grief, memory loss, and weight gain (especially in the mid-section and face)—as well as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and more.

High cortisol levels will make you feel miserable. It’s no wonder studies have found that happier people have lower cortisol levels. Here’s what you need to know about this hard-working hormone, including ways to ensure your cortisol levels stay balanced.

High cortisol levels will make you feel miserable. Elevated levels of cortisol are linked to depression, anxiety, grief, memory loss, and weight gain—as well as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and more. Click To Tweet

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE STRESS HORMONE CORTISOL

Cortisol is synthesized in the adrenal glands that sit on top of your kidneys. It works with certain areas of your brain that manage your mood, motivation, and fear. As mentioned above, its major function is in the fight-or-flight stress response. When you perceive danger, real or imagined, your brain triggers a message that is released from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which tells your adrenals to release cortisol.

The cortisol immediately makes more glucose available to your brain and body, as well as substances for tissue repair. It adjusts immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, as well as growth processes. It also stores memories of potential danger. All of these responses are geared to help you fight or flee from the danger at hand. This is why cortisol is sometimes called “the molecule of danger.” After the threat or stressor passes, cortisol levels go down and these systems return to normal functioning.

But this molecule wears many hats. Most cells in the body have cortisol receptors, as it has a hand in nearly every system. Among its many functions, cortisol helps to regulate how your body uses carbs, proteins, and fats for energy. In small spurts, it can increase immunity by containing inflammation (however, it has the opposite effect if levels are chronically high). It is the counterbalance to insulin, raising blood sugar while insulin lowers it. Although not fully understood, it helps balance blood pressure and salt and water ratios. Cortisol levels lower and rise to allow sleeping and waking, too. Cortisol is truly a hormone to protect overall health and well-being.

WHAT RAISES CORTISOL LEVELS?

Stress is one of the number-one offenders when it comes to elevated cortisol levels, especially chronic stress. Chronic stress is when you have a consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time.

Another one is sugar consumption. It feels good short term to enjoy a sugary treat, but the long-term effect of regular sugar consumption is increased cortisol levels, inflammation, and compromised immune function. Additionally, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol consumption, high-intensity prolonged exercise, poor sleep (and sleep apnea), disturbing noises, extended time in traffic, and low zinc levels are all associated with increased cortisol levels.

Cushing’s syndrome, a rare condition, occurs when cortisol levels are abnormally and chronically high. Addison’s disease is when cortisol levels are chronically low. It is associated with exhaustion, feeling dizzy, weight loss, weak muscles, hyperpigmentation, low blood pressure, and difficulty handling stress.

Some signs of high cortisol levels may include (in addition to the conditions already mentioned):

  • Bruising easily
  • Greater susceptibility to infection
  • Acne
  • Sporadic menses and facial hair in women
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Sleeplessness
  • Increased anger and hostility

13 WAYS TO BALANCE CORTISOL

Here are researched ways to protect yourself against out-of-control cortisol levels.

1. Get adequate sleep.

Aim for at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night to balance cortisol. Research has found that sleep loss can compromise your body’s ability to moderate cortisol levels.

2. Move your body.

Exercise is great for balancing cortisol levels, but not the overly strenuous kind—or exercise performed too close to bedtime. Something like a good walk will do the trick, according to research.

3. Meditate.

Many studies have found that meditation lowers stress and cortisol levels, including a recent 2021 meta-analysis.

4. Try hypnosis.

Research on medical hypnosis and its association with lowered cortisol levels dates back to the mid-1960s!

5. Explore tapping.

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), often called EFT tapping, has been shown to lower anxiety, depression, and cortisol levels, in a randomized controlled trial.

6. Laugh more.

Studies have shown that having a good laugh can lower cortisol levels. Cultivate your sense of humor, watch comedies, and laugh often.

7. Practice deep breathing.

Taking a few deep belly breaths can almost immediately lower cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure—and promote relaxation, according to a randomized controlled trial.

8. Listen to relaxing music.

Music is powerful and can turn on the relax response. Research showed lowered cortisol levels in surgery patients that listened to music pre-op.

9. Practice Tai chi.

One of the most popular forms of exercise in China among middle-aged and elderly people, this martial art involves slow, rhythmic movements. According to a clinical trial, it can reduce cortisol levels and stress.

10. Enjoy a massage.

We don’t need research to tell us massages reduce stress, but it does. In fact, studies show it lowers cortisol levels while increasing feel-good dopamine and serotonin levels, boosting your mood! 

11. Adopt a pet.

Having a dog, cat, or other pet (even pet fish!) that you interact with can lower cortisol levels, studies show. What’s more, having a pet to cuddle with boosts the trifecta of feel-good neurochemicals: oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin.

12. Eat healthy foods.

Certain foods are associated with lower cortisol levels, including dark chocolate, the Mediterranean diet (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seafood, beans, nuts, and healthy fats like olive and avocado oil), prebiotics (plant fiber that feeds good gut bacteria), green and black tea, and adequate water intake.

13. Take supplements.

Research shows that a number of herbal and nutritional supplements—including ashwagandha, rhodiola, phosphatidylserine, l-theanine, and fish oil—are associated with lower cortisol levels.

Chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here

5 Comments »

  1. Are you in NYC? I loved your recent show on television It soothed my soul

    Comment by Marsha Weitzman — March 20, 2023 @ 6:17 AM

  2. This article about cortisol was helpful. Reviewed some facts I knew and introduced new info. Thanks!

    Comment by Carol Mendiola — March 20, 2023 @ 9:24 AM

  3. I have been extremely ill for over 2 decades with Lyme disease and Lyme co-infections, along with long term EBV and for years have actually been dealing with the very opposite. Severe Adrenal Fatigue where my cortisol levels stay rock bottom all day long except at night when they rise very slightly. Thanks to alternative medicine doctors, I’m no longer dealing with feeling like I’m going to pass out every time I stand up due to taking a powerful all natural supportive supplement that has at least helped. It’s unfortunate that this is not covered more because Endocrinologists are absolutely USELESS when it comes to this. It’s perplexing, but just like Lyme disease, these doctors will fight you to their death that Adrenal Fatigue does not exist. Forever grateful for Naturopaths who know for certain that it absolutely does exist and more importantly, how to easily test for this and best of all, how to address it through supportive supplementation.

    Comment by A Davis — March 20, 2023 @ 11:54 AM

  4. Hello Marsha, thank you for reaching out. At this time, Amen Clinics has 11 locations and we do have one in New York: https://www.amenclinics.com/locations/new-york-metro-area/.

    Comment by Amen Clinics — March 21, 2023 @ 9:17 AM

  5. Do you have a particular brand of supplements that you recommend for high cortisol levels?

    Comment by Julie — March 24, 2023 @ 7:57 AM

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