Published 11th July 2022

How to lower your cortisol levels

If you’re looking to lower your cortisol levels, there are some things you can do that may help. 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands. These are small, triangle-shaped glands that sit on top of each kidney. 

Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, but consistently high levels can be damaging to your health.

At ZOE, we know that all bodies are different, meaning there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being healthy. We also know that picking the right foods for you is one of the best ways to look after your health.

The ZOE at-home test reveals your individual blood sugar and blood fat responses to food, as well as the make-up of your unique gut bugs. With this information, we can give you personalized nutrition advice to help you reach your health goals.

To learn more about how to lower you cortisol levels, read on.

High cortisol levels

Cortisol is involved in many different functions throughout your body, including:

  • managing blood sugar and blood pressure

  • influencing immunity

  • impacting metabolism

  • regulating how your body responds to stress

A variety of factors can cause cortisol levels to increase, such as stress, certain medications, diet, and tumors in the pituitary or adrenal glands.

Symptoms can vary, but some common ones include: 

  • weight gain around the face and neck 

  • bruising easily

  • muscle weakness

  • high blood pressure

While having enough cortisol in your blood is important, levels that are higher than normal can damage your health over time. 

Keep reading to discover six science-backed tips to help you lower your cortisol levels.

1. Look at your diet

The foods you eat may help keep cortisol levels low. In one study involving over 200 teenagers, researchers found that those who ate a Mediterranean diet had lower cortisol levels than the participants who didn’t follow this diet. 

Some carbohydrates may be particularly helpful when they're part of an overall healthy diet. Evidence suggests that high-quality sources of carbohydrates — such as whole grains — as well as low-fat dairy, fruits, and vegetables, may help to lower cortisol levels.

It’s best to eat an overall balanced diet when trying to lower cortisol, rather than restricting foods. Research suggests that severe calorie restriction may actually lead to an increase in cortisol levels.

Multiple studies also indicate that omega-3s, a type of fat that you can only get from your diet, may also help. In a study including over 2,000 adults, evidence showed high levels of cortisol were linked with low levels of omega-3s. Omega-3s can be found in many different foods, or taken as a supplement. 

There is evidence that certain foods, such as leafy greens, oysters, and asparagus, may reduce the effects of anxiety and stress. Some supplements — such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, and chamomile — have shown similar effects. 

2. Care for your gut microbiome

Your gut health and mental health are linked via the gut-brain connection. This is a network of nerves, chemical messengers, and the trillions of microbes that make up your gut microbiome.

Evidence suggests a connection between stress and the gut microbiome. If you’re looking to lower stress and cortisol levels, building a healthy and diverse gut microbiome may help.

Eating probiotic foods — like kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, and live yogurt — is a good way to improve your gut microbiome. Probiotic foods are any foods with “good” gut bugs that, when eaten, benefit your health. 

Similarly, prebiotics are another important component of a well-balanced and gut-friendly diet. They serve as food for your “good” gut bugs, and evidence suggests they may also help lower cortisol levels.

In one study with 69 students, those who consumed a daily probiotic drink saw significantly lower cortisol levels than the control group after 12 weeks. 

To improve your gut health, focus on eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains, and aim to eat a rainbow of 30 different plant foods per week.

Getting regular exercise, enough sleep, and looking after your mental health are also good for your gut microbiome and your cortisol levels. 

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3. Exercise regularly

The benefits of regular physical activity are well known. Being physically active can give you more energy, help you sleep, and reduce your risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke. 

Regular exercise can also help lower your cortisol levels. Evidence suggests that people who are physically active have a lower cortisol response to stress than those who are not physically active. 

While the stress-reducing effect of exercise is well established, it’s unclear whether certain intensities are better than others. Some studies suggest vigorous activity may keep cortisol levels the lowest, while other studies suggest that high-intensity exercise may actually raise cortisol levels

Although the best intensity level may not be clear, evidence from multiple studies suggests that making exercise a regular part of your daily life can improve cortisol levels in the long term.

It’s important to stay hydrated during exercise, especially if you’re out in hot weather. While exercise can generally help lower cortisol levels, evidence suggests it may not be as effective if you’re dehydrated. 

In fact, one study found that a group of mildly dehydrated participants had higher cortisol levels than a well-hydrated group after intense exercise.

4. Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is vital for your general health and maintaining healthy cortisol levels. 

Your cortisol secretion follows your sleep-wake cycle

Levels fluctuate throughout the day, with cortisol typically lowest around midnight and highest at about 9:00 a.m. 

For people who sleep during the day, the up-and-down rhythm is the same but at different times.

The relationship between sleep and cortisol goes in both directions. Elevated cortisol levels may lead to a poor night’s sleep, and those with sleeping problems often experience an increase in cortisol.

Good sleep hygiene means creating an environment and habits that promote high-quality sleep. Some tips include:

  • Setting a schedule. Aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, including on the weekends. Experiment with what times work best for your schedule, and gradually adjust if needed.

  • Having a nighttime routine. Set aside 30 minutes before bed to unwind and relax. Try to avoid electronics and other bright lights during this time.

  • Promoting sleep during wake time. Get out in the sun, be physically active, and limit afternoon caffeine. Limiting alcohol and smoking can also help.

  • Creating your best sleep environment. Choose comfortable bedding, set your room to a slightly cool temperature, and block external light and sounds as needed. Relaxing scents, like lavender, can also be helpful.

If you work at night, sleep hygiene is particularly important. Using a noise machine, black-out curtains, and sticking to a schedule can help promote good sleep.

5. Manage your stress levels

Stress is an unfortunate reality in everyday life. Managing your stress, and, in turn, your cortisol levels, can help keep you healthy. 

Some tips include:

  • finding a good exercise routine

  • practicing relaxation techniques, like breathing exercises

  • finding your outlets, like journaling or painting

  • talking with a trusted source

There is no perfect or right way to manage stress. Find what works for you and practice it as needed.

6. Lifestyle changes

On a broader scale, creating a balanced lifestyle is also important. Focus on things that bring joy to your life, such as:

  • building healthy relationships

  • getting a pet 

  • finding a hobby 

  • practicing time management to avoid feeling overwhelmed

  • having scheduled “recharge” time

Summary

Cortisol is an important part of many bodily functions, but having too much in your blood can lead to unwanted health effects. 

There are things you can try to lower your cortisol levels. Eating a healthy, gut-friendly diet is good for your overall health and can help balance your cortisol levels. 

Being physically active, focusing on getting enough sleep, and taking care of your mental health can also help. 

There are other lifestyle changes you can try, like getting a pet, finding a new hobby, and making time to build healthy relationships. 

If you are concerned about your cortisol levels, it’s best to speak to a healthcare professional. 

At ZOE, we know that what you eat is central to your health. 

The ZOE program gives you tailored nutrition advice based on your unique food responses and gut bacteria so you can eat the best foods for your body and your long-term health goals. To get started today, take our free quiz

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