Cortisol is a stress hormone, released by the adrenal glands, that has many important roles in the body. It helps to control blood sugar levels through the day, and manages how your body utilizes carbs, fat and proteins. It helps control blood pressure levels, helps reduce inflammation, and supports a healthy immune function. In terms of your mental and emotional health, it is involved in managing the stress response, the “fight or flight” system, and plays a role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle.
So, in the short term, the release of cortisol is a good thing, helping you to run from danger, or respond quickly to deadlines for example, but if your cortisol levels remain too high for too long, it can lead to a number of problems including:
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- difficulties with sleep or insomnia
- anxiety or low mood
- reduced energy levels
The consequences of high cortisol
Elevated cortisol levels have been shown to potentially lead to a wide array of health issues.
- Impaired immune function – at normal levels, cortisol helps to control the immune response, keeping it within normal bounds. But at consistently high levels, the immune system can become “resistant”, leading to it becoming compromised and reducing your immunity
- Chronic disease – elevated cortisol levels over long periods can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes, among others.
- Sleep difficulties – cortisol levels need to go down in the evening so that melatonin (the sleep hormone) can be released. If the rhythm between these two isn’t maintained as your cortisol levels are too high, sleep quality can be affected.
- Lack of energy, brain fog – this can be as a consequence of getting a poor nights’ sleep, but brain fog and difficulty focussing has also been reported as a standalone symptom of high cortisol levels.
5 ways to lower cortisol naturally
- Prioritise sleep
Even in the short term, having a bad nights’ sleep can elevate cortisol levels. But certainly in the long term, having prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to a state where your cortisol levels are consistently raised. So, prioritising getting to sleep early and having a good nights’ sleep will help improve cortisol balance.
- Eat a nutritious diet
A diet high in added sugar and refined carbohydrates has been shown to lead to higher cortisol levels. Avoiding processed foods as much as possible, and eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, can help to keep cortisol levels in balance.
- Get some exercise – but not too much
Different levels of exercise will have different effects on your cortisol levels. Intense exercise like a HIIT class will increase cortisol in the short term, which is how your body deals with the stressful loads that are being put on it. But these levels will then decrease a few hours later, getting back to baseline, so over the long term doesn’t affect your cortisol response. Regular, moderate exercise has been shown to help lower cortisol levels by improving overall health, helping with sleep quality, and reducing stress. On the other hand, exercising too intensely can have the opposite effect. You want to aim for between 150-200 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise a week, with a couple of higher intensity workouts thrown in there as well.
Deep breathing exercises have been shown to also reduce cortisol levels through stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Taking some time out each day to practice some deep breathing exercises is an easy way to help manage stress.
- Have fun and laugh
And finally, one of the easiest ways to keep cortisol levels down is by laughing and having fun. The act of laughing, even if it is forced, helps to release the feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and reduce the stress hormones, helping to keep cortisol on the lower side. Laughter has also been associated with reduced blood pressure, reduced levels of pain, and stronger immune system.