For many people dealing with constant stress at work or in their relationships, the regular bouts of inflammation this is causing the body wreaks havoc on both the mind and body. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, the regular activation of the body’s natural stress response can be detrimental on overall well-being, putting people at risk for obesity, memory and concentration impairment, heart disease, depression, and so much more. And while some of us are able to reduce these external stressors by ridding ourselves of toxic relationships or switching to jobs that cause us less stress, an overwhelming amount of people feel powerless in their ability to escape or prevent stressful situations. This pattern of cyclical reaction to stress can be extremely dangerous in the long-term, and is closely attributed to our natural stress hormone called cortisol.
While prolonged exposure of cortisol due to chronic stress is obviously harmful for the body, this stress hormone has actually helped humans survive throughout history and evolution. It is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress and fear as part of the fight-or-flight trigger. When our ancestors would sense danger in a certain encounter, the release of this hormone would launch the body into immediate action, either fighting back against the external threat, or escaping just in time. Ironically, this same natural hormone that has worked more often in favor of humans throughout history tends to do more harm than good in today’s digital age.
Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels
In the midst of chronic stress, it is often difficult to recognize the symptoms the body produces in response to high cortisol levels. More often than not, we are so engulfed in putting out the daily fires of our lives, that we are less likely to realize what our bodies are trying to communicate to us. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress that is constantly pushing up high cortisol levels often causes symptoms that look a lot like Cushing syndrome. Some of these hallmark signs include:
This is commonly showcased by fatty tissue deposits around the midsection, in the face, between the shoulders, and in the upper back.
Slow to Heal
Cuts, bruises, or insect bites take a while to heal.
High cortisol levels also often cause stress acne.
People may become irritable, constantly anxious, or entirely depleted of energy resulting in a depressive, fatigued state.
High Blood Pressure
Abnormally high blood pressure measures that seem to come on all of a sudden.
Other telltale signs can include difficulty concentrating, muscle weakness, loss in bone density, decreased sex drive, and even thinning of the hair.
Can You Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally?
There are a number of ways people can lower cortisol levels and create healthier habits that reduce stress, fatigue, and potentially lowers susceptibility to illness. Unfortunately for some, the most effective methods tend to be lifestyle changes. However, you may find some of these lifestyle alterations to be surprising, less obvious, and easy implement in your everyday life. Here are several ways to remove cortisol from the body naturally, helping to improve longevity and general wellness.
1. Practice Mindfulness Meditation
If you’re familiar with the research of Jon Kabat-Zinn or have practiced forms of meditation in the past, the concept of mindfulness is probably not new to you. The practice of mindfulness is designed to bring awareness to the immediate stimuli your senses are directly experiencing. This concept of being present in the moment and focusing on training the mind to experience the subtleties of each second has actually been researched to result in slight chemical modifications to the brain, according to Mindful.org. Contrary to popular belief, the practice is actually not intended to clear the mind of all thoughts, but to become immensely more aware of the world around us in each moment. With regard to health, research has displayed ability of mindfulness meditation to lower cortisol in the blood, and is recommended by many physicians to be used in combination with more conventional methods of treatment. In fact, some research studies have been designed specifically around the treatment of physicians in order to reduce “burnout” in the medical field, helping to reduce malpractice and increase patient empathy.
2. Take an Adaptogenic Herb
Adaptogens are herbs that essentially help the body acclimate to stress. Research has shown that the way in which some of these herbs effect the nervous system improves resistance and produces anti-depressive effects that contributes to better longevity. While all supplements should be taken in moderation, many of these herbs also have a number of benefits beyond simply helping us adapt to stressful situations, such as aiding with digestion, promoting better rest, and even helping to clear up skin. Here are a few common adaptogenic herbs you can incorporate into your diet as a cortisol-lowering supplement:
- Siberian Ginseng: Research has displayed the power this herb has on reducing fatigue, lowering stress, and boosting mood
- Ashwagandha: Studies reveal that this root has the ability to lower cortisol levels in chronically stressed humans
- John’s Wort: Contemporary research suggests that this herbal supplement can be an effective treatment for depression-related anxiety
3. Get the Right Amount of High-Quality Sleep
Of all the lifestyle changes we have the power to make, choosing to go to sleep earlier in order to get a full 7-8 hours should be one of the more commonsense options. The consequences of a poor night’s rest are easy to notice by most – inability to concentrate, fatigue, and reduced cognitive performance. However, irregular sleep patterns that disrupt or reduce sleep quality can actually increase cortisol levels. One study revealed that for employees who work overnight jobs and are forced to sleep during the day, sleep deprivation increased due to the accumulation of “sleep debt.” When the cortisol levels of this group were measured, they were found to be higher than the group of workers who worked regular day shifts, receiving normal amounts of sleep on a more consistent basis.
This isn’t easy for everyone, though. Some of us are simply more active at night and hard to get out of bed in the morning. For those types of people (myself included), we have to actively implement rest habits that help us get to sleep faster around our target sleep time. This includes limited exposure to electronics before bed, avoiding caffeine at night, and even taking melatonin 30 minutes before sleep.
4. Have a Healthy Romantic Relationship
Easier said than done, right? Well, believe it or not, there is a lot of research that supports the benefits healthy romantic relationships have on our health and longevity. In fact, one study showed that people who had an interaction with a romantic partner or loved one prior to being exposed to a stressful situation were effected far less compared to being exposed to stress without that interaction. This was also measured against an interaction with a non-romantic friend prior to exposure to the stressful event, and the romantic interaction condition still came out ahead. This supports the concept that being around loved ones we are romantically involved with can help lower other stress we might experience in everyday life.
5. Go for a Walk
A daily walk around the block not only proves to be beneficial for the cardiovascular system, but can also help lower anxiety and stress levels, reducing the amount of cortisol in the body’s circulation. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), some psychologists suggest that a simple 10-minute walk may be as beneficial for reducing stress as a 45-minute workout. This gives the mind a chance to acclimate to a more diverse surrounding, while the increase in oxygen from the mild exercise helps to detoxify the blood. If you can, try leaving your phone at home when you go for your walk in order to temporarily allow yourself to disconnect and unplug.
6. Pet a Therapy Dog
Pets have the power to make us feel joy, happiness, sadness, and even relaxation. Have you ever seen therapy dogs take around colleges during exam times or busy airports during the holiday season? This is because there is a multitude of scientific research that supports the theory that pets have the power to reduce stress and anxiety levels. For example, one study on children undergoing venipuncture showed that children who had a therapy dog present in the room during their procedure produced lower cortisol rates compared to children who did not have a therapy dog present.
7. Take an Epsom Salt Bath
What better way to destress and relax the mind and body than to take a warm Epsom salt bath? Soaking in Epsom salt is known to have a number of positive health benefits, from mildly exfoliating the skin to improving the health of the bones. Additionally, some research has also linked the exposure to the magnesium in Epsom salt to lower cortisol levels. This makes sense, given that Epsom salt baths are also often used by athletes with sprained ankles and sore muscles to help ease inflammation.
8. Lavender and Rosemary Aromatherapy
There’s a reason that quality aromatherapy has become so popular and mainstreamed in recent years. Essential oils such as tea tree, peppermint, and lavender are enjoyed by many to help increase alertness, relaxation, or even simply just for their amazing natural scent. However, research has also linked smelling lavender and rosemary with decreased cortisol levels. This is because both herbs increase free radical scavenging activity, essentially causing significant reductions of cortisol in the blood and saliva.
9. Enjoy a Deep-Tissue Massage
There are few people in this world who don’t feel truly at peace following an incredible deep massage. This is why many technology companies invest in weekly massages for their employees – to increase productivity, reduce stress, and to benefit longevity. Research has shown that massages not only increase serotonin and dopamine levels (neurotransmitters linked to pleasure and attention), but also effectively lowers cortisol levels in the blood. Massage therapy also proves to be excellent for increasing blood circulation among the tissues and muscles.
10. Alter Your Diet
Poor diet can also be contributing to higher cortisol levels, such that a lack of nutrition might not allow the body the essentials it needs to fight inflammation. According to University Health News, a good way to choose foods that lower cortisol levels is to avoid starchy, sugary foods. Instead, raw fruits and vegetables are a good choice, in addition to certain nuts such as cashews. Believe it or not, lean protein sources can also help to lower cortisol levels, such as extra-lean ground beef, black beans, and quinoa. Other more delectable cortisol-lowering foods include small amounts of chocolate, oysters, and berries. Enjoy!