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Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands.
It’s important for helping your body deal with stressful situations, as your brain triggers its release in response to many different kinds of stress.
However, when cortisol levels are too high for too long, this hormone can hurt you more than it helps.
Over time, high levels may cause weight gain and high blood pressure, disrupt sleep, negatively impact mood, reduce your energy levels and contribute to diabetes.
What Happens When Cortisol Is High?
Over the last 15 years, studies have increasingly revealed that moderately high cortisol levels can cause problems (1).
– Chronic complications: Including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis (2).
– Weight gain: Cortisol increases appetite and signals the body to shift metabolism to store fat (3, 4).
– Tiredness: It interferes with daily cycles of other hormones, disrupting sleep patterns and causing fatigue (5, 6).
– Impaired brain function: Cortisol interferes with memory, contributing to mental cloudiness or “brain fog” (7).
– Infections: It hampers the immune system, making you more prone to infections (8).
In rare cases, very high cortisol levels can lead to Cushing’s syndrome, a rare but serious disease (1, 9).
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your levels. Here are 11 lifestyle, diet and relaxation tips to lower cortisol levels.
1. Get the Right Amount of Sleep
Timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol (10).
For example, a review of 28 studies of shift workers found that cortisol increases in people who sleep during the day rather than at night.
Over time, sleep deprivation causes increased levels (11).
Rotating shifts also disrupt normal daily hormonal patterns, contributing to fatigue and other problems associated with high cortisol (12, 13).
Insomnia causes high cortisol for up to 24 hours. Interruptions to sleep, even if brief, can also increase your levels and disrupt daily hormone patterns (14, 15, 16).
If you are a night shift or rotating shift worker, you don’t have complete control over your sleep schedule, but there are some things you can do to optimize sleep:
– Exercise: Be physically active during waking hours and keep a regular bedtime as much as possible (17).
– No caffeine at night: Avoid caffeine in the evening (18).
– Limit exposure to bright light at night: Turn off the screens and wind down for several minutes before bedtime (19, 20).
– Limit distractions before bed: Limit interruptions by using white noise, ear plugs, silencing your phone and avoiding fluids right before bed (21).
– Take naps: If shift work cuts your sleep hours short, napping can reduce sleepiness and prevent a sleep deficit (22).
2. Exercise, but Not Too Much
Depending on the intensity of exercise, it can increase or decrease cortisol.
Intense exercise increases cortisol shortly after exercise. Although it increases in the short term, nighttime levels later decrease (23, 24).
This short-term increase helps coordinate growth of the body to meet the challenge. Additionally, the size of the cortisol response lessens with habitual training (23).
While even moderate exercise increases cortisol in unfit individuals, physically fit individuals experience a smaller bump with intense activity (25, 26).
In contrast to “maximum effort” exercise, mild or moderate exercise at 40–60% of maximum effort does not increase cortisol in the short term, and still leads to lower levels at night (24, 27).
3. Learn to Recognize Stressful Thinking
Stressful thoughts are an important signal for cortisol release.
A study of 122 adults found that writing about past stressful experiences increased cortisol over one month compared to writing about positive life experiences or plans for the day (28).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a strategy that involves becoming more self-aware of stress-provoking thoughts and replacing worrying or anxiety with a focus on acknowledging and understanding stressful thoughts and emotions.
Training yourself to be aware of your thoughts, breathing, heart rate and other signs of tension helps you recognize stress when it begins.
By focusing on awareness of your mental and physical state, you can become an objective observer of your stressful thoughts, instead of a victim of them (29).
Recognizing stressful thoughts allows you to formulate a conscious and deliberate reaction to them. A study of 43 women in a mindfulness-based program showed the ability to describe and articulate stress was linked to a lower cortisol response (30).
Another study of 128 women with breast cancer showed stress mindfulness training reduced cortisol compared to no stress management strategy (31).
The Positive Psychology Program offers a review of some mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques.