How to Lower Cortisol for Less Stress and a Healthier Lifestyle

We often think of “stress” as a key contributor to developing disease, but that isn’t the most accurate term to describe the mechanism behind what’s actually happening in the body. 

Instead, we should turn our attention to our cortisol, the stress-adapting hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is released in response to threatening situations when the body’s survival mechanisms kick in. In acute stress situations, cortisol can help you run faster or fight off an attacker, heightening your senses and putting you on alert. When the danger has passed, cortisol levels drop, allowing you to rest. 

But modern life, where stressors are constant and surround us in many different forms, has made many of us overproduce cortisol. This overproduction results in fatigue, brain fog, mood issues, hormonal dysregulation, and eventually adrenal burn out. 

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your body’s cortisol production and restore balance to the stress response. 

Key Takeaways

  • High cortisol levels result from physical and emotional stress on the body and can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, irritability, weight gain, inflammation, and more. 
  • Practices for lowering cortisol include stress identification and reduction, eating a whole foods diet, prioritizing minerals, supplementing when needed, etc.
  • With dedication to diet and stress management, regulating cortisol is absolutely possible.

What happens when you have high cortisol levels?

Constantly high cortisol levels can cause a whole host of malfunctions and dysregulation in the body. You might have heard of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis; this team of glands controls the release of cortisol, along with a few other hormones. When the demand for cortisol remains high and the body is not able to keep up with production, the HPA axis becomes dysregulated. [1]

From there, many symptoms can start to manifest, including:

  • Fatigue and trouble sleeping: feeling exhausted during the day and revved up at night. This indicates that the normal rhythm of cortisol production has been altered, since it normally peaks in the morning and falls slowly throughout the day, allowing you to fall asleep easily at night. 
  • Brain fog: inability to think clearly and/or hold attention for long periods of time
  • Mood imbalances: including depression, anxiety, and irritability, cognitive impairment [2]
  • Weight gain: high cortisol levels cause weight gain in the face and abdomen. This is also associated with synthetic steroid use (prednisone, hydrocortisone), which is essentially artificial cortisol and is often used as a temporary treatment for various autoimmune diseases. A common side effect of steroids is “moon face.”
  • Impaired immunity: High cortisol suppresses the immune system in favor of supporting the systems needed for immediate survival. Who needs an immune system when you’re being attacked by a dangerous predator? That’s the rationale from your body, anyway. [x]
  • Bone and muscle weakness: High cortisol levels can lower bone mineral density and induce muscle breakdown, further contributing to fatigue. [3]
  • Inflammation: Cortisol itself is an anti-inflammatory hormone, which is why it is often used in the acute treatment of chronic inflammatory illnesses. However, in excess it can actually cause inflammation over time, particularly in the central nervous system. [4

Unless you are providing an abundance of nutrients and rest for your body while in a constant high stress lifestyle, your adrenals will burn out from constantly churning out cortisol, and then you’ll underproduce cortisol. This is what people refer to when they talk about “adrenal fatigue.” 

How to reduce cortisol levels

Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce your cortisol levels if they are chronically elevated (which is going to be the case for just about everyone at some point in their lives). 

Reduce stress

Stress is the number one cause of high cortisol levels. [5] This can look like financial anxiety, overworking, relationship issues, health concerns for ourselves or loved ones, and all of the many worries that we deal with on a daily basis. It can come from physical stress too, like chronic pain or over exercising. 

Reducing stress is often easier said than done, but you can’t let it fall to the bottom of your to-do list. Schedule in time for activities that help you unwind and release those worries (examples below!), even if it's only temporary. Your adrenals will thank you. 

Diet

Nutrition is often overlooked in the discussion around stress management and lowering cortisol. But your adrenals need certain nutrients to be able to produce cortisol and the other glucocorticoid hormones, and there is a strong adrenal-gut connection as well as the thyroid, brain—you get the idea. Everything in the body is interconnected, and it all relies on nutrition to keep going.

Prioritizing minerals, macronutrients, and eating regularly

Let’s start with the basics. For lowering and stabilizing cortisol levels, we have to fuel the body with an appropriate balance of macronutrients: protein, carbs, and healthy fats from whole foods. It’s also important to eat regular meals. For a body under stress with high cortisol output, fasting has been shown to be quite detrimental and promote the release of more cortisol. [6]

Ensuring an adequate (or higher) intake of minerals is also extremely important to manage and lower cortisol. Magnesium in particular is very helpful for lowering cortisol, and it is also rapidly used up by the adrenals. [7] Magnesium supports over 300 reactions in the human body, and our soils are chronically depleted of this key mineral. 

High cortisol also depletes potassium and sodium [89]. Supplementing with an electrolyte solution added to your daily water intake may be helpful in stabilizing cortisol levels.* 

Foods that reduce cortisol

There are some particular foods that you can prioritize in your diet to lower cortisol levels: 

  • Bananas, citrus, berries, and many other fruits (high in minerals and vitamin C!)
  • Avocados (healthy fat + potassium)
  • Dark chocolate (high in magnesium) [10]
  • Green or black tea [1112]
  • Probiotic foods (yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut) [13]
  • Complex carbs, aka carbs with nutrients and fiber: potatoes, whole grains, root vegetables, etc.
  • Eggs (good source of choline which supports brain function, where two-thirds of the HPA axis lives).

Supplements for lowering cortisol

After you have your foundation of diet and stress reduction practices, there are many supplements you can add for a little extra support. Some of these include: 

  • Adaptogens: certain mushrooms and herbs that have a modulatory effect on cortisol and other hormones.* This means that they raise it when it’s low or lower it when it’s high, depending on what your body needs. These include ashwagandha, rhodiola, schisandra, and others. [14]
  • Amino acids: Certain amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, have calming effects, such as taurine, glycine, tyrosine and tryptophan.* [15]
  • Herbs: Well-known plant extracts like chamomile and lavender can calm you down and lower the cortisol response, whether in the form of tea, a tincture, or essential oil.* [1617]

These are just a few options for cortisol-lowering supplements. You could also consider mineral supplementation, as many people find they can not get enough in their diet, especially magnesium. 

Our BodyBio Calm is formulated with 5 specific stress-reducing ingredients, designed to balance the production, distribution, and metabolism of cortisol for a healthy stress response.* 

Read more about Calm in our blog here. 

Go outside

There’s something about the great outdoors that naturally puts us at ease and takes the stress response down a notch or two. A 2019 study showed that people who walked for 15 minutes in a forest were able to lower their cortisol levels. The study took inspiration from the Japanese concept of forest bathing, which is said to promote wellbeing. [1dr8]

Earthing, being connected to the earth through the soles of the feet or otherwise in direct contact with the ground, has also shown in research to lower and stabilize the body’s natural cortisol production rhythm. [19

Exercise

Exercise can have great stress-reducing effects, but only at a moderate intensity. Research finds that high intensity exercise will actually increase cortisol levels, since the body is physically under stress. However, low intensity (40% of max output) will lower cortisol levels. [20] Activities appropriate for this type of exercise include yoga, walking, casual recreational sports, or maybe even just playing with your dog in the yard.  

Unplug

Electronics use, especially at night, can dysregulate your cortisol production. A 2018 study on rats found that exposure to cell phone radiofrequency increases cortisol and ACTH hormones. [x] Another similar study found that radiofrequency electromagnetic field exposure from mobile phones induces oxidative stress, inflammatory response, and HPA axis dysregulation. [21]

Grounding or earthing mitigates these harmful effects, so there’s another reason to stop scrolling and get outside. 

Meditation and mindfulness

A meditation practice can also lower cortisol and relieve stress, especially for those with a somatic illness and those living in stressful life situations. [22

Meditation does not have to look like sitting in silence with your legs crossed and eyes closed. You can try a guided meditation that takes you through a calming scenario like a walk along the ocean or has you focus on thoughts of gratitude. Meditation can even be a walk through the park as you intentionally take notice of the nature around you. Find a form of mindfulness meditation that suits you. 

Reducing cortisol for a healthier you

High cortisol levels, caused by high stress, lack of nutrition from whole foods, and even over-exercising, can be seriously damaging to your body over time. With these kinds of patterns, burnout is inevitable. 

But there are steps you can take immediately to start lowering your cortisol levels and reducing daily stress. If you decide that supplementation is part of your stress reduction strategy, check out our BodyBio Calm and E-Lyte supplements for foundational support.*

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