Chronic stress can lead to an elevated cortisol level resulting in mental, emotional, and physical health issues. Learn how to reduce cortisol naturally.
What you’ll learn about reducing cortisol in this article:
- The dangers of excess cortisol
- How to reduce cortisol with food and supplements
- How to moderate cortisol levels with exercise, sleep, and relaxation techniques
- How creative expression impacts cortisol levels
- Learn to lower cortisol by monitoring your thoughts
- How connecting with others decreases cortisol (pets included!)
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.
If you are concerned that stress is ruining your life and possibly damaging your health, here are ten 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 damage.
That is followed by the release of cortisol.
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 high cortisol affects so many systems. (1)
Chronically elevated cortisol puts you at risk for diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive disorders, infertility, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disorders, immune system disorders, and, in rare cases, Cushing’s syndrome. (2, 3, 4, 5)
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Alarmingly, high levels of cortisol can kill brain cells by literally stimulating them to death. (10)
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 Balance Norepinephrine Levels Naturally
1. 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 which nourish and protect the brain and reduce cortisol levels:
- berries (11)
- black tea (12)
- chamomile tea (13)
- dark chocolate (14)
- garlic (15)
- green tea (16)
- olive oil (17)
- turmeric (18)
- wild-caught salmon (19)
Also eat plenty of prebiotic foods.
These are foods that encourage the growth of gut bacteria which are now known to be integrally connected to brain health.
Dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and cacao nibs also act as prebiotics. (23)
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Lastly, be sure to drink plenty of water and other liquids.
Start the Day Right
If you grab coffee and a donut for breakfast, you’ll be setting yourself up to increase your cortisol level for the rest of the day.
It can take up to ten hours to metabolize half the caffeine you consume. (28)
A habit of regular caffeine consumption can more than double your blood cortisol level. (29)
If you get your caffeine from coffee, soda or energy drinks, you may want to switch to tea.
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Green tea contains about one-quarter the caffeine of coffee and it also contains two unique relaxing compounds, l-theanine and EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). (30)
According to Dr. Shawn Talbott, author of The Cortisol Connection Diet, l-theanine is an amino acid that counteracts the cortisol-increasing tendency of caffeine.
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EGCG has been found to be a potent inhibitor that blocks the formation of cortisol. (31)
It also increases the relaxation neurotransmitter GABA.
Surprisingly, even black tea, which contains more caffeine than green tea, substantially decreases cortisol. (32)
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2. How to Decrease Cortisol with Supplements
Changing your diet is a long-term strategy, but you might want to jump-start your efforts 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. (33)
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Here are adaptogens known to effectively reduce cortisol:
- Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea) (35)
- ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) (36)
- bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) (37)
- ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) (38)
- ginseng (Panax ginseng) (39)
- holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) (40)
- schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) (41)
Not all supplements for stress reduction are adaptogenic herbs.
Here’s a baker’s dozen of other supplements with cortisol-lowering effects.
- alpha-GPC (42)
- curcumin (43)
- fish oil (44)
- lactium (from whey protein) (45)
- lemon balm (46)
- l-theanine (47)
- magnesium (48)
- prebiotics (49)
- probiotics (50)
- phosphatidylserine (51, 52)
- St. John’s wort (53)
- vitamin C (54)
- zinc (55)
Not sure which supplements to try?
It’s always wise to make sure you’ve got your essential nutrient needs met first.
Do you get adequate vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet?
Next, I’d suggest starting with ashwagandha.
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This traditional Ayurvedic remedy excels in stress reduction and decreases cortisol significantly more than many other supplements. (56)
How Adaptogenic Herbs Reduce Cortisol and Stress
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3. Lower Cortisol Levels with Physical Exercise
Getting regular exercise will also enable you to relax more easily.
One of the ways it does this is by reducing cortisol.
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You don’t need to exercise strenuously to experience stress reduction.
In fact, exercising too much or too hard actually increases cortisol. (59)
Running a marathon, for example, can initiate the stress response — your brain gets the message that you are fleeing from danger! (60)
Twenty to thirty minutes of light aerobic activity like walking or biking is ideal for most people.
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4. Decrease Cortisol with Sleep
Cortisol levels naturally drop during sleep, especially during the first four hours. (63)
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! (64)
Sleeping six hours or less per night can significantly increase stress hormones by as much as 80%. (65)
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. (66)
If you can’t always get the sleep you need at night, supplement by taking a power nap during the day.
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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, it can keep your mood and energy high all day long. (67)
Surprisingly, taking a nap has been found to work even better than caffeine to keep productivity up the rest of the day. (68)
5. Reduce Cortisol by Monitoring Your Thoughts
One of the most insidious sources of stress is your own mental chatter.
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The negative impact of stress is not due to the events in your life so 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. (71)
One of the best ways to gain more control of your thoughts is through meditation.
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Over 18,000 studies support the use of mindfulness meditation as one of the best daily habits for improving mental health and reducing stress. (72)
Multitasking, trying to do several things at once, is the opposite of mindfulness.
So, stop multitasking and start focusing on doing one thing at a time.
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6. 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, most adults now breathe this way most of the time.
You can learn to minimize your physical reaction to stress by consciously breathing from your diaphragm.
To breathe from your diaphragm, focus on keeping your chest still while expanding your stomach.
You can place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach to help monitor your breaths.
By practicing “belly breathing,” you can turn the mundane act of breathing into a cortisol-reducing habit.
You’ll find full instructions for diaphragmatic breathing in our article on breathing exercises for anxiety.
7. More Stress Reduction Techniques That Blast Cortisol
When done right, any stress reduction technique can make you feel more relaxed.
But not all have been proven to lower high cortisol.
Besides deep breathing and meditation, here are a few more relaxation techniques with evidence to support that they work at least in part by reducing cortisol.
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.
You’ll find a video of a follow-along tapping session in our article on stress management techniques.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of massage for people experiencing various forms of physical and psychological stress.
Across the board, it has been found that getting a message is not just relaxing, it significantly reduces cortisol. (81)
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. (82)
Interestingly, inhaling any scent — good or bad — affects cortisol levels.
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Unpleasant smells increase cortisol while smells you find pleasant decrease it. (83)
So take a whiff of any natural fragrance you find appealing, be it a flower in your garden, a ripe piece of fruit, or one of the many relaxing essential oils like bergamot or chamomile.
Synthetic fragrances like the kinds found in room fresheners, perfume, or 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. (84)
8. How to Decrease Cortisol with Creative Expression
Engaging in creative pursuits of all kinds can make you healthier and happier by reducing stress hormones.
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. (91)
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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 do.
9. Lower Cortisol by Spending Time in Nature
And let’s not forget about the most popular hobby of all — gardening! (94)
Gardening lowers cortisol and helps those dealing with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or substance abuse recover from stress. (95)
One reason gardening excels at stress reduction is that simply spending time outdoors lowers cortisol, blood pressure, and pulse rate. (96)
But you don’t have to garden — any outdoor activity will do!
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 13.4%, while walking in the woods decreases it by 15.8%. (97)
10. Reduce Cortisol by Connecting
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.
And while leaning on friends when times are hard is important, don’t forget to have fun together as well.
And if your best buddy happens to be “man’s best friend,” that’s OK too.
A review of 69 studies found that regular human-animal interaction resulted in a reduction in stress-related parameters including cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. (104)
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. (105)
How to Reduce Cortisol: The Bottom Line
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, taking the appropriate supplements, getting a moderate amount of exercise, learning to breathe properly, and employing stress reduction techniques like meditation and tapping can offset the damaging effects of cortisol and decrease its production.
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 feel happy.