Having too much of anything tends to throw things out of balance and harmony, and that holds true for the stress hormone cortisol. Unmanaged, chronic stress can result in elevated levels of cortisol, which in turn have a negative impact on quality of life, affecting your physical, emotional, and mental health.
In one of my previous articles, I talked about how we each have the power to change the impact of stress on our life if we modify how we think about stress. That is, if you perceive stress as harmful (which it definitely can be), you have a greater risk of dying than if you think about stress as helpful and as a friend.
Cortisol and Stress
Cortisol is a steroid hormone manufactured in the adrenal glands from cholesterol. Small amounts are released when you get up in the morning or engage in exercise, but it is probably best known for its more robust appearance when you undergo stressful situations.
Unlike norepinephrine and epinephrine, which are first to the scene when stress occurs, cortisol follows behind. It provides the body with sugar (glucose), which is nature's way of giving you the energy to "fight or flee" from the stressful situation. However, when stress is ongoing or chronic in your life, cortisol continues to be released, resulting in elevated, potentially dangerous levels of sugar and the hormone itself.
Why it's Important to Reduce Cortisol
I've already hinted at one reason why it's important to reduce cortisol: high blood sugar levels. Yet too much cortisol can also affect many other processes and systems in the body. Elevated cortisol is also associated with other health issues, ranging from high blood pressure to sleep disorders, heart disease, anxiety, depression, weight gain/obesity, digestive disorders, fatigue, concentration and memory problems, and poorer immune system function. Cortisol can even kill your brain cells and promote aging.
Read more: Meditation. The Foundation for Good Health
It's clear high cortisol levels can take a devastating toll on your physical and mental health, but what can you do about it? I'm so glad you asked!
Here are 9 Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally:
- Choose whole, natural foods. Unprocessed, clean foods make fewer demands on the body and also provide superior nutrition over processed foods. In particular, select items that are high in magnesium (e.g., spinach, chard), phosphatidylserine (e.g., barley, beans), vitamin C (e.g., citrus, berries), zinc (e.g., spinach, pumpkin seeds), and omega-3s (e.g., flax and hemp seeds, salmon). You can even enjoy some 70% pure dark chocolate, since it helps slow cortisol production (this is reason enough for me to have some!).
- Avoid sugar and caffeine. Both of these substances increase cortisol levels.
- Enjoy a cup of green tea. Along with being a great source of antioxidants, green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that can rein in cortisol. According to Sara Gottfried, MD, L-theanine calms the "fight or flight" stress response.
- Pick prebiotics. Certain foods promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, and they are known collectively as prebiotics. Recent research indicates that prebiotics help reduce cortisol levels. Some prebiotic foods include asparagus, bananas, barley, garlic, lentils, mustard greens, onions, and tomatoes.
- Take adaptogens. Adaptogens are herbal supplements that improve your resilience to stress by normalizing your response and reducing cortisol levels. Some adaptogens to consider include ashwaganda, astragalus, cordycep mushrooms, ginseng, holy basil, licorice root, and rhodiola rosea.
- Practice stress reduction daily. One of the most effective ways to curtail cortisol levels is to reduce your physical response to stress. Deep breathing, in which you involve your diaphragm, lowers cortisol and initiates calmness. Meditation, tai chi, progressive relaxation exercises, spending time in nature, and Emotional Freedom Technique are other effective approaches.
- Exercise moderately. Here's a clear case of when too much is harmful. While moderate exercise can lower cortisol levels, strenuous or excessive physical activity can actually cause it to rise. So engage in regular activity, which will help lower cortisol, boost your energy, and allow you to relax.
- Avoid multitasking. Not only does multitasking make you less productive, it also boosts your stress and cortisol levels.
- Play more. Make a point to engage in play, even if it's just for 15 to 20 minutes a day. Whether it's making music, drawing, dancing, playing catch with your kids or your dog, singing, or making puzzles, connect with your inner playfulness, relax, and feel the tension melt away.
Read more: How to Minimize Stress and Maximize Health with a Nutritious Diet
Don't allow the burden of everyday stress destroy your health. By incorporating some simple techniques into your lifestyle, you can lower your cortisol levels and enjoy a more healthful, tension-free life.
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Schmidt K et al. Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology 2015 May; 232(10): 1793-1801
Tugend A. Multitasking can make you lose…um…focus. New York Times