Cortisol is a steroid hormone often referred to as the stress hormone. It is produced by the zona fasciculta in the adrenal gland and released in the body as a response to stress or low blood sugar. Its role is to increase blood sugar, to supress the immune system or to help in the metabolism of fat, proteins or carbohydrates. While it plays an essential part in the body’s well-being, high cortisol levels can also have serious health related side-effects.
What causes high cortisol levels?
While there are numerous causes for high cortisol levels in the body, one of the biggest causes is stress, particularly the constant stress that is often the result of a fast-paced, competitive work environment.
Other causes include liver or kidney disease, depression, obesity or hyperthyroidism. Infections, illness and certain injuries can also lead to increased cortisol levels.
How to reduce cortisol naturally
There are numerous ways to reduce cortisol to healthy levels; however, any cortisol related issues and potential solutions should be discussed with a licensed physician before being attempted.
Reduce sugar intake
What you eat has an influence on how your body behaves. When it comes to reducing cortisol, one of the easiest ways to do so is to look at your sugar intake.
Consistent high-sugar intake has been shown to keep cortisol levels elevated (Iranmanesh et al., 2011) A study by Gyllenhammer et al. (2013) also suggests that increased cortisol levels due to high sugar intake are particularly visible in overweight and obese individuals.
Paradoxically, in lower amounts without prolonged use, sugar has also been shown to have a reducing effect on stress induced cortisol according to a 2015 study. (Tryon MS et al., 2015)
Increase omega 3 fatty acids
There are, of course, numerous items that help reduce or regulate cortisol levels in the body. One of the most popular is omega 3 fatty acids. (Delarue J. et al., 2003). Fish oils are an excellent source of omega 3 acids that have been shown to reduce cortisol basal levels as well as perceived stress. (Barbadoro P et al., 2013)
Increase fruit consumption
Fruits are also an important factor in reducing cortisol. Bananas and pears have been shown to reduce cortisol levels, particularly after strenuous exercise. (Nieman DC et al., 2015) Citrus and spinach have also been said to help reduce cortisol or negative effects associated with cortisol, however further research is needed to confirm the findings.
Drink more tea
Black and green teas are affordable and easy ways to reduce and regulate cortisol levels. In a randomised double blind trial meant to show the effects of black tea consumption over a period of 6 weeks, results showed a reduction of cortisol levels as well as an increase in relaxation. (Steptoe A. et al., 2006). But hydration, regardless of the positive effects that black and green tea offers, is also essential in maintaining good cortisol levels. A study performed on athletes exercising at different intensity levels suggests that dehydration leads to increased cortisol levels. So in order to keep stress hormone imbalances at bay, proper hydration is a must. (Maresh CM. et al., 2006)
Eat dark chocolate
Dark chocolate is another key ingredient when it comes to healthy cortisol levels. Dark chocolate has been shown to reduce the urinary excretion of the stress hormone cortisol while also normalizing stress-related differences in energy metabolism. (Martin FP et al., 2009)
Take a pro-biotic supplement
Probiotics are another natural solution to cortisol issues. You can theoritically increase your guts good bacteria by eating yogurt, kim-chi, sourkraut, kefir and a host of other fermented foods. A study performed on 45 volunteers showed that a 3 week diet that included probiotics marked a significant decrease in cortisol levels as well as other benefits to gut bacteria and emotional bias. (Schmidt K et al., 2015).
However, it might be more effetcive to consume a pro-biotic supplement that can pass the bacteruia through your stomach without it being destroyed by your stomach acid. It’s also worth consuming foods that feed your gut’s bacteria, such as green baby salad leaves like rocket, spinach and kale.
Reduce foods that increase your cortisol levels
Excluding certain foods and drinks from your diet is as much a part of maintaining a healthy cortisol level as is eating the right stuff.
One of the most efficient ways of preventing cortisol spikes is to eliminate caffeine from your daily diet. Caffeine can increase cortisol levels as much as 44 per cent immediately after consumption. (Beaven et al., 2008). Switching to decaff can reduce how much your cortisol levels spike but cannot cut the effect entirely. (Lovallo et al., 2008)
Reduce alcohol consumption
Alcohol is another substance that should be avoided or used in moderation in order to keep cortisol down. A study performed on 2693 men and 977 women showed that prolonged alcohol consumption can lead to increased cortisol levels in both men and women. (Badrick et al., 2008)
Exercise has a contentious relationship with cortisol. On the one hand, it plays an essential role in naturally reducing cortisol while increasing testosterone, as well as numerous other benefits. On the other hand, it can greatly increase cortisol levels when done incorrectly.
