If you suffer from insomnia, fatigue, mood disturbances, digestive distress, weight gain, and/or stubborn belly bloat due to an imbalance of your stress hormones, this post is a great resource. We’re sharing everything you need to know about cortisol – why it’s important, how it works, what causes it to spike, symptoms of high cortisol, and our best tips and remedies to help reduce cortisol levels naturally so you can look and feel your best every single day.
What Is Cortisol?
Often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol is one of the steroid hormones made by our adrenal glands. Cortisol is best known for controlling our mood, motivation, and fear, but since most cells within our bodies have cortisol receptors, it has an impact on many other bodily functions as well. Cortisol helps reduce inflammation in the body, regulates our sleep/wake cycle, keeps our metabolism in check, controls our blood sugar levels, manages how our bodies use macronutrients, regulates our blood pressure, helps restore balance in our bodies after we experience stress, and more.
How Does Cortisol Work?
Before you start trying different techniques to help reduce cortisol levels, it’s important to take a moment to understand the function cortisol plays in your body.
When your body perceives it’s under some sort of threat, your hypothalamus sets off alarm bells, which prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is responsible for boosting your heart rate and blood pressure, and giving you the energy you need to cope with the situation at hand. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in your bloodstream and activates the fight-or-flight response in your body. It suppresses your immune, digestive, and reproductive systems and slows growth processes so your body can deal with the threat it’s facing.
Once the threat has passed, your hormone levels return to normal, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and your body resumes its normal activities. But if your body is in a state of constant stress, it remains in this fight-or-flight state. Your cortisol and stress hormones remain elevated for an extended period of time, which can cause various health problems, including anxiety and depression, headaches and digestive troubles, sleep disturbances, heart disease, cognitive impairment, and – you guessed it! – weight gain.
9 Signs of High Cortisol
As mentioned above, cortisol plays an important role in helping us deal with stressful situations, but it can become problematic in times of chronic stress. We live in a world where we are encouraged to over-schedule ourselves as much as possible, and often wear our busy lifestyles as a badge of honor. What we fail to realize is that the longer our cortisol levels remain elevated, the greater the impact it can have on our overall health.
If you believe you are suffering from an imbalance in your stress hormones, here are some warning signs to look for:
- Sleep disturbances and fatigue
- Mood disturbances, such as anxiety, depression, and irritability
- Digestive distress, including bloating, constipation, or diarrhea
- High blood pressure
- Low libido
- Changes in menstruation and/or ovulation
- Slower recovery from workouts
- Weight gain, especially in the face, chest, and abdomen
Very high cortisol levels can lead to a condition called Cushing’s Disease. Cushing’s Disease is rare and usually caused by an underlying issue (i.e. overuse of cortisol medication, a tumor in the adrenal gland, etc.), but if you are experiencing signs of high cortisol, it’s always best to check with your physician to rule out other potential health conditions.
9 Ways to Reduce Cortisol Naturally
1. PRIORITIZE SLEEP
Sleep deprivation, sleep disturbances, and sleeping at the wrong time (i.e. during the day versus at night) can all contribute to elevated cortisol levels. Quality sleep is an essential part of your overall health, both physically and mentally. In addition to causing high cortisol, ongoing sleep deprivation can lead to issues such as heart disease, kidney disease, high blood sugar, anxiety, diabetes, stroke, weight gain, and increased body fat.
Of course, stress, anxiety, and hormones can all interfere with our sleep, as can becoming a new parent and working evening shifts. So even if you’re committed to improving the length and quality of your sleep, your body and daily schedule may not cooperate. If this sounds like you, give some of these tips a try:
- Stick to a Regular Sleep Schedule. A regular sleep schedule is key to a good night’s sleep. If you tend to always go to bed at different times, this can really mess up your sleep cycle. It’s best for your biological clock if you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, including weekends. Some people like to sleep in later on the weekends, but doing that can make insomnia worse.
- Exercise During the Day. Exercise is a great way to make yourself feel tired and help you get to sleep quickly. Exercise boosts your serotonin levels and can help reduce cortisol to improve the quality of your sleep. Moderate-intensity exercise seems to work best, whereas extreme and excessive exercise may lead to a poorer sleep.
- Don’t Drink Caffeine in the Afternoon. Drinking caffeine after 2 pm can seriously interfere with your sleep cycle. Although everyone reacts differently to the effects of caffeine, it’s generally best not to drink it at least 6 hours before you sleep, and even more if you struggle with insomnia. Try to limit coffee consumption to the morning if you can, or cut it out completely.
- Create a Bedtime Routine. Having the same routine every night before you go to sleep can help calm your mind, relax your body, and condition yourself to realize it’s time to go to sleep. This routine can be 15 minutes to an hour – whatever works best for you – but be consistent with it every night. Find a routine that works for you whether that includes taking a warm bath, stretching, writing in a gratitude journal, reading, writing down your to-do list or goals, or anything else that feels good.
- Practice Meditation Before Bed. Meditation can bring your mind and body to total relaxation before bed, and help you get to sleep faster. Meditation helps enhance melatonin levels and helps the brain to achieve a sleepy state. It will be easier to fall asleep and you’ll wake up feeling more energized.
THIS POST has more great tips for those who struggle to fall asleep – and stay asleep!
