Eat Away Stress: 10 Easy Ways to Lower Your Cortisol Levels
Feeling stressed? Have you put on weight? Do you have high blood pressure? If you're reading this, the answer to at least one of those questions is probably, "yes." That also means you probably already know that your cortisol levels are to blame and now you're trying to figure out how to lower cortisol.
Lucky for you, we reached out to experts to ask for 10 science-backed tips to lower cortisol levels naturally and tackle these aforementioned health issues.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is your body's main stress hormone. The adrenal glands pump it out every time you are frazzled or alarmed. That's why we best know cortisol as helping fuel your body's "fight-or-flight" instinct. Ever feel uneasy after a close call while driving on the highway or get startled by your alarm in the morning? That's cortisol at work.
While we most often associate this hormone with negative things, cortisol plays an essential role in our lives. A certain amount of cortisol is healthy for the body, as it has anti-inflammatory properties and it's required for our bodies to function optimally.
RELATED: Your guide to the anti-inflammatory diet that heals your gut, slows the signs of aging, and helps you lose weight.
What are the negative side effects of high cortisol?
Having the right balance of cortisol levels is essential for human health. So, it should come at no surprise that too much cortisol (and the stress that precipitates it) can lead to negative side effects. (Weight gain, in particular.)
"When placed in a stressful situation, our body responds by releasing hormones, including cortisol. As more cortisol is released, it raises blood sugar levels, which can lead to weight gain, mainly around the abdomen and face," says Bonnie Balk, RD a registered dietitian and Health & Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics.
And there's even more to it than that. "Although there are many studies suggesting the connection between stress levels and weight gain, the connection may be from another cause," Balk adds. "As people experience stressful situations, they tend to turn to their 'therapist,' which is often cakes, cookies, or other sugar/salty/oily comfort food, which leads to weight gain. As abdominal fat seems to raise cortisol levels, it contributes to this unhealthy cycle."
How to lower cortisol levels naturally.
The good news is that there are 10 natural, evidence-based ways—including dietary shifts and lifestyle changes—that can help you lower your cortisol levels.
1. Cut out caffeine, or consume less.
A 2005 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that caffeine increases cortisol secretion even in people at rest. Because caffeine can stimulate cortisol production and increase blood pressure, Krista King, MS, RDN, of Composed Nutrition, offers a solution to lower cortisol: "Try doing a caffeine reset. Gradually decrease the amount of caffeine you have each day by swapping it out for a caffeine-free or lower caffeine alternative."
2. Reduce your sugar intake.
You should avoid foods that have been heavily processed and pumped full of added chemicals and sugars if you're looking for how to lower your cortisol levels. "One way to combat high cortisol levels, stress, and weight gain is to reduce (or cut out) simple sugars," says Balk. The main foods that fall under this high-sugar category include:
- white bread
While these sugary goodies might give you a temporary jolt of energy (and the inevitable, cortisol boost) Balk suggests focusing on other sources of energy. "As your body still needs to receive sugar to fuel itself, focus on having complex carbohydrates rather than simple sugars." Jim White RD, ACSM, and the owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios adds that fiber-rich foods, protein, and healthy fats will also help keep your cortisol levels within the normal range.
Foods to combat stress and lower cortisol include:
- whole grains (like a bowl of oatmeal with a banana and almond butter)
- starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas)
- dairy products
- protein foods (like scrambled eggs with spinach)
3. Avoid or limit alcohol intake when you're stressed.
Because alcohol often puts people at ease and makes them feel relaxed, you might think that it has the ability to lower cortisol levels. In fact, the exact opposite is true. A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that men who had just one drink a week saw a three percent rise in their cortisol levels, and those levels can be even higher if you're under a tremendous amount of pressure.
"We see people using alcohol to help relax; however, alcohol is a depressant. While yes, in the moment you may feel 'better,' alcohol causes several issues that appear later on," says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, who serves on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living.