Endurance training has been repeatedly shown to significantly increase cortisol levels, with growth being tied to the intensity of the effort according to a study performed on elite athletes and published in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine. (Perna et al., 1995).
Strength training is often seen as a good way of staying fit, healthy, reducing cortisol and increasing testosterone, however, this all applies when done in moderation. Overtraining can have disastrous effects on cortisol levels as confirmed by a 2002 study which looked at overtraining and the tools required to measure it. (Urhausen A et al., 2002) The study concluded that overtraining leads to distorted levels of testosterone and cortisol which can impair exercise performance in the long term.
Even moderate exercise can be counterproductive, as research shows that it can cause a significant rise in cortisol levels when done in a state of stress, increasing recovery time and opening a larger window for potential injuries (Perna et al., 1995).
Exercise, particularly strength training, can have a positive impact on cortisol and can lead to a healthy lifestyle when done in moderation and when pre-existing stress levels are taken into consideration.
Listen to Instrumental Music
Music is another science backed way to reduce cortisol levels. In a study performed in 2011, a team of researchers looked into the effects of listening to instrumental music during surgery. Among the numerous benefits this approach boasts, the team concluded that instrumental music has a calming effect that helps reduce cortisol levels in the body. (Stefan Koelsch et al., 2011)
Have Human Interaction: and in particular, laugh a lot
Humans are social animals; we evolved as groups and we certainly need human contact to lead healthy, meaningful fulfilling lives. This aspect is also relevant when it comes to reducing cortisol levels naturally.
Laughter for example is an easy way to reduce cortisol as a 1989 study performed on 10 subjects suggests. Laughing helps reduce stress while also significantly lowering cortisol levels. (Berk LS et al., 1989)
Get a massage
Human contact is also important. Massage therapy for example has been shown to have numerous positive effects on stress related issues. A study performed in 2005 suggests that massage therapy can, on average, reduce cortisol levels by a whopping 31 per cent. (Field T et al., 2005).
Maintain healthy relationships and minimise arguements
Maintaining generally healthy relationships with relatives and loved ones is another essential step in keeping your cortisol in check for people of all ages. A 2014 study shows that children with a stable and healthy family life have lower levels of cortisol than children who live in families that often argue. (Camelia E. Hostinar et al. 2014). Even couples that have small conflicts have been shown to have a surge in cortisol for a short period immediately after an argument.
Support and empathy seem to be essential qualities that a couple need to have for reducing cortisol. A 2016 study suggests that empathy expressed by a partner quickly helped their significant other’s cortisol levels even out. The same study showed that a supportive partner managed to reduce public speaking related cortisol levels for men. (Laurent HK et al., 2016).
Spirituality can also reduce cortisol levels according to several studies. A study performed on over 90 females showed that being involved in a faith-based group regulated cortisol levels and reduced anxiety and stress. (Dedert et al., 2004) A similar study performed on patients infected with HIV showed a decrease in cortisol levels for those who participated in faith-based groups or simply expressed their faith. The results are particularly important as reduced cortisol levels are associated with an improved immune system for the HIV sufferers. (Bormann et al., 2009)
Increase physical contact with others
Even the simple act of kissing can have a positive effect on one’s cortisol levels. Through the use of blood work and an MRI machine researchers showed that kissing helps release oxytocin which in turn plays a role in reducing cortisol levels in healthy adults. (de Boer et al., 2012).
Reducing cortisol can also be as simple as having someone to hug. A 2013 study tested the reaction between cortisol levels and interpersonal communication expressed through a hug. The results showed that the group that was allowed to use hugs to express themselves had significantly lower cortisol that the group who could only use words to communicate. (Hidenobu Sumioka et al, 2013)
Improving Posture Could Reduce Cortisol by 25%
Being aware of simple things such as your posture and attitude can make a world of difference as well. Amy Cuddy conducted a Harvard backed study that showed how changing from a low-power position (slouched over, arms crossed, nervous) to a high-power one (confident, straight back, tall) could reduce cortisol levels by a whopping 25 per cent while also increasing testosterone. (Cuddy et al. 2015)
Meditation is another way to control cortisol levels while also enjoying numerous other health benefits. In a 2015 study, researchers concluded that meditation can have huge benefits including lower blood pressure, cortical thickening, activation of areas of the brain that are associated with attention and emotion regulation and lower cortisol levels. (Buttle H et al., 2015)
Yoga is yet another natural way to reduce stress hormones. A Guangzhou Medical University study that looked at the effects of qigong/tai chi on cancer patients concluded that among numerous benefits to the immune system and general levels of fatigue, cortisol levels were also significantly reduced. (Zeng Y et al., 2014).
Get Better Sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep is perhaps the simplest and one of the most effective ways of lowering cortisol levels naturally. Research shows that even partial sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in cortisol levels of 45 per cent and disrupt daily hormone patterns. (Leproult et al., 1997).
Severe cases of insomnia have been shown to cause increased cortisol levels that last up to and exceeding 24 hours. (Spreng M et al., 2004)
Healthy cortisol levels can be obtained naturally in a number of ways, from extremely simple ones like sleeping or having pleasant interactions to meditation, yoga and complex nutrition. Besides reducing stress and improving general well-being, maintaining a balanced cortisol level provides a series of benefits that are easily achievable for just about anyone willing to follow some simple life-style rules.
Supplements that reduce cortisol
The methods described above are easy to follow and should be your first port of call for reducing cortisol. However, if stress is having an immediate negative effect on your life it could be worth taking a supplement designed to reduce your cortisol levels.
References and further reading
- Iranmanesh, A., Lawson, D., Dunn, B., & Veldhuis, J. D. (2011). Glucose Ingestion Selectively Amplifies ACTH and Cortisol Secretory-Burst Mass and Enhances Their Joint Synchrony in Healthy Men. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 96(9), 2882–2888. http://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2011-0682
- Gyllenhammer, L. E., Weigensberg, M. J., Spruijt-Metz, D., Allayee, H., Goran, M. I., & Davis, J. N. (2014). Modifying Influence of Dietary Sugar in the Relationship Between Cortisol and Visceral Adipose Tissue in Minority Youth. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 22(2), 474–481. http://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20594
- Tryon, M. S., Stanhope, K. L., Epel, E. S., Mason, A. E., Brown, R., Medici, V., … Laugero, K. D. (2015). Excessive Sugar Consumption May Be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View From the Brain and Body. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 100(6), 2239–2247. http://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2014-4353
- Delarue J, Matzinger O, Binnert C, Schneiter P, Chiolero R, Tappy L. Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men. Diabetes Metab. 2003;29:289–295.
- Barbadoro P, Annino I, Ponzio E, Romanelli RML, D’Errico MM, Prospero E, Minelli A. Fish oil supplementation reduces cortisol basal levels and perceived stress: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial in abstinent alcoholics. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2013;57:1110–4. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201200676
- Nieman D. C. et al. Metabolomics-Based Analysis of Banana and Pear Ingestion on Exercise Performance and Recovery. J. Proteome Res. 14, 5367–5377 (2015).
- Steptoe A., Gibson E.L., Vuononvirta R., Williams E.D., Hamer M., Rycroft J.A., Erusalimsky J.D., Wardle J. The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: A randomised double-blind trial. Psychopharmacolog. 2007;190:81–89. doi: 10.1007/s00213-006-0573-2.
- Maresh CM, Whittlesey MJ, Armstrong LE, Yamamoto LM, Judelson DA, et al. (2006) Effect of hydration state on testosterone and cortisol responses to training-intensity exercise in collegiate runners. International journal of sports medicine 27:765–770.
- Martin FP, Rezzi S, Pere-Trepat E, Kamlage B, Collino S, Leibold E, Kastler J, Rein D, Fay LB, Kochhar S. Metabolic effects of dark chocolate consumption on energy, gut microbiota, and stress-related metabolism in free-living subjects. J Proteome Res 2009;8:5568–79.
- Schmidt, K., Cowen, P. J., Harmer, C. J., Tzortzis, G., Errington, S., & Burnet, P. W. J. (2015). Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology, 232(10), 1793–1801. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-014-3810-0
- Perna, F.M. & McDowell, S.L. Int. J. Behav. Med. (1995) 2: 13. doi:10.1207/s15327558ijbm0201_2
- Anderson, T., Lane, A.R. & Hackney, A.C. Eur J Appl Physiol (2016) 116: 1503. doi:10.1007/s00421-016-3406-y
- Perna, F.M. & McDowell, S.L. Int. J. Behav. Med. (1995) 2: 13. doi:10.1207/s15327558ijbm0201_2
- Koelsch, S., Fuermetz, J., Sack, U., Bauer, K., Hohenadel, M., Wiegel, M., … Heinke, W. (2011). Effects of Music Listening on Cortisol Levels and Propofol Consumption during Spinal Anesthesia. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 58. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00058
- Field T., Hernandez-Reif M., Diego M., Schanberg S., Kuhn C. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. Int. J. Neurosc. 2005;115:1397–1413. doi: 10.1080/00207450590956459.
- Hostinar, C. E., & Gunnar, M. R. (2013). Future Directions in the Study of Social Relationships as Regulators of the HPA Axis across Development. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology : The Official Journal for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, American Psychological Association, Division 53, 42(4), 564–575. http://doi.org/10.1080/15374416.2013.804387
- Laurent HK1, Hertz R2, Nelson B3, Laurent SM2. Mindfulness during romantic conflict moderates the impact of negative partner behaviors on cortisol responses. Horm Behav. 2016 Mar;79:45-51. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2016.01.005. Epub 2016 Jan 19.
- Dedert E. A., Studts J. L., Weissbecker I., Salmon P. G., Banis P. L., Sephton S. E. (2004). Religiosity may help preserve the cortisol rhythm in women with stress-related illness. Int. J. Psychiatry Med. 34, 61–77. 10.2190/2Y72-6H80-BW93-U0T6
- Bormann, J. E., Aschbacher, K., Wetherell, J. L., Roesch, S., & Redwine, L. (2009). Effects of faith/assurance on cortisol levels are enhanced by a spiritual mantram intervention in adults with HIV: A randomized trial. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66(2), 161–171. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2008.09.017
- de Boer A., Van Buel E., Ter Horst G. (2012). Love is more than just a kiss: a neurobiological perspective on love and affection. Neuroscience 201 114–124. 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2011.11.017
- Sumioka, H., Nakae, A., Kanai, R., & Ishiguro, H. (2013). Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels. Scientific Reports, 3, 3034. http://doi.org/10.1038/srep03034
- Review and Summary of Research on the Embodied Effects of Expansive (vs. Contractive) Nonverbal Displays; Dana R. Carney, Amy J. C. Cuddy, Andy J. Yap; Psychological Science Vol 26, Issue 5, pp. 657 – 663First published date: April-03-2015 10.1177/0956797614566855
- Buttle, H. (2015). Measuring a Journey without Goal: Meditation, Spirituality, and Physiology. BioMed Research International, 2015, 891671. http://doi.org/10.1155/2015/891671
- Zeng Y, Luo T, Xie H, Huang M, Cheng ASK. Health benefits of qigong or tai chi for cancer patients: a systematic review and meta-analyses. Complement Ther Med. 2014;22(1):173–86. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2013.11.010.
- Beaven C, Hopkins W, Hansen K, Wood M, Cronin J, Lowe T. Dose effect of caffeine on testosterone and cortisol responses to resistance exercise. J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008;18(2):131–141.
- Lovallo, W. R., Whitsett, T. L., al’ Absi, M., Sung, B. H., Vincent, A. S., & Wilson, M. F. (2005). Caffeine Stimulation of Cortisol Secretion Across the Waking Hours in Relation to Caffeine Intake Levels. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67(5), 734–739. http://doi.org/10.1097/01.psy.0000181270.20036.06
- Badrick, E., Bobak, M., Britton, A., Kirschbaum, C., Marmot, M., & Kumari, M. (2008). The Relationship between Alcohol Consumption and Cortisol Secretion in an Aging Cohort. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 93(3), 750–757. http://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2007-0737
- Spreng M. Noise induced nocturnal cortisol secretion and tolerable overhead flights. Noise Health. 2004;6(22):35–47.