2. REDUCE YOUR CAFFEINE INTAKE
Since caffeine increases both cortisol and blood pressure, removing caffeine from your diet is a great natural way to reduce cortisol secretion. Some people opt to give up their caffeine fix cold turkey, but I learned the hard way that caffeine withdrawal can lead to a lot of uncomfortable symptoms including headache, fatigue, reduced energy, difficulties with concentration, mood disturbances, irritability, and tremors. A much better strategy is to cut down on your caffeine consumption gradually. I like to slowly start swapping out a portion of my coffee with decaf so I still feel like I’m getting my morning fix!
3. AVOID ALCOHOL
While we’re on the topic of beverages, another great tip for those who want to reduce cortisol is to limit your alcohol consumption. While it may feel like a glass of wine after a stressful day should have a positive impact in keeping your cortisol down, that’s actually not the case. Since alcohol is a depressant, it can have a negative impact on your mood once the initial effects wear off. Couple that with the stress you’re already feeling and the fact that alcohol interferes with our ability to get a good night of sleep, and it’s no surprise that alcohol can actually make you feel worse instead of better.
4. INCREASE YOUR CARDIOVASCULAR EXERCISE
While cardio is known to help you burn fat and calories, it can also help you manage feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, and improve the quality of your sleep. With that said, too much cardio can backfire on you. Overtraining causes an increase in cortisol, which can have a negative impact on your mood, sleep, and waistline. Instead of doubling up on your cardio workouts, stick to mild and moderate exercises like walking, jogging, cycling, and swimming.
5. WATCH YOUR SUGAR INTAKE
While indulging in a sweet treat can help reduce cortisol when you’re feeling stressed, eating foods high in sugar on the regular can keep your cortisol levels elevated. Try to save desserts for special occasions, and when you do have a craving for something sweet, stick with healthier options like dark chocolate (70%+ cocoa is best), plain yogurt with berries, or a rice cake topped with almond butter, sliced banana, and coconut flakes.
6. CLEAN UP YOUR DIET
In addition to monitoring your sugar intake, eating a balanced diet is key if you want to reduce cortisol secretion. Make sure you’re staying hydrated, drink black and/or green tea, and load on up cortisol-lowering foods like dark chocolate, bananas, pears, and probiotic foods.
7. FIND ACTIVITIES THAT HELP YOU RELAX
If you want to reduce cortisol levels, finding activities that help you relax is so important. Deep breathing, meditation, and yoga are all great relaxation techniques, but if that’s not your thing, there are other ways you can help reduce stress naturally. Here area some ideas to consider:
- Coloring. Adult coloring books gained popularity a few years ago, and for good reason. Coloring relaxes the brain and is a great stress-reducing activity you can use to help keep your thoughts in the present moment. It’s extremely portable, making it a good option for lunch breaks, while traveling, when waiting in doctor’s offices, etc., and there are tons of great coloring apps you can use with your smartphone or tablet.
- Jigsaw puzzles. If coloring isn’t your thing but you like the idea of having an activity you can enjoy either independently or with your family at the end of the day to unwind, jigsaw puzzles are a great idea to consider (this ‘Things I Ate as a Kid’ puzzle is a great one!). My mom and sister were always working on a puzzle when I was growing up, and once the puzzle mat was invented, it made it easy to store during the day.
- Journaling. For those who enjoy writing, journaling is another great way to relax. Writing in a journal provides a great outlet, helps promote a sense of calm, provides perspective, and can help identify triggers and patterns as well as provide solutions. It also forces you to focus only on the topic you are writing about, which is a great way to stay centered and in the moment. We’ve written a whole post about journaling for emotional well-being, including our favorite guided journals and journal prompts, which you can read HERE.
- Relax in the tub. Whenever I ask my friends what their favorite self-care rituals are, the most common answer I get is a hot bubble bath with candles after a difficult day. If you’re looking for ways to relax and reduce your stress that are easy to fit into your schedule, this is a great way to try!
8. DO SOME PERSONAL HOUSEKEEPING
If you want to know how to reduce cortisol, keeping stress at bay is key. And while diet, exercise, sleep, and finding ways to relax and unwind will certainly lower your stress and anxiety, it’s important to do a little bit of inner reflection as well. Are you happy? Do you feel comfortable and confident in your body? Does your career fulfill you? Are you harbouring guilt and shame over something you need to let go of? What is the quality of your relationships with close family members and friends? Be honest with yourself as you ponder these questions, and if you identify one or more areas of your life that cause you feelings of stress, anxiety, and negativity, commit to making some changes and put a plan in place. Get back into a healthy eating and exercise regime, apply for that promotion at work, find a therapist to help you let go of past mistakes, and have those tough conversations with family and friends to help clear the air.
9. ENJOY YOUR LIFE
My final tip for those in search of natural ways to reduce cortisol is simple: laugh a lot and have fun. Laughter truly is the best medicine, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed. It’s good for your health and improves your immune system and mood. Laughing also relieves your stress response, reduces tension by relaxing your muscles, and releases endorphins. Hang out with people who make you laugh, watch a funny TV show or movie, listen to a funny podcast, watch funny clips on YouTube…you get the idea!
I hope these tips to reduce cortisol naturally help you balance your stress hormones so you can improve the quality of your sleep, reduce digestive distress, lower your blood pressure, and get rid of stubborn belly fat and weight gain so you can look and feel your best!