Things You Can Do to Lower Cortisol Levels

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Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced and released by your adrenal glands, which are located on top of your kidneys. Cortisol helps regulate functions like metabolism, inflammation, and immune response.

While cortisol serves an important role in your body, there are times when your cortisol levels can get too high. This can lead to a number of health issues, such as high blood pressure, plaque buildup in your arteries (atherosclerosis), and diabetes.

High cortisol levels can be caused by everything from stress to certain medical conditions. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to lower cortisol.

What Causes High Cortisol Levels?

One factor that can cause high cortisol levels is stress. Stress triggers a combination of signals within your body, prompting your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. This is your body’s way of preparing for something challenging, harmful, or even painful.

Short bursts of stress can cause an increase in cortisol, though once that threat subsides, so do your cortisol levels. But if your stress is ongoing, your body’s response to this stressful stimuli never shuts down, which means cortisol is continuing to be produced by your adrenal glands and pumped through your body.

Aside from stress, factors like long-term oral corticosteroid use and certain tumors can increase cortisol levels.

Why Are High Cortisol Levels Bad?

Having high cortisol levels for a prolonged period of time can lead to a number of health conditions. For instance, research suggests that high cortisol levels play a big role in the development of a number of cardiovascular issues. With high cortisol, you are at increased risk for high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance.

Because cortisol can have an impact on your central nervous system, there seems to also be a connection with high cortisol levels and certain mental health conditions. For example high levels of cortisol have been linked to depression and anxiety. In fact, nearly 50% of people who have been newly diagnosed depression have excessive cortisol levels. Increased cortisol levels also are seen in people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 

While it's unclear whether the high levels are a contributing factor to the mental health condition or happen to be co-occurring, what is known is that a decrease in cortisol levels typically leads to symptom improvement.

Elevated cortisol levels can also disrupt your sleep, cause weight gain, and impair your immune system response.

If your cortisol levels are high because of medication or tumor, you can develop Cushing's syndrome. This is a condition that can lead to serious complications like heart attack and blood clots because your body has been making too much cortisol for too long.

How to Know If Your Cortisol Levels Are High

When cortisol surges in your body, you will feel much the way you would during a fight-or-flight experience. You may notice an increased heart rate and muscle tension as well as digestive symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Of course, your symptoms can vary depending on what is at the root of your increased cortisol levels. Some potential signs and symptoms of too much cortisol include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Memory issues or difficulty concentrating
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness or breakdown
  • Slowed wound healing
  • Easy bruising
  • Flushed face
  • Purple streaks on the breasts, hips, or stomach
  • Weight gain (especially in the face or abdomen)

If you or your healthcare provider suspect that you have high cortisol levels, they can perform a cortisol test to check your levels. This test measures the level of cortisol in your blood, urine, or saliva.

If the healthcare provider is checking your cortisol levels in your blood, they will order a blood test. You will get blood drawn once in the morning after taking the steroid pill dexamethasone when your cortisol levels are their highest and again in the afternoon (potentially around 4 p.m.) when your cortisol levels are much lower.

If you are doing a urine test, the healthcare provider will likely ask you to collect your urine during a 24-hour period. Sometimes a urine test for cortisol can be done with one urine specimen.

Meanwhile, with the saliva test, you will be given a kit to collect your saliva. Most likely, you will be asked to collect your saliva at night when your cortisol levels are lower.

Ways to Lower Cortisol

Living with high cortisol levels can have negative consequences. For this reason, it is important that you learn how to manage your stress and implement other changes that can help reduce your cortisol levels. Here are some things you can do right now to potentially lower your cortisol levels.

Eat a Balanced Diet

Eating a nutritious diet can help you manage stress and, in turn, potentially lower your cortisol levels. To begin, you will want to consider limiting your intake of added sugars to keep your cortisol levels from rising. Research shows that a high intake of added sugars leads to high cortisol.

Likewise, studies have shown that consuming foods high in refined grains and saturated fats can lead to higher cortisol levels when compared with a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unsaturated fats. 

Taking in an adequate amount of fluids can help keep your cortisol levels from rising, as well. In fact, research has shown that even mild dehydration can cause your cortisol levels to rise. So make sure you are drinking enough water or other fluids.

