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 — excess cortisol.
Cortisol is a major stress hormone that contributes to mental distress and a wide range of physical illnesses.
If you are concerned that stress is ruining your life and possibly damaging your health, here are five things you can do to reduce cortisol naturally.
Why It’s Critical to Reduce Excess Cortisol
Before we look at how to lower cortisol, let’s take a look at why a high level 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.
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.
Chronically elevated cortisol is linked to lowered immune function, obesity, high blood pressure, insomnia, and heart disease. (1)
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Stress negatively impacts every cognitive function. (6)
Alarmingly, cortisol kills existing brain cells by literally stimulating them to death. (7)
It also reduces the number of new brain cells being created by decreasing the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) — a protein that’s integral in stimulating new brain cell formation.
So, now you know how elevated cortisol is bad for your health.
Here are the steps you can take to lower your cortisol level and production.
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1. Reduce Cortisol with Diet
You can make major strides in reducing cortisol levels by eating a diet based on whole, unprocessed foods.
Be sure to include these foods which have a well-deserved reputation as brain foods that nourish and protect the brain and reduce cortisol levels:
- wild-caught salmon (8)
- dark chocolate (9)
- berries (10)
- garlic (11)
- olive oil (12)
- turmeric (13)
- green tea (14)
- chamomile tea (15)
Also consider eating prebiotic foods.
These are foods that encourage the growth of gut bacteria which are now known to be integrally connected to, and supportive of, brain health. (16)
Somewhat surprisingly, eating prebiotic foods can reduce cortisol and improve your mood. (17)
Dark chocolate, cocoa powder, and cacao nibs also act as prebiotics. (20)
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Since most of these foods are delicious, adding them to your diet should be easy.
However, it won’t be so easy to reduce or remove two popular two substances known to increase cortisol — sugar and caffeine.
The caffeine jolt you get from coffee, energy drinks, and soda stimulates the adrenal glands to pump out more cortisol.
A habit of regular caffeine consumption can more than double your blood level of this stress hormone. (23)
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But green tea, which contains about one-quarter the caffeine of coffee, also contains two unique relaxing compounds — l-theanine and EGCG. (24)
According to Dr. Shawn Talbott, author of The Cortisol Connection Diet, l-theanine is a cortisol-controlling amino acid that counteracts the cortisol-increasing tendency of caffeine.
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2. Take Supplements That Reduce Cortisol
Changing your diet is a long-term cortisol reduction strategy, so you might want to jump-start your efforts to get results faster.
Fortunately, there’s an entire group of supplements whose specific purpose is to reduce 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. (25)
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There are only a few dozen herbs that fit adaptogenic criteria.
Here are a few of my favorites that are known to be effective for reducing cortisol:
- Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea) (27)
- ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) (28)
- bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) (29)
- ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) (30)
- holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) (31)
- schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) (32)
If you aren’t sure which one to try first, I’d suggest starting with ashwagandha.
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Ashwaganda excels in stress reduction and can reduce cortisol by an impressive 25%.
How Adaptogenic Herbs Reduce Cortisol and Stress
3. Lower Cortisol Levels with Physical Exercise
It will help you increase your energy and relax more easily.
One of the ways it does this is by reducing cortisol.
Interestingly, you don’t need to exercise strenuously to experience stress reduction.
In fact, exercising too much or too hard actually increases cortisol. (42)
Running a marathon, for example, can initiate the stress response — your brain gets the message that you are fleeing from danger! (43)
But twenty to thirty minutes of light aerobic activity like walking or biking will consume excess cortisol.
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4. Breathe Deeply for Stress Relief
You’ve probably noticed that 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.
This in turn creates a feedback loop, perpetuating the stress response.
You can learn to reduce 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 learning stress-relieving breathing, you can turn the mundane act of breathing into a cortisol reduction technique.
You’ll find full instructions for diaphragmatic breathing in our article on breathing exercises for anxiety.
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5. Use Proven Stress Reduction Techniques
Most stress reduction techniques work, in part, by lowering excess cortisol.
Here are a few evidence-based approaches you should consider:
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Change Your Thinking
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. (49)
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. (50)
Another mind-body stress relief technique is Emotional Freedom Technique, usually referred to as tapping.
It works on the same principles as acupuncture, except acupressure points are tapped with fingertips instead of inserting needles.
This is a simple technique that anyone can learn to do on their own.
Amazingly, just a single session of tapping can significantly reduce lower cortisol levels. (54)
You’ll find a video of a follow-along tapping session in our article on stress management techniques.
Another easy way to reduce stress is to spend time outdoors.
Spending your lunch hour in a park is fantastic, but getting outside for even a few minutes can lower cortisol, blood pressure, and pulse rate. (55)
It also offers one of the best returns on your investment of time.
A 20-minute nap can keep your mood, energy, creativity, and productivity high all day long and works even better than caffeine. (57)
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Lastly, stop multitasking and start focusing on doing one thing at a time.
How to Reduce Cortisol: The Bottom Line
Chronic stress leads to the continual release of the stress hormone cortisol.
And a chronically elevated level of cortisol is very harmful to your mental, cognitive, emotional and physical health and well-being.
Fortunately, you can reduce excess cortisol production by making stress reduction a priority.
Eating the right foods, taking the appropriate supplements, getting moderate physical exercise, learning to breathe properly, and employing stress reduction techniques like meditation and EFT can offset the damaging effects of cortisol and decrease its production.