Cortisol is a stress hormone that plays a role in your body’s fight-or-flight response, which is how your body reacts to stress or threats. When you’re in danger, your body prepares to either stay and “fight” or run away and “flee.”
In prehistoric times, the fight-or-flight response was crucial for our ancestors to survive attacks from enemies or animals. But you don’t have to be in a jungle fighting tigers to feel ongoing stress. Our bodies have similar reactions to less life-threatening issues, like stressful meetings at work or arguments with loved ones. A daily, busy lifestyle alone may lead to high cortisol levels.
Cortisol affects many parts of your body. It increases your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscle tension, and blood sugar levels. This is why your heart pounds, you sweat, and experience heavy breathing when you’re in a stressful situation.
Cortisol also slows down certain body processes, like digestion and reproduction, to conserve energy. Cortisol can even suppress the immune system, increasing your risk of infection.
What Causes High Cortisol Levels?
The hypothalamus (located in the brain), pituitary gland, and adrenal glands all play a role in releasing cortisol into your bloodstream. The following factors can lead to elevated cortisol:
The side effects from certain drugs may also include raising your cortisol levels. For example, birth control pills for contraception, or corticosteroids, typically prescribed for autoimmune diseases, can raise cortisol.
Occasionally, problems with your pituitary gland, a small organ in the brain, or problems with your adrenal glands can elevate cortisol levels.
Common High Cortisol Symptoms
High cortisol levels can lead to a variety of symptoms. Too much cortisol has a negative effect on your health, and continued exposure may lead to what doctors call Cushing’s syndrome (also called hypercortisolism). Cushing’s typically leads to weight gain around the mid-section, face, and upper back, with weight loss from legs.
High cortisol levels can also cause adrenal fatigue, which happens when your adrenal glands are in overdrive from producing this hormone. Other common symptoms of elevated include:
If you’re wondering how to lower cortisol levels, relatively simple lifestyle and diet changes can help. In addition, specific supplements and herbs may also normalize cortisol levels. Below, we’ve listed several natural options.
Improve Your Diet
Studies show that stress often affects your eating behaviors; in particular, you may crave foods high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates. Shifting to a plant-based diet centered around fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats is naturally anti-inflammatory.
• The incredible array of healthy antioxidants you get from eating this way helps reduce both physical stress within your body (“oxidative stress”) and emotional stress — both of which influence cortisol. There is also a specific anti-inflammatory diet you can follow.
• Try stress-relieving foods, including dark chocolate, walnuts, avocado, garlic, figs, Swiss chard, dulse seaweed, citrus fruits, and pumpkin seeds (which are also rich in amino acids).
• Avoid dehydration — which can raise cortisol — by drinking plenty of water. Also, consider drinking green tea because experts believe it lowers cortisol.
Manage Your Stress
One of the most important ways to lower cortisol involves healthfully managing your stress. Consider deep breathing exercises or focusing your mind on a soothing word when you begin to feel stressed. Some people like to visualize tranquil scenes and practice being happy in their mind’s eye.
Find Ways to Relax
Finding ways to relax can help you reduce stress. Try these suggestions:
Develop Healthy Relationships
Relationships, whether friendships, children, parents, workmates, or life partners, often cause a lot of our stress. Learning how to have healthy relationships goes a long way to lowering stress — and hence cortisol. Try these simple but powerful suggestions.
Sometimes, supplements can help us manage the daily stresses of life. An adaptogen is a substance that helps your body “adapt” to stress. Some people benefit from taking adaptogenic herbs to normalize cortisol levels. Two very effective choices are: