Cortisol is a hormone produced by the human body, designed to help the body deal with mental and physical stress.
The stress hormone cortisol has been called “Public Enemy No (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1 'inline-reference::Psychology Today: “Cortisol: Why the "Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1.”'). 1,” which is pretty unfair when you consider that we couldn’t survive without it 2.
“It will save your life if you’re in shock,” says Steven Wengel, MD, assistant vice chancellor for campus wellness at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and the University of Nebraska at Omaha 1. “If someone is in a serious car accident, [their] adrenal glands will pump out a ton of cortisol.”
In times of high stress, cortisol temporarily diverts energy from nonessential bodily functions (such as digestion) to those that are crucial in the moment, (such as an increased heart rate and glucose supply). The mechanism behind this process is known as the fight-or-flight response.
But in our hyped up, go-go-go world, cortisol levels seem to be perpetually elevated — and that's where the "public enemy" part comes in. “We have evolved in such a way that we’re cranking out cortisol as if we’re in life-threatening mode, when we’re not,” says Dr. Wengel. “We’re butting up against a deadline, or our boss doesn’t respond to an email, or we’re stuck in traffic. These are things that are annoying, but not life-threatening. [Yet] our body responds as if they were.”
Over time, this perpetual state of cortisol hyperarousal can literally become life-threatening; at the very least, it can be harmful to your quality of life. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronically high levels of cortisol have been linked to myriad ills, including weight gain, anxiety, depression, headaches, digestive issues, impaired memory and even heart disease.
But there are ways to control your cortisol, rather than letting your cortisol control you. Here are some natural techniques for lowering your cortisol levels — and reducing your stress response 15.
If you had to make just one lifestyle change in order to reduce your stress and cortisol levels, adopting a daily meditation habit would be a solid choice. A study published in the June 2019 issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology determined that experienced meditators experienced a "faster cortisol recovery from stress" than those who had never meditated. “There’s ample evidence that meditation can lead to a reduction in cortisol,” says Dr. Wengel.
Ten minutes of mindfulness meditation a day is a good starting point, says Dr. Wengel, but more is always better. (The meditators in the Psychoneuroendocrinology study had been meditating for a minimum of three hours a week for at least three years.)
Breath work is at the heart of most meditation practices, and you can quickly reduce stress and cortisol levels by doing deep belly-breathing whenever, wherever. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017 found that cortisol levels (along with attention and mood) improved in participants who practiced deep-breathing from their diaphragm; people in that group had an average rate of four breaths a minute. Deep breathing is simple to do, according to Harvard Medical School: Just breathe in slowly from your diaphragm, hold your breath for a few moments, and exhale slowly 11. Repeat five or 10 times.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Stress and sleeplessness are inherently connected. In fact, not getting enough sleep disrupts the body's natural cortisol rhythms, according to a study published in the November 2015 issue of Sleep Science. (This then disrupts the body’s regular metabolism by increasing glucose and insulin levels.) The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep a night, although individual needs may be different 8.
Exercise may be the ultimate stress-busting strategy, as physical activity effectively reduces cortisol levels, according to Harvard Medical School 11. It also raises levels of the feel-good chemicals known as endorphins, which can further reduce stress.
Follow the Mediterranean Diet
Today, research shows that it is also good for reducing cortisol levels. A study published in the November 2018 issue of the journal Nutrients found that adolescents who followed the Mediterranean diet achieved lower cortisol levels, counteracting stress-induced inflammation and potentially protecting their future mental health.
Developing a regular practice of being thankful is linked with a 23 percent lower level of cortisol, according to research published by the University of California, Davis in November 2015 9. Robert Emmons, Ph.D., author of several books on thankfulness, recommends writing gratitude letters and/or keeping a daily log of what you’re grateful for.
Take a 'Nature Pill'
Some doctors are now literally “prescribing” outdoor time to their patients, according to The New York Times and other news outlets 20. A small study of 36 urbanites published in April 2019 in Frontiers in Psychology found that participants' cortisol levels dropped 21.3 percent when they spent at least 10 minutes outside in a natural setting at least three times a week. The stress-reducing benefits were even greater when participants spent 20 to 30 minutes on a “nature-based restoration break.” In Japan, the practice is called “forest bathing” and is widely acknowledged to have physical and mental benefits, according to an article in the August 2017 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 21. In the U.S., getting out in nature is cheap and easy, even for city dwellers: According to the National Park Service, one-third of America's national parks are located in urban areas 16.
A small study published in April 2016 in Art therapy: journal of the American Art Therapy Association documented lower cortisol levels among adults who created visual art. Among other positive effects, study participants reported that the experience was relaxing and helped them achieve a state of flow, or "losing themselves in the work."
- Steven Wengel, MD, assistant vice chancellor for campus wellness for University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska at Omaha and division director of geriatric psychiatry, UNMC
- Psychology Today: “Cortisol: Why the "Stress Hormone” Is Public Enemy No. 1.”
- Journal of Health Psychology: “A systematic review of the effects of mindfulness interventions on cortisol.”
- Psychoneuroendocrinology: “Yoga, mindfulness-based stress reduction and stress-related physiological measures: A meta-analysis.”
- Frontiers in Psychology: “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults.”
- Sleep Science: “Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions.”
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: “Sleep Health.”
- National Sleep Foundation: “What is Healthy Sleep?”
- University of California, Davis: “Gratitude is good medicine.”
- eLife: “Exercise promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) through the action of the ketone body β-hydroxybutyrate.”
- Harvard Medical School: “Exercising to relax.”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Stress Busting Foods.”
- Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience: “Writing About Past Failures Attenuates Cortisol Responses and Sustained Attention Deficits Following Psychosocial Stress.”
- American Journal of Psychiatry: “Using Patient Writings in Psychotherapy: Review of Evidence for Expressive Writing and Cognitive-Behavioral Writing Therapy.”
- Art Therapy: “Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Responses Following Art Making.”
- National Park Service: “By the Numbers.”
- Frontiers in Neuroscience: “Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers.”
- Psychoneuroendocrinology: “Cortisol increase in empathic stress is modulated by emotional closeness and observation modality.”
- PLoS One: “Daily Life Stress and the Cortisol Awakening Response: Testing the Anticipation Hypothesis.”
- The New York Times: "Writing Prescriptions to Play Outdoors."
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review."