Cortisol is a hormone that helps regulate metabolism, controls blood sugar, influences memory formation, maintains blood pressure, and aids the immune system. However, it is also a key component in how your body deals with and responds to stress. Ongoing, high levels of the hormone can cause a variety of unpleasant health issues.
How Does the Body Produce Cortisol?
Classified as a glucocorticoids steroid hormone, cortisol is produced by the body’s adrenal glands. The bloodstream then circulates it throughout. Virtually every human cell contains receptors that act upon the influence of the cortisol. The amount of cortisol hormone secreted is controlled by the body’s pituitary gland, hypothalamus, and adrenal glands. Unfortunately, high levels of stress can trigger the endocrine system to produce elevated levels which can be detrimental to your health.
What Does Cortisol Do?
Cortisol in the body plays a wide array of important roles.
- Keeps you alert.
- Keeps you awake.
- Prevents fatigue.
- Maintains clear thinking.
- Helps the body burn fat for energy.
- Regulates overall metabolism.
- Balances blood sugar levels.
- Reduces inflammation.
- Helps the body heal.
- Provides our ‘escape or flight’ survival mechanism.
- Controls blood pressure.
- Helps a fetus develop during pregnancy.
- Aids in your learning ability.
- Balances the body’s salt and water intake.
- Aids in memory formation.
What Happens When Your Body Produces too Much Cortisol?
Ongoing high levels of the cortisol hormone in the body can lead to Cushing’s Syndrome. It can also cause a variety of other physical conditions.
- Rapid Weight Gain — Especially in the face, chest, and abdomen.
- High Blood Pressure
- Flushed Facial Appearance
- Muscle Weakness
- Rapid Mood Swings
- Skin Changes – Bruising, Stretch Marks, Acne
- Increased Thirst
- Increased Urination
- Lowered Sex Drive
- Lack of Menstruation in Women
- Menstruation Irregularities
- Fertility Problems
- Increased Susceptibility to Infection
What Causes HIgh Cortisol Levels?
Stress remains the number one cause of high cortisol levels. However, there are eight other factors that have also been shown to cause increases and an elevated state.
- Sleep — Changes in your sleep routine that upsets your body’s natural circadian rhythm also leads to elevated levels of the hormone.
- Dietary Imbalances — A lack of healthy fats and proteins.
- Caffeine — Excessive caffeine.
- Alcohol — Too much alcohol consumption.
- Micronutrients — Insufficient micronutrients in your system.
- Antioxidants — Lacking adequate antioxidants.
- Fats — Consuming large amounts of trans or refined fats.
- Sugar — A high-sugar-glycemic diet.
Elevated Cortisol and Cushing’s Disease/Cushing’s Syndrome
Chronically elevated cortisol levels may indicate the rare disorder known as Cushing’s Syndrome. Cushing’s Syndrome is a disorder of the adrenal glands that may be caused by a tumor on the adrenal glands or the pituitary. It can also occur because of certain medications.
Many people confuse Cushing’s Disease with Cushing’s Syndrome. Cushing’s Diseases is the abnormal increase in cortisol that lasts for an extended time caused from an ectopic tumor that produces a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). A physician can readily diagnose Cushing’s using a variety of tests such as blood work and radiography scans.
Cortisol Testing and Normal Levels
Blood and urine testing are usually done to determine high levels of cortisol.
The normal blood levels of cortisol range:
- Normal cortisol levels in the morning for both adults and children range between five to 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or 138 to 635 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) according to the Cushing’s Support and Research Foundation.
- Normal cortisol during the afternoon ranges for adults and children are between three to 16 mcg/dL or 83 to 441 nmol/L
12 Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels
Here are twelve natural ways to lower your cortisol levels and return to a more normal life.
Sleep is a key fact in regulating cortisol. Research done by the Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy found that cortisol levels and the body’s circadian rhythm were directly related. During the nighttime hours, cortisol naturally drops. However, if a person does not receive adequate sleep then the natural lowering never occurs and the levels just build. The right balance of sleep helps normalize the cortisol within the body. Sleep deprivation tends to increase the hormone. Insomnia causes extreme spiking that may last for 24 hours or more. Shift workers are often more at risk of suffering from elevated cortisol because their body’s natural nighttime sleep rhythm is disturbed or completely altered.
Tips for Improving Sleep
- No Liquids Before Bed — If you are not sleeping well at night try to not consume excessive liquids prior to bedtime.
- Caffeine — Cut back on the caffeine.
- Television — Leave the television off.
- Lights — Bright lights in the bedroom may also lead to sleep disturbances.
- Distractions — Dogs barking, a ticking clock, or other noises may be distracting your body’s ability to gain sufficient sleep. Consider wearing ear plugs.
- Temperature — A cold room typically helps most people sleep better than a warm room.
- Routine — Maintain a set bedtime and wakeup time.
- Exercise — Exercising during the day helps many people experience a restful night’s sleep.
- Nap — If you are doing shift work, then a daily nap may help your body gain enough sleep.
2. Control Stress
Stress increases cortisol dramatically. Controlling your stressful thoughts can help naturally lower the hormone and improve your overall quality of life. Everyone has stress, but everyone does not handle it the same. Often learning to control your thoughts, regulate your breathing, and relaxing your body all help reduce the often overwhelming feelings of stress. Seeking professional help to work through the stressful events in your life may also be beneficial. Some people successfully gain stress reduction through exercise or yoga.
Exercise and cortisol control is a balancing game. Excessive exercise naturally increases the body’s production of cortisol. However, moderate exercise lowers the hormone. It is advised to start out slow and not push your body too much so it does not feel the need to amp up production. A short walk, a bit of cardio, yoga, biking, or some other physical activity that you enjoy but that does not push your body to its limits is ideal.
In today’s fast paced world, many people simply cannot relax. With work and family often a juggling act, there isn’t any time to focus on just kicking back and relaxing. However, taking the time to relax your body will naturally lower your cortisol levels. Here are just a few ways that you can relax and refresh your physical being.
- Breathing Control Techniques
- Listening to Music
- Enjoy a Massage
- Soak in a Warm Bath
- Watch a Calming Television Show
- Take up a Hobby Such as Sewing, Painting or Drawing
5. Consider a Pet
A pet is often extremely therapeutic. Researchers for the Frontiers in Psychology for Clinical Settings found that owning a pet significantly reduced cortisol.
6. Improve Your Inner Self
Improving on your overall life outlook and coping with your own self-doubts might reduce stress. Many people tend to bottle things up and hold negative feelings locked away. Over time, this builds up walls and creates a stressful mental situation. Often improving your inner self and learning coping mechanism to deal with things that have happened in your life will help you live a happier, stress-free existence.
7. Exploring Spirituality
Spirituality provides people with a strong sense of peace and calmness. Exploring your beliefs is often an ideal way to create a calm and more accepting lifestyle.
8. Watch Your Diet
Foods are believed to play a direct role in cortisol levels. Interestingly, sugary foods often lower cortisol levels which are believed to be why many people consume large amounts of sugary comfort foods during times of depression or stress.
Here are several foods that have been shown to reduce cortisol.
- Dark Chocolate: The International Journal of Health Sciences reports that the consumption of cocoa polyphenols found in dark chocolate significantly reduced cortisol levels.
- Tea: Both black and green teas were found to lower cortisol in a study done by the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University College London.
- Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits such as bananas and pears drop cortisol when added to a healthy diet plan. According to the Heart MD Institute, low-glycemic fresh vegetables are ideal for controlling the hormone levels.
- Probiotics and Prebiotics: Probiotics are healthy bacteria that form a symbiotic relationship with the human body. They live in the gastrointestinal tract and aid in digestion. They are a common active ingredient in yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut. Prebiotics are a form of soluble fiber. Both are highly beneficial for the human body and diminishes cortisol levels naturally.
9. Stay Hydrated
Every cell in the human body benefits from water. Staying hydrated is an important health benefit. Hydration also naturally dwindles cortisol levels in the body and is especially important during exercise.
10. Fish OIl
Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids which take down cortisol in the body. In a study done by the Department of Biomedical Science and Public Health in Ancona, Italy found that omega-3 reduced cortisol. Eating a diet high in fish and taking a fish oil supplement will assist your body in achieving its fatty acid needs.
Ashwagandha is an Asian supplement that is commonly used to alleviate stress and anxiety. It has been used for centuries and may help lessen the body’s cortisol production with continued use.
Meditation means different things to different people. However, one of the simplest ways to meditate is simply to sit down in a chair, clear your mind of all stressful thoughts or ideas, focus on your breathing, and relax. Letting yourself meditate for as little as ten minutes per day can have a dramatic effect on not only your physical health but also on your overall outlook on life. It is also a great way to get in touch with your body, mind, and soul.
Include Herbs in Your Diet to Reduce Cortisol Levels
Plants have long been touted for their healing abilities. For centuries naturopathic doctors and holistic healers have turned to them to successfully treat a multitude of physical and mental conditions.
Here are a few herbs that frequently diminish cortisol levels while providing many other healthful benefits.
- Ginseng — Ginseng provides antioxidant properties and provides antidepressant effects. It also lowers blood pressure and blood sugar.
- Licorice Root — Licorice root can increase energy and improve physical endurance. It also boosts the immune system. However, licorice root should not be taken without first consulting with your physician because it can adversely affect blood pressure.
- Cordyceps — Cordyceps mushrooms have strong antioxidant properties. They are believed to fight tumors and boost the immune system. Shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms are also powerful antioxidants that are beneficial.
- Rhodiola — Rhodiola helps battle stress and mental fatigue. It may also combat aging. Mental Health Daily reports that rhodiola provides a bevy of health benefits and effectively lowered cortisol during research.
- Holy Basil — Hdoly basil directly fights stress and battles fatigue. In India, it is considered an anti-aging supplement. It also regulates blood sugar, hormones, and blood pressure.
- Astragalus Root — Astragalus root effectively buffers stress and boosts the immune system. It is believed that it may also prevent hormones such as cortisol from binding with the body’s receptors.
Why it is so Important to Lower Your Cortisol Levels and Reduce the Stress in Your Life
Lowering your cortisol level is important for your health and well being. Part of controlling the cortisol levels includes dealing with the stress in your life. Stress is an unquestionable killer. It can cause heart attacks, strokes, illness, and cancer. Psychology Today term’s stress as the ‘killer disease’.
Finding balance by focusing on the needs of your body is key to achieving a healthier you. You should monitor your sleep needs, reduce stress, and create a healthy, mentally fulfilling life. Simply being happy with your body and the world around you goes a long ways towards achieving lower cortisol levels and creating a peaceful environment where you can flourish both mentally and physically.