Other food-related tips that can help lower cortisol levels include:

  • Following a Mediterranean diet: Researchers found that following the Mediterranean diet may lower cortisol levels and reduce the impact of stress on your body.
  • Consuming adaptogens: Adaptogens, like mushrooms and other herbs and plants, are known to reduce stress, and therefore, could be helpful in lowering cortisol levels.
  • Eating dark chocolate: One study found that eating 25 grams (g) of dark chocolate each day for two weeks lowered cortisol levels.

Take Supplements

In partnership with a healthcare provider, you also could consider taking supplements to help lower your cortisol levels. For instance, one 2021 study found that after four months of supplementation with omega-3, participants had lower cortisol levels and more resilience to stress. While researchers caution that the results are preliminary, they speculate that consistently taking omega-3 supplements may also limit the impact of repeated stress on cellular aging and depression risk.

And as an added bonus, taking omega-3, such as fish oil, can improve your mental performance. In fact, research shows that these supplements also improve your mood, memory, and mental clarity.

There also is some evidence that the herb ashwagandha can lower cortisol levels. In one small, randomized controlled trial, participants experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels after taking 240 milligrams (mg) of ashwagandha extract for 60 days. Ashwaganddha also may alleviate anxiety as well as promote sleep.

If you are considering taking supplements, it is important to talk to a healthcare provider first. Some supplements may interfere with medications or cause side effects in people with certain medical conditions. Also, supplements are not regulated like medications are. Consider purchasing supplements that are certified by third-party entity like NSF International, US Pharmacopeia, Underwriters Laboratory, or Consumer Lab.

Be Physically Active

Being physically active can help you manage your stress levels and can potentially help lower cortisol levels. Regular exercise helps you manage stress in general, clearing your mind and giving you more clarity. So while cortisol levels may initially increase to support your body during physical activity, they decrease afterward.

If you are interested in adding physical activity to your everyday life, here are some moderate intensity activities you can do:

  • Walk briskly
  • Take a water aerobics class
  • Go for a bike ride
  • Play doubles tennis
  • Take a ballroom dancing class
  • Lift weights or use resistance bands

According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults should engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. You also should have two days of muscle strengthening activities like lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises.

Try Relaxation Techniques or Activities

Managing and reducing your stress levels through relaxation techniques may help keep your cortisol levels in check. Here are some things you can do to try to mitigate your stress response:

  • Take deep breaths: Research has shown that doing deep-breathing exercises can help lower cortisol levels. It can also ease anxiety and depression and improve memory.
  • Practice mindfulness: Research shows that regularly practicing mindfulness, or remaining focused on the present, can reduce your cortisol levels.
  • Try laughing yoga: Participating in laughing yoga—a form of yoga that promotes deliberate laughing—has been shown to lower cortisol levels as well as reduce stress and improve mood.
  • Start gardening: One small study of 49 middle-aged veterans found that taking up gardening not only reduced cortisol levels, but also decreased symptoms of depression.
  • Listen to music: Researchers have found that listening to music prior to a stressful event can reduce your stress response, particularly your cortisol levels.

Get Good-Quality Sleep

Learning to prioritize your sleep is an effective way of reducing your cortisol levels. In fact, chronic sleep issues like sleep apnea and insomnia have been linked to elevated cortisol levels. You also may be more prone to higher cortisol levels if you are a shift worker.

To optimize your sleep, try having a regular bedtime routine and getting into bed at the same time each night. You also should avoid nicotine and alcohol as well as limit your caffeine intake. Even limiting blue light exposure from your screens can help promote a good night's rest.

Editor's Note: If a medication or an underlying condition is causing your high cortisol levels, managing stress can be beneficial, but you'll likely need other methods to lower cortisol. For instance, if a medication is causing your high cortisol levels, a healthcare provider may change your medication or reduce your dosage. If a tumor is causing your high cortisol levels, you may have to have the mass surgically removed. There are even some cortisol-reducing medications that can be prescribed to treat high cortisol levels. A healthcare provider will determine the best ways to reduce your cortisol levels.

A Quick Review

Cortisol is a hormone your body releases, particularly when you are stressed. While cortisol serves as a regulator of important bodily functions, it can have a negative impact on your health if your levels are high for a prolonged period of time. This can lead to a number of health issues like high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. If you are experiencing chronically high cortisol, there are things you can do to lower your levels like eating a nutritious diet, managing your stress, and being physically active. If you are concerned that your cortisol levels might be abnormally high, it is important to talk to a healthcare provider about your concerns.

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