Cortisol is the hormone released by the body in response to fear or stress as part of the “fight-or-flight” mechanism. Think of cortisol as the body’s built-in alarm system. It is 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, even moderately high cortisol levels can cause long-term health problems, including:
- Chronic complications: Including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.
- Weight gain: Cortisol increases appetite and signals the body to shift metabolism to store fat.
- Tiredness: It interferes with daily cycles of other hormones, disrupting sleep patterns and causing fatigue.
- Impaired brain function: Cortisol interferes with memory, contributing to mental cloudiness.
- Infections: It hampers the immune system, making you more prone to infections.
Fortunately, there are many simple lifestyle choices which you can take that will help to reduce stress and anxiety and lower your cortisol levels. Here, I provide 5 lifestyle tips to help lower cortisol levels:
1. Regular physical activity: Regular physical activity will decrease fear by increasing your self-confidence, resilience, and fortitude.
Fear increases cortisol. Aerobic activities, like walking, jogging and cycling are great ways to recreate the “flight” outlet and burn up cortisol. A little bit of cardio goes a long way – just 20 to 30 minutes of activity most days of the week pays huge dividends in lowering cortisol every day and in the long term.
If you choose not to dedicate the time for a continuous session of aerobic activity, you can achieve the same benefits by breaking daily activity into smaller doses. An easy way to guarantee regular activity is to build it into your daily routine, for example, walking or cycling to work or the shop, taking the stairs instead of the lift, standing instead of sitting, cooking & cleaning – these will all add up to a cumulative tally of reduced cortisol at the end of the day.
While even moderate exercise increases cortisol in unfit individuals, physically fit individuals experience a smaller bump with intense activity. Intense physical activity increases cortisol shortly after exercise. Although it increases in the short term, night time levels later decrease. This short-term increase helps coordinate growth of the body to meet the challenge. Additionally, the size of the cortisol response reduces with repeated training.
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.
2. Consume healthy, natural foods: Nutrition can influence cortisol for better or for worse.
Sugar intake is one of the classic triggers for cortisol release. Regular, high sugar intakes may keep your levels elevated. Consuming sugar is especially linked to higher cortisol in obese individuals.
Interestingly, sugar can also reduce the amount of cortisol released in response to specific stressful events. Taken together, these effects explain why sweet desserts are good comfort foods, but frequent or excessive sugar increases cortisol over time.
Additionally, a few specific foods can benefit cortisol levels:
- Dark chocolate – studies have shown that consuming dark chocolate can reduce cortisol response to a stress challenge.
- Many fruits – a study of cyclists showed eating bananas or pears during a 75 km ride reduced levels compared to drinking water only.
- Black & green tea – drinking black tea has shown to decrease cortisol in response to a stressful task compared to different caffeinated drinks.
- Probiotics & prebiotics – probiotics are “friendly” bacteria found in foods such as yoghurt. Prebiotics, such as soluble fibre found in certain foods e.g. bananas, apples, garlic, onion, oats & cocoa, provide food for these bacteria. Both probiotics & prebiotics help reduce cortisol.
- Water – dehydration increases cortisol. Water is great for hydrating while avoiding empty calories.
3. Social Connectivity: Close human bonds, whether it be family, friends or a romantic partner are vital for your physical & mental health.
Social aggression and isolation can lead to increased levels of cortisol, which in turn, can trigger a cascade of potential mental health problems, especially in adolescence.
The “tend-and-befriend” response is the exact opposite to “fight-or-flight.” The “tend-and-befriend” response increases oxytocin and reduces cortisol. Make an effort to spend real face-to-face time with loved ones whenever you can – phone calls and online contact can reduce cortisol as they foster a feeling of genuine connectivity.
4. Getting the right amount of sleep: Timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol.
Over time, sleep deprivation causes increased levels. 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. It is therefore important to get the right amount of sleep to ensure that your body can function efficiently.
There are a number of things in your control which will help optimise sleep:
- Exercise: Be physically active during waking hours and keep a regular bedtime as much as possible.
- No caffeine at night: Avoid caffeine in the evening.
- Limit exposure to bright light at night: Turn off phone, TV and computer screens and wind down for several minutes before bedtime.
- Limit distractions before bed: Limit interruptions by using ear plugs, silencing your phone and avoiding fluids right before bed.
- Take naps: Napping can reduce sleepiness and prevent a sleep deficit.
5. Music: Listening to music that you love has been shown to lower cortisol levels.
Dig out that old CD, casette or vinyl collection and get your groove on! Listening to favourite songs from your past will bring back a number of different feelings and memories, which can help to improve your mood and reduce stress.
In conclusion, there are many things which are in your control and which in turn will help to reduce fear and stress which may have been elevated during the lockdown situation that we have found ourselves in. Whilst turning to high sugar, “comfort foods” may seem like an easy option, this can in fact worsen these feelings. Instead, opt for healthy, natural foods; perform short and regular bouts of physical activity; listen to music; connect with friends and family and finally; get a decent amount of good quality sleep in order to reduce cortisol levels.