If you’ve heard of cortisol, you probably know it as “the stress hormone.” It’s an important part of the body’s fight or flight system, a system that has been integral to our success as a species by allowing us to quickly respond to threats and danger. While it’s true that cortisol plays a key role in the way our body responds to and processes stress, it does a lot more than just that!
Cortisol is secreted by our adrenal glands and helps with important bodily functions like:
- Regulating blood pressure
- Regulating immune system function
- Utilizing glucose
- Releasing insulin
- Regulating inflammation
It’s clear that we need cortisol for the healthy functioning of our bodies as a whole, but like many things in life, too much can cause trouble. When the body experiences chronic stress and cortisol levels elevate, negative consequences can include weight gain, high blood pressure, impaired cognitive performance, lowered immunity, unbalanced blood sugar levels and can even cause hair loss.
Read on to learn how to lower cortisol levels naturally with effective and scientifically backed tips and lifestyle changes.
9 Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally
Here are some natural ways you can lower your stress hormone levels:
1. Clean Up Your Sleep Act
We all know how important sleep is, and yet it’s one of the first things to be neglected when life gets busy or to become impacted when we’re feeling stressed.
Proper sleep has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, but what is proper sleep?
First things first, you need to get the proper amount of sleep. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, the optimal amount of sleep for adults aged 18 to 60 is between seven and nine hours.
Another important part of sleep is hygiene. “Sleep is an integral aspect of keeping cortisol levels down. It’s not just about sleeping enough, but about fixing your sleep habits and maintaining them,” said nutritionist Lovneet Batra.
Experts agree that there are some important habits to be cultivated to get a good night's sleep:
- Be Consistent: Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends and while on vacation.
- Be Sleepy: Don’t go to bed unless you’re sleepy; if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get up and out of bed to do something quiet and relaxing like reading a book.
- No Screens: Limit or stop screen exposure altogether for at least 30 minutes before bed.
- Make It Comfy: Keep your bedroom clean and tidy, quiet and relaxing.
- Keep It Simple: Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
- Keep It Cool: Keep the temperature in the comfortable-cool range.
- Watch Your Liquids: Avoid coffee, tea and alcohol for at least a few hours before bed.
- Build a Bedtime Routine: Does taking a hot bath make you sleepy? What about reading a book? Find what works for you and dedicated 20-30 minutes to your bedtime routine to wind down before you sleep.
2. Breathe Deeply
Breathing is a commonly used tool for managing stress and an integral part of many mindfulness practices like some forms of meditation. While the simple act of breathing consciously and intentionally is generally effective for reducing stress, it may not be the most helpful in decreasing cortisol levels.
Diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes called belly breathing, is a form of deep breathing that engages your diaphragm. To do it, take an intentional and deep breath, fill up your lungs and expand your chest while also directing the breath down into your belly. Research shows that diaphragmatic breathing might significantly decrease cortisol levels. Bonus: Diaphragmatic breathing might also help sustain attention for longer periods.
Quick Tips: How To Be More Mindful — Starting Right Now
3. Move Your Body
Exercise is another important tool in the toolkit for healthy living. Its benefits are multitudinous, and it can also decrease cortisol. Sounds like a no-brainer, but does the type of exercise matter?
“Studies show that exercise, especially at moderate and high-intensity levels, decreases cortisol in the body. Even low-intensity exercise will reduce the circulating cortisol in the body. Exercising regularly also contributes to other health benefits that reduce cortisol. For example, exercise (particularly outside) will also help you sleep,” shared certified fitness trainer and wellness author Jeanette DePatie.
The takeaway? Both light-moderate and more intense activity will help decrease your cortisol levels at night (when they naturally take a dip). Intense exercise will increase cortisol shortly after exercise but will reduce cortisol levels at night while also improving mood and cognition.
4. Harness The Power of Plants
Human beings have been using the power of plants to supplement and support our health and general well-being for centuries.
Take hemp and cannabis, for example. Both have been useful to humans for thousands of years and across many different practical and medicinal applications. If you haven’t yet dipped your toe into the pool of active compounds these plants provide, you’re in for a treat!
Cannabidiol (CBD), an active compound found in both hemp and cannabis plants, can support a healthier stress response through its impressive anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory benefits. It has been shown to quickly improve serotonin levels in the brain via mechanisms that are similar to a popular class of anti-anxiety and depression medications called selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs). And while cortisol is an important anti-inflammatory agent in the body, it can result in widespread inflammation when it's imbalanced. CBD’s anti-inflammatory benefits have been well-established, and can benefit your scalp, too.
Another group of plants, called “adaptogens” for their natural ability to help the body counteract the effects of stress, can reduce cortisol levels and provide systemwide stress-protective benefits via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (or the HPA axis). Specifically, ashwagandha, rhodiola and schizandra have been shown to reduce cortisol.
Related: Ashwagandha Hair Benefits
5. Lighten Up
Laughter is the best medicine. Well, perhaps not the definitive best, but it does seem to help lower cortisol levels.
And while laughing is all fun and good, “if you want to reduce cortisol, exercise that is fun and makes you laugh can be particularly helpful,” added Jeanette DePatie.
