Spend Time with People for Stress Relief
Your relationships with other people can lower your stress levels, as well as reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost overall mood.
Think about the relationships in your life that bring you peace. Maybe it’s a family member, a trusted friend or a coworker. Often these relationships calm us because we know what to expect from them. We know our role and the other person’s role, bringing a sense of stability. Studies back this up. They show when your social status feels stable, you feel more in control, and your cortisol levels remain lower.
Another study proves that social support can be just as effective as yoga for lowering depression, anxiety and overall stress. A group of prenatally depressed women were split into a yoga group and a social support group. Both met weekly for 12 weeks. At the end of each session, both groups saw lower cortisol levels.
And don’t forget another benefit of social support: hugging. Hugs or other positive physical interactions have also proven to dampen cortisol, raise oxytocin and lower systolic blood pressure during stressful events.
Last, but not least, it’s important to acknowledge your stress. To talk about it. After all, stress often has a root cause, be it financial worries, relationship problems, work deadlines, the death of a loved one or something else. Lifestyle changes can help you manage some of this, but they won’t get to the root cause.
When you address the underlying reason, that’s when you unlock true long-lasting stress management. And you can see the immediate impact on your health. In one study, cognitive behavioural therapy for stress management directly reduced cortisol levels in a group of pregnant women. So remember, a large part of stress relief is acknowledging the main cause and getting help.
Laugh More, Even If Forced
Have you heard the saying “laughter is the best medicine”? Well, we can’t say it’s necessarily the best. But it is an effective way to lower cortisol levels, along with releasing endorphins and a host of other health benefits.
One study examined the cortisol levels of those watching an hour-long funny video. A half hour after the video ended, their levels decreased more than the control group. And the effects stay true even if the laughter is forced. In one study of a “laughter yoga” group, which encourages prolonged voluntary laughter, participants saw a significant drop in cortisol levels while the control group did not. It seems you really can laugh away stress.
How a Healthy Diet Helps you to Relieve Stress
We need to give our bodies the fuel they need to perform better, so we need to talk about diet. As we know, a nutritious diet does wonders for overall health. It can protect your body from infections and diseases (like heart disease, diabetes, cancer), while improving your mood, energy and focus.
So it might not surprise you that certain foods directly affect your cortisol levels. For example, one study found that foods high in sugar, refined grains and saturated fats can increase your cortisol compared to a whole food diet.
On the other hand, there are a number of foods that can help relieve your cortisol levels. And many of them fall into the Mediterranean diet: think fish, poultry, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats. The main reason comes down to this diet’s anti-inflammatory properties.
For example, healthy fats, specifically, food with omega-3 fatty acids, help reduce inflammation and, therefore, cortisol. The best food for this is fish. But you can also find this in avocados, olive oil, flax seeds, walnuts and more. Of course, this diet also provides a host of other health benefits, like more balanced blood sugar levels, which helps relieve stress.
And for a quick fix? Try dark chocolate, which is rich in polyphenols and magnesium. As we mentioned, magnesium can help lower cortisol. And polyphenols are organic compounds found in plant-based food, which are full of antioxidants and other health benefits.
Drink More Water to Stay Hydrated!
Here’s a simple way to manage your stress: Drink more water. Often, people don’t even realize they’re dehydrated. And that can add stress to our bodies. After all, our organs, including our brains, need water to function well. If you’re dehydrated, your body isn’t running properly.
In fact, if you’re just dehydrated by half a liter, it can increase your cortisol levels. And when you’re stressed, you’re at greater risk of dehydration. Aside from forgetting to drink more water, your heart rate may rise and your breathing may increase, causing you to lose more fluid.
Stress leads to more stress. In fact, in one study, researchers found that mildly-dehydrated soccer players saw a greater cortisol response to friendly matches, suggesting dehydration added to their stress.
Try Supplements to Reduce Stress
We want to ensure our bodies and brains are well-fueled. Otherwise, we’re adding more stressors to daily life. Here’s where a number of supplements may help. For example:
B-vitamins: These, including B6, B9 and B12, may have a number of positive effects on mood and stress. In one double-blind placebo-controlled study, 138 adults (aged 20 to 50 years) were administered a multivitamin containing B-vitamins versus placebo over a 16-week period. At 16 weeks, the group with the multivitamin saw an increased cortisol awakening response (CAR). This increase could represent an adaptive response to everyday demands.
Magnesium: After a 24-week study, the group taking magnesium saw lower cortisol levels when compared with the placebo group.
Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha, an adaptogenic Ayurvedic herb, has been often used to combat and reduce stress and anxiety. In one study, cortisol levels were reduced with both 250 mg/day and 600 mg/day. Compared to the placebo group, the Ashwagandha group also noticed a significant improvement in sleep quality.
Please note: Statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or health condition.
Think Before you Drink (Too Much) Alcohol
Alcohol is one drink that could be adding to your cortisol levels. Researchers found a positive association between cortisol and alcohol consumption. In men, for example, they saw a 3% increase in cortisol per unit of alcohol consumed. To top it off, in heavy drinkers, cortisol’s natural decline over the day was reduced. This suggests that heavy alcohol consumption can cause chronic changes to our stress response.
And while alcohol may make you drowsy, encouraging you to fall sleep quickly, it can actually erode your sleep quality. For example, it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is thought to be restorative. It also exacerbates sleep apnea by suppressing breathing. And the worse our sleep, the worse our stress.
So if you’re worried about high cortisol, it might be best to stop drinking.
Change Your Coffee Habits to Relieve Stress
Many people love their morning cup of joe. It can feel wonderful to sip on a hot mug of coffee right after waking up. But did you know that caffeine increases your cortisol production? That’s why it’s important to monitor your caffeine habits, particularly when you drink your coffee.
See, your natural cortisol levels peak about 30 to 45 minutes after waking up. Then they slowly decline throughout the day, reaching their lowest around midnight. If you drink coffee when your natural levels are at their highest, it may lessen coffee’s energizing benefits. Meanwhile, it could further increase your cortisol production. And as we know, high levels of cortisol over long periods can damage your health.
Further long-term studies are needed, but if your cortisol levels are too high, it might be best to delay your coffee to mid or late morning (or eliminate caffeine altogether). And try not to drink coffee later in the evening. Caffeine’s effects can last anywhere from three to five hours. In fact, about half of the caffeine consumed remains in your body after five hours. That’s why drinking coffee in the evening could disrupt your sleep cycle. And as we know, a regular sleep cycle is vital to managing stress.
Get Enough Sleep (But what is Enough?)
Often, we’re told to get more sleep to help with health concerns. But we’re not told exactly why. Well, cortisol is one reason. As we mentioned earlier, cortisol is part of managing your sleep-wake cycle.
Studies show that people with chronic sleep problems, think apnea, insomnia, or other forms of sleep deprivation, have higher cortisol levels during the day. It might be your body’s way of stimulating more alertness to counteract the lack of rest.
On the other hand, high cortisol levels can also disrupt your sleep, causing further insomnia and fatigue. That’s why it’s important to interrupt this unhealthy cycle. Have a bedroom routine, and stