Cortisol is a hormone that the adrenal glands release during stressful moments to help manage these specific instances. However, the body often releases cortisol when it is not necessary, leading to unnecessary anxiety, stress, and fear. Over time, elevated cortisol levels can even affect physical health by triggering weight gain, high blood pressure, insomnia, and a variety of other issues. Learning how to lower cortisol levels can help keep you well, both physically and mentally.
Deep breathing is a central part of many relaxation techniques. Studies show that controlling your breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for many of the functions that occur when the body is at rest. This, in turn, causes cortisol levels to drop.
This is potentially why deep breathing is such a big part of mindfulness-based practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation. People experiencing panic attacks or similar conditions can often find some relief by focusing on steady, deep breaths.
Physical activity can heavily influence cortisol for better or worse, depending on intensity. Exercising intensely triggers a cortisol boost shortly after the session, but cortisol levels will drop a few hours later.
Over time, the body acclimates to exercise and the cortisol response becomes less dramatic. Regular exercise also contributes to other factors that tend to reduce cortisol, such as sleep quality and overall health.
Nutrition can also have dramatic effects on cortisol. Regular sugar intake can contribute to higher cortisol levels on average. High sugar diets can also suppress cortisol release during stressful events—when we want the hormone—limiting the body's ability to manage these situations.
One study discovered that a diet of sugar, saturated fat, and refined grains triggered higher cortisol levels than a diet full of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and polyunsaturated fats. Other research links a healthy gut microbiome and overall mental health. According to these findings, following a nutritious diet can reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and other factors that increase cortisol.
In addition to a healthy diet, taking certain supplements may contribute to drops in cortisol. Fish oil supplements are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which experts believe can lower cortisol levels. One trial showed that a combination of fish oil supplements and docosahexaenoic acid, another omega-3 fatty acid, led to significantly lower cortisol levels.
While it is possible to receive omega-3 fatty acids from a diet with plenty of fish, many people find it easier to get the amounts they need from supplements.
A laugh can be all it takes to drop cortisol levels—we’re not joking! Laughing actually triggers many physical changes in the body. It requires the intake of oxygen-rich air, which stimulates the lungs, heart, and muscles. Laughing also encourages the release of endorphins.
All of these factors combine to promote relaxation, which directly affects cortisol. The best part is that the laughter doesn’t even need to be real. While authentic laughter has stronger effects, a forced laugh can trigger the same reactions.
Another way to keep cortisol levels low is to get the proper amount of restful sleep. Many studies show that chronic sleep issues like insomnia and sleep apnea result in higher cortisol. Plus, studies of shift workers show that people who slept during the day tended to have higher cortisol levels than people who slept at night.
A lack of quality sleep can also contribute to stress, anxiety, and other negatives that increase cortisol. Following a proper bedtime routine, reducing caffeine and nicotine intake, and limiting exposure to bright or blue light are simple ways to improve sleep quality and restfulness.
Relationships can have deep and long-lasting effects on our mental and physical well-being, including our cortisol levels. Studies show that children who have stable and happy family lives tend to have much lower cortisol values than children in homes with frequent conflict.
Additionally, affectionate verbal or physical interactions before a stressful situation lower common stress indicators, like blood pressure and heart rate.
Healthy human relationships are not the only connections that help with cortisol. Taking care of an animal companion and spending time with them can also lower cortisol.
Therapy animals consistently reduce feelings of distress and worry. Because of this, pet therapy has become a staple of many long-term care homes, hospitals, and even schools during high-stress periods like exam time. One small study found that a dog was better for lowering cortisol than support from a close friend.
A variety of emotions and negative mental states can lead to elevated cortisol. Managing feelings like guilt or shame can be a long, difficult process. However, making an effort to do so can have dramatic effects that reach beyond the mind.
Improving mental health directly benefits physical health, including cortisol levels. A study of 145 couples found that partners who received counseling focusing on conflict resolution experienced a reduction in cortisol levels.
Many people around the world consider themselves spiritual in some manner. Many studies suggest that embracing any type of spirituality can improve cortisol levels.
In some cases, this is because religion involves positive interactions with other people in a community. Prayer, meditation, and other practices also often reduce feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety. Some denominations focus on charitable work, which can also boost positive emotions and mood.