If you’re trying to figure out how to combine exercise and laughter, look no further than laughter yoga. Laughter yoga was founded by Dr. Madan Kataria, a physician from Mumbai, India, in 1995. Since then, it has grown to over 5,000 laughter clubs worldwide. And since we know that laughter helps cortisol levels and yoga helps cortisol levels, it would stand to reason that laughter yoga also helps reduce cortisol levels, right? The good news is that science supports it.
There are real benefits to intentionally living on the lighter side of life. According to David and Austin Perlmutter, co-authors of "Brain Wash: Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships, and Lasting Happiness," living in a generally negative headspace is associated with “consistently worse health outcomes across a variety of conditions ... more negativity may lead to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” So lighten up; it’s important for your mental health and general well-being.
6. Take Care of Your Gut
"Stress affects our health by influencing our gut bacteria," said Sofia Popov, a microbiome scientist and Founder/CEO of gut wellness and microbiome testing company GUTXY. "Cortisol is the primary stress hormone, and it can cause problems. Too much cortisol in the body can negatively impact our digestive systems. When our bodies are stressed, cortisol directs blood away from our digestive tract since our brain and other body parts become a priority.”
And, as it's come to be appreciated, there is an intimate connection between our gut and our brain, referred to as the gut-brain axis. “To understand the gut-brain axis, it’s important to first understand the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is a vast network of neurons that line your intestinal tract and carry messages from the gut to the brain and back,” explained Trista Best, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements.
So by taking care of your gut, you can support brain health. Which begs the question, how do you take care of your gut? According to Popov, this means eating foods containing prebiotics and probiotics.
“Probiotics are live, good bacteria such as Lactobacillus (all the more reason to grab that coconut yogurt!) Meanwhile, prebiotics provide food for the live probiotics – they won’t survive if they don’t have anything to eat! Both prebiotics and probiotics have been shown to help reduce cortisol.”
Prebiotics can be found in foods like Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus and bananas, while probiotics can be found in fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso.
7. Be Mindful
You can practice mindfulness in a variety of ways — from simply observing one’s thoughts to doing a few minutes of intentional breathing, journaling or even thinking about what you’re grateful for in life. Two pillars of mindfulness, yoga and meditation, have garnered the attention of medical researchers and both show promise for lowering cortisol levels.
Evidence suggests that yoga can not only lower cortisol levels in the blood, but it can also increase resilience and pain tolerance, improve mood and reduce anxiety. Add to that the cortisol lowering abilities of meditation, and it’s easy to see why these two mindfulness practices have been helping people live happier, healthier lives for thousands of years.
“Meditation actually reduces the frequency of brain waves and helps the body reach a parasympathetic nervous system state. This leads to lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and lower cortisol. It can help normalize the fight-or-flight response to daily stressors that so many of us are exposed to in modern life,” explained Dr. Andrea Paul, M.D. and medical advisor at Illuminate Labs.
Find Out: How To Minimize Hair Loss From Stress
8. Incorporate Mother Nature Into Your Routine
Know that feeling when you take a leisurely stroll through a park or sit by the ocean and just get lost in the waves? Nature’s effects on general human health and well-being have been well-established, and there are a few specific ways you can enjoy some time with Mother Nature while also lowering your cortisol levels.
Lowering cortisol can prevent negative health effects, including hair loss and slow-growing hair. And while you can give your tresses some TLC via GRO Hair Serum or other hair wellness products, you should also find ways to reduce your stress through nature-centered activities, such as forest bathing.
You might have heard of forest bathing as a trendy new way to enjoy time with trees, but did you know that it is actually a Japanese tradition, known as shinrin-yoku, which has been enjoyed for decades? Shinrin-yoku literally translates to “forest bath,” and what better way to lower cortisol than bathing in the rich river of tranquility a forest provides.
Maybe forest bathing isn't your thing, or you don’t have regular access to one. No problem, because urban outdoor experiences, for even just 20 minutes three times per week, were shown to have a significant impact on cortisol levels. While you’re at it, why not bring along your dog? Or have a cuddle with your cat when you get home. Pets remain a great way to relieve stress and lower your cortisol levels.
Get GROing: The GRO Complete Hair Kit
9. Eat Well
It probably doesn’t come as a huge shock that diet is important when it comes to stress reduction and cortisol levels. A varied diet filled with plenty of vegetables and fruits, and strategically supplemented where needed, is a must.
The benefits of probiotic and prebiotic foods for a healthy gut and lower cortisol levels have been covered, but what are some other foods that might help?
- Magnesium-rich foods: Look for pumpkin seeds, almonds and spinach to harness their magnesium, which has been shown to reduce cortisol levels.
- Dark chocolate: Isn’t it fun when a treat is also doing a little good for your health? Dark chocolate reduces cortisol. Great news! It also contains magnesium.
- Tea: Black and green teas have been shown to decrease cortisol levels when carrying out a stressful task.
- Water: Dehydration causes cortisol levels to rise. So keep hydrated! Dehydration might even contribute to thinning hair.
- Zinc-rich foods: Zinc can temporarily inhibit cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Meat, shellfish and legumes are all excellent sources of zinc.
One food that might actually hurt is sugar. Evidence suggests that regular consumption of high amounts of sugar will keep cortisol levels unnaturally high.
High cortisol levels can have wide-ranging negative impacts on your health, but the great news is that there are lots of simple and easy-to-implement changes you can make that will positively impact your overall health, including hair wellness, while reducing excess cortisol production.
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