"Also, alcohol can also depress your mood. Couple a depressed mood with stress (or existing depression) and you may find yourself in a terrible rut," she adds. "Alcohol can also disrupt deep sleep, so not only will you be hungover after a night of drinking, but you may also feel sick and lack a good night's sleep!"
4. Stay hydrated.
"Drinking enough water that your body requires per day can help your body regulate cortisol levels better," says White. "When our body dehydrates it can be seen as a stressor within the body, which could affect cortisol levels."
According to a 2018 study of young soccer players, even mild dehydration can lead to an increase in one's cortisol levels. In other words, if you're looking to keep your cortisol levels at bay, don't be afraid of a little H2O.
5. Stick to a regular eating schedule.
Though it can be tricky at times, sticking to an eating schedule is a great way to keep stress (that darn cortisol trigger) under control. This is in part because it takes the guesswork out of when your next meal will be, which in and of itself can be a source of anxiety. In turn, sticking to a schedule can also help prevent stress-eating, another habit that can contribute to an uptick in cortisol levels, especially since we tend to reach for cortisol-boosting sweets and comfort foods when we're overloaded.
"Recognize if and when you are engaging in stress eating: Try to keep a regular eating schedule where you avoid ever getting too hungry and avoid ever stuffing yourself to the brim," advises Miller. "Before grabbing a snack, take a minute to ask yourself if you are truly hungry. You may find that you are really just stressed and looking for something to munch on or you are bored. Try to structure an eating routine where you eat a meal/snack every 3-4 hours while awake."
6. Pinpoint your comfort food triggers.
Try writing down what you eat in an effort to get a better idea of when you stress eat. "Keeping a food journal for a week can help you pinpoint the times where you indulge in comfort foods or when you make sensible, healthier choices," says Balk. "If dinner before a big test or meeting tends to be fried 'comfort food,' it's worthwhile to stop the cycle and replace that emotion with a healthier choice or receive consolation another way."
7. Get a good night's sleep.
Every dietitian we spoke with mentioned the positive impact an adequate night's sleep can have on one's cortisol levels. Cortisol rises and falls based on our sleep cycles: it's highest just after we wake up and lowest right before we hit the hay. So, it's no surprise that sleep and cortisol levels are so heavily interconnected.
"Due to cortisol levels being linked to circadian rhythm, making sure you are getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night will help keep cortisol levels normal," explains White. "This can also help keep the fat off." According to Wake Forest researchers, people who sleep five hours or less put on two and a half times more belly fat, while those who sleep more than eight hours pack on slightly less than that.
8. Laugh it off.
Believe it or not, a good chuckle can go a long way when it comes to lowering your cortisol levels. "One way to reduce cortisol that does have research support is through deep, heartfelt laughter," says Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD. "Studies have shown that 10-20 minutes of deep heartfelt laughter reduces serum cortisol."
White concurs, noting even a good mood can help get the job done: "Have something that you look forward to every single day that can boost your mood," he says. "This can help lower cortisol levels and reduce levels of stress."
9. Break a sweat.
"High-intensity exercise over about 15-20 minutes can stimulate cortisol production," says King. To decrease it, you need a different form of exercise. "To help lower cortisol levels try shifting from high intensity to moderate and lower intensity exercise like strength training, yoga, pilates, and walking," she says.
Per a study in The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, low-intensity exercise actually results in a reduction in circulating cortisol levels.
10. But don't hit the gym too often.
By contrast, that same study from The Journal of Endocrinological Investigation showed that moderate- to high-intensity exercise provokes increases in circulating cortisol levels. In other words, when it comes to exercise, more may not be better. A separate 2012 study confirmed that long-term cortisol exposure was significantly higher in endurance athletes.
As clinical psychologist Candice Seti, PsyD—a.k.a. The Weight Loss Therapist—put it, "Skipping the second trip to the gym and taking it easy can also be good for reducing cortisol levels. [We have evidence] that over-exercising can actually lead to an increase in the hormone. This, in turn, can lead to slower weight loss."