How to Lower Your Cortisol Levels Naturally

Medically Reviewed By Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
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You may be able to naturally lower your cortisol levels by changing your diet, exercising, managing stress, and getting adequate sleep. Cortisol is one of the body’s main stress hormones. It optimizes body functions to help the body manage physical or psychological stress.

High cortisol levels can be a good thing when your body is responding to a threat, such as an injury. It ensures the body has what it needs to execute the fight-or-flight response.

However, sustained increases in cortisol can eventually cause problems, such as high blood pressure and hyperglycemia.

This article explains natural ways to lower stress and cortisol levels.

Diet

Two people exercising in the sun
Kristen Curette & Daemaine Hines/Stocksy United

Cortisol can influence many things that affect the way your body processes food and regulates fuel.

One of the main factors is how the body handles glucose. Cortisol keeps blood glucose levels high to give your body the energy it needs to fight stress. It does this through several actions, including:

  • boosting the amount of glucose the liver releases
  • increasing glucagon and decreasing insulin
  • stimulating appetite

Low blood sugar levels will trigger cortisol production in an effort to boost blood sugar levels. Conversely, ingesting carbohydrates — the main source of glucose — will reduce cortisol levels. So, in the end, maintaining more consistent glucose levels may help even out your cortisol levels.

In fact, researchers have looked at the effect of low and high glycemic index foods on cortisol. They found that eating a high glycemic index diet resulted in higher levels of cortisol.

Foods with a high glycemic index cause glucose levels to swing from high to low. These foods include refined and processed foods and sugars, such as white bread and desserts.

Eating a low glycemic index diet may help influence cortisol levels and keep them consistent. Foods low on the glycemic index help the body avoid extreme swings in blood glucose levels by releasing glucose into the blood more slowly.

Low glycemic index foods include:

  • beans and legumes
  • citrus fruits, apples, and grapes
  • low fat dairy products
  • nonstarchy vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cucumbers
  • nuts
  • whole grain cereals and pasta

Other nutrients that may help manage stress include:

The best way to get vitamins and nutrients is through food. Always check with your doctor before adding any vitamin supplements to your diet.

Exercise

Physical exercise is a stressor that increases cortisol levels. However, avoiding exercise is not the answer to lowering cortisol naturally. 

Research suggests that cortisol levels increase with the intensity and duration of exercise. The longer and harder the physical effort, the higher the resulting cortisol levels.

But this does not mean that endurance or high intensity training is bad. Cortisol levels will fall after exercise. Therefore, this type of exercise requires adequate recovery to allow cortisol levels to return to normal. 

Exposure to higher concentrations of cortisol during intense exercise also has some benefits. For example, a 2021 study found that people were able to cope better with psychosocial stress following exercise. The size of the effect depended on the intensity of the exercise.

Exercise has many other health benefits and is part of an overall healthy lifestyle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week for healthy adults. Adults should also aim for two muscle-building sessions each week.

Stress management

Since cortisol is one of the main stress hormones, stress management is a key factor in regulating its levels.

Living with high stress and high cortisol can cause both physical and mental health problems, including:

Chronic stress can also weaken your immune system, making you more likely to get sick.

Managing stress can help reduce cortisol levels and its effects. Tips for managing stress include:

  • avoiding alcohol and other substances
  • engaging in positive self-talk
  • exercising regularly with adequate rest periods
  • learning deep breathing exercises
  • managing your time effectively
  • participating in hobbies and enjoyable activities
  • planning and breaking down tasks into manageable items
  • talking with trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals

Adequate sleep and proper sleep environment

Cortisol can have an effect on sleep and vice versa. It is one of the hormones involved in your circadian rhythm, which is the natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle.

Cortisol keeps the brain and body in a state of arousal as part of the stress response. High cortisol levels can lead to insomnia and sleeplessness. Conversely, sleep inhibits the process that leads to cortisol production.

The bottom line — to help your body balance cortisol levels, adequate sleep is essential.

Of course, this is often easier to say than to do. To promote the best sleep possible, it’s important to learn and practice sleep hygiene. 

Sleep hygiene is a system of healthy sleep habits. It helps you set the proper sleep environment and get your mind and body ready for restful sleep.

The following tips can help you optimize your sleep hygiene:

  • Avoid alcohol, which can disrupt sleep cycles.
  • Do not drink fluids too close to bedtime.
  • Do not exercise too close to bedtime.
  • Refine and follow a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Go to bed when you are sleepy and get up if you do not fall asleep within 20 minutes to do something relaxing that does not involve electronics or a lot of light.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool.
  • Limit food before bed to a light snack.
  • Limit the use of electronics and bright lights before you go to bed.
  • Reserve your bed for sleep and intercourse only.
  • Set a goal for 7–8 hours of sleep each day.
  • Stick to a regular bedtime and waking schedule, even on weekends.
  • Stop drinking caffeine several hours before you go to bed.

Summary

Cortisol serves a very important purpose for your body. It is one of the hormones that drive the stress response. This can be helpful in times of danger or injury.

However, chronic exposure to high cortisol levels can have unwanted effects. Lowering cortisol levels typically involves taking actions that will block cortisol release. These actions include maintaining a stable blood glucose level, managing stress, and getting restful sleep.

Contact your doctor to discuss additional ways to manage your stress and cortisol levels.

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Medical Reviewer: Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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