How to Reduce Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Chronic stress can lead to an elevated cortisol level, resulting in mental, emotional, and physical health issues. Learn how to reduce cortisol naturally.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve felt truly relaxed and happy, you may be suffering from a common modern malady — an excess of cortisol.

Cortisol is a major stress hormone that contributes to mental health disorders and a wide range of physical illnesses.

In this article, we review the many proven ways to decrease cortisol naturally.

The Dangers of Excess Cortisol

Before we look at how to lower cortisol, let’s take a look at why too much of it is so hazardous to your health and mental well-being.

When you face a potential threat or danger, your body’s stress response, often called the fight-or-flight response, is triggered.

First, the stress hormones norepinephrine and epinephrine are released in a quick burst.

They quickly dissipate after the stressful situation is over and don’t hang around to do any damage.

That is followed by the release of cortisol.

" High levels of cortisol can kill brain cells by literally stimulating them to death.

When your life is (or seems to be) one crisis after another, your body continuously pours out cortisol.

This leads to a chronically elevated cortisol level, and this has some serious health implications.

Cortisol receptors are found in nearly every cell of the body which is why a high cortisol level affects so many of the body’s systems

Chronically elevated cortisol puts you at risk for diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive disorders, infertility, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, immune system disorders, osteoporosis, and, in rare cases, Cushing’s syndrome

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Elevated cortisol also contributes to numerous mental health disorders including: 

Alarmingly, high levels of cortisol can kill brain cells by literally stimulating them to death. 

It also reduces the number of new brain cells being created by decreasing the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates new brain cell formation. 

How to Reduce Cortisol With Food

You can make major strides in reducing your cortisol level by eating a healthy diet based on whole, unprocessed foods.

Be especially sure to include these foods and beverages that nourish and protect the brain and reduce cortisol levels:

Also eat plenty of foods with prebiotic fibers.

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These foods encourage the growth of beneficial gut bacteria which are now known to be integrally connected to brain health.

They can reduce cortisol and improve your mood

Prebiotic foods include: 

  • asparagus
  • bananas
  • barley
  • beans
  • cashews
  • fennel
  • garlic
  • jicama
  • leeks
  • lentils
  • mustard greens
  • onions
  • tomatoes

Dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and cacao nibs also act as prebiotics. 

Lastly, be sure to drink plenty of water and other liquids.

Being dehydrated is a physical stressor that increases cortisol. 

Start the Day Right

If you grab coffee and a donut for breakfast, you’re setting yourself up for higher cortisol levels for the rest of the day.

Sugar triggers a boost of stress hormones that can last up to five hours. 

And it can take anywhere from five to ten hours to metabolize half the caffeine you consume. 

Regular caffeine consumption can more than double your blood cortisol level. 

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Try Tea

If you get your caffeine from coffee, soda, or energy drinks, you may want to switch to tea.

Green tea contains about one-quarter the caffeine of coffee and it also contains two unique relaxing compounds, l-theanine and EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). 

According to nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, PhD, author of The Cortisol Connection Diet, l-theanine is an amino acid that counteracts the cortisol-increasing tendency of caffeine.

EGCG has been found to be a potent inhibitor that blocks the formation of cortisol

It also increases the relaxation neurotransmitter GABA.

If green tea isn’t your favorite, you can get similar effects from black tea.

In spite of its higher caffeine content, black tea also substantially decreases cortisol. 

How to Decrease Cortisol With Supplements

Changing your diet is a long-term strategy for reducing cortisol, but you might want to jump-start your efforts with supplements to get results faster.

Fortunately, there’s an entire group of supplements that specifically work to minimize the negative effects of stress.

These unique substances, known as adaptogens, are herbal remedies that increase your resilience to mental, physical, and environmental stress. 

They work by reducing the stress hormone cortisol while strengthening function of the adrenal glands.

Adaptogens neither stimulate nor sedate, but instead act like a thermostat, bringing your body into a balanced state known as homeostasis.

Here are the main adaptogens that have been found to effectively reduce cortisol:

Not all supplements for stress reduction are adaptogenic herbs.

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Here’s a baker’s dozen of other supplements with cortisol-lowering effects:

Not sure which supplements to start with?

It’s always wise to make sure you’ve got your essential nutrient needs met first.

Confirm that you have adequate intake (between food and supplements) of vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Next, I’d suggest starting with ashwagandha.

This traditional Ayurvedic remedy excels in stress reduction and decreases cortisol significantly more than many other supplements. 

Lower Cortisol Levels With Physical Exercise

Regular physical exercise is a well-known brain enhancer that improves mental health and cognitive functions while protecting the brain from the effects of aging. 

Getting regular exercise will also enable you to relax more easily.

One of the ways it does this is by reducing cortisol.

You don’t need to exercise strenuously to experience stress reduction.

In fact, exercising too much or too hard actually increases cortisol. 

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Running a marathon, for example, can initiate the stress response since your brain gets the message that you are fleeing from danger. 

Twenty to thirty minutes of light aerobic activity like walking or biking is ideal for most people.

Mind-body exercises like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are also excellent for stress relief. 

Decrease Cortisol With Sleep

Cortisol levels naturally drop during sleep, especially during the first four hours. 

A bad night of sleep doesn’t just make you feel lousy the next day, it keeps cortisol levels high well into the following evening

Sleeping six hours or less per night can significantly increase stress hormones by as much as 80%

Working the night shift or staying up all night is a disaster for your health in many ways.

It sabotages the restorative powers of sleep, increases cortisol, and adversely affects work safety, performance, and productivity. 

Power Napping

If you can’t always get the sleep you need at night, supplement your sleep by taking a power nap during the day.

Taking a power nap in the afternoon offers one of the best returns on investment of your time.

A 20-minute nap not only blasts cortisol away, it can keep your mood and energy high all day long. 

Surprisingly, taking a nap has been found to work even better than caffeine to keep productivity up the rest of the day. 

Reduce Cortisol by Monitoring Your Thoughts

One of the most insidious sources of stress is your own mental chatter.

The average brain has 70,000 thoughts each day and, for most people, 70% of them are negative

The negative impact of stress is not due to the events in your life as much as it is due to your thoughts — your automatic negative reactions and cognitive distortions — about these events.

Positive self-talk and thinking can effectively reduce cortisol. 

Meditate

One of the best ways to gain more control of your thoughts is through meditation.

Over dozens of studies support the use of mindfulness meditation for improving mental health and reducing stress. 

Meditation decreases cortisol while increasing feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, GABA, and endorphins. 

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Stop Multitasking

Multitasking, trying to do several things at once, is the opposite of mindfulness.

Research confirms that trying to multitask is stressful and actually makes you less productive

Even the seemingly innocuous habit of frequently interrupting what you are doing to check emails increases cortisol levels. 

So, stop multitasking and start focusing on doing one thing at a time.

How to Lower Cortisol With Deep Breathing

When you’re under stress, your chest gets tight and your breathing becomes fast and shallow.

These are automatic reactions that are part of the stress response.

Unfortunately, this unnatural breathing patterns has now become normal for most adults.

You can learn to minimize your physical reaction to stress by consciously breathing from your diaphragm.

A few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing will lower levels of cortisol and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to induce a state of calm. 

To breathe from your diaphragm, focus on keeping your chest still while expanding your stomach.

diaphragmatic breathing technique
Diaphragmatic breathing technique. (Image courtesy of Amanda Soto, Washington Post)

You can place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach to monitor your breaths.

By practicing this “belly breathing,” you can turn the mundane act of breathing into a cortisol-reducing habit.

More Stress Reduction Techniques and Activities That Lower Cortisol

Here are a few more stress reduction techniques and relaxing activities that have been shown to work, at least in part, by reducing cortisol.

EFT Tapping

A mind-body stress relief technique that’s gaining in popularity is the Emotional Freedom Technique, usually referred to as tapping.

It works on the same principles as acupuncture, but no needles are involved.

Acupressure points are simply tapped with the fingertips.

This is a simple technique that anyone can learn to do on their own.

It takes only ten minutes to do a session of tapping.

Amazingly, just a single tapping session can slash cortisol levels and decrease the severity of stress symptoms by 50%. 

Massage

Numerous studies support what most of us already know — that getting a massage is profoundly relaxing.

A review of the current research on the benefits of massage found that a massage significantly reduces cortisol (on average 31%) and increases the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine by 28% and 31%, respectively. 

Essential Oils

I like to call lavender the “Swiss army knife” of essential oils because it does so many things.

Its relaxing properties are legendary and we now know that one of the ways it works is by reducing cortisol

Interestingly, inhaling any scent — good or bad — affects cortisol levels.

Unpleasant smells increase cortisol while smells you find pleasant decrease it. 

So take a whiff of any natural fragrance you find appealing, be it a flower in your garden, a piece of fresh fruit, or one of the many relaxing essential oils like bergamot or chamomile.

Synthetic fragrances like the kinds found in room fresheners, perfume, and fabric softeners have been created in a lab to smell good, but should be avoided.

These synthetic fragrances are made of chemicals that can literally make you sick.

Creative Expression

Engaging in creative pursuits of all kinds can make you healthier and happier by reducing stress hormones.

Listening to, dancing to, or playing music can boost your mood and reduce chronic stress by lowering cortisol. 

Music has been found to reduce cortisol even in study participants facing some very stressful situations including pre-surgery procedures or undergoing a colonoscopy

A major review of over 100 studies on the physical and psychological benefits of music, visual arts, writing, and other forms of creative expression found that these activities affected patients in many positive ways. 

Creative pursuits gave them a sense of achievement and helped them express their feelings.

They also reduced stress by lowering cortisol.

Creative hobbies that involve repetitive motion induce a brainwave state similar to meditation.

It seems that it doesn’t much matter what your hobby is — research supports that any creative pursuit will provide similar benefits.

Knitting, crocheting, needlework, music, drawing, meditation, reading, craft hobbies, and home repairs have been found to decrease cortisol. 

Spending Time in Nature

And let’s not forget about the most popular hobby of all, gardening. 

Gardening lowers cortisol and helps those dealing with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or substance abuse recover from stress. 

One reason gardening excels at stress reduction is that simply spending time outdoors lowers cortisol, blood pressure, and pulse rate. 

But you don’t have to garden, any outdoor activity can dampen the stress response.

In Japan, the benefits of spending time outdoors is taken seriously.

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term “Shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing” to describe time spent in the woods.

A review of 24 studies confirms that simply looking at forest landscapes reduces cortisol by 13%, while walking in the woods decreases it by 16%. 

Connecting With Others

You may not feel much like connecting with others when you’re stressed out, but it may be one of the best things you can do.

There is an inverse relationship between stress and social support — the more friends you can count on, the lower your cortisol levels will be. 

And while leaning on friends when times are hard is important, don’t forget to have fun together as well.

Laughter reduces both cortisol and epinephrine. 

Enjoy the Company of Animals

And if your best buddy happens to be “man’s best friend,” that’s helpful too.

Spending time with a beloved pet can lessen fear, stress, and anxiety, making you healthier and happier.

A review of 69 studies confirmed that regular human-animal interaction resulted in a reduction in stress-related parameters including cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. 

And you don’t have to own a pet to benefit.

Spending time with a friend’s pet or a therapy animal counts as well.

This may not come as a surprise to pet owners, but one study found that the presence of their pet dog lowered the stress response even better than the presence of a close friend. 

How to Reduce Cortisol: Take the Next Step

Chronic stress leads to the continual release of the stress hormone cortisol.

And a chronically elevated cortisol level is very harmful to both your physical and mental health.

Fortunately, you can moderate cortisol production with healthy lifestyle adjustments.

Eating the right foods, getting a moderate amount of exercise, breathing properly, and employing stress reduction techniques like meditation and tapping can offset the damaging effects of cortisol and decrease its production.

Additionally, you can take cortisol-lowering supplements.

It’s easy to get caught up in aspects of life that stress you out — work, money, relationships, and health issues, to name a few.

Give yourself permission to have fun!

Engage in activities like hanging out with friends, playing with your pet, and enjoying art, music, and creative hobbies that feed your spirit and make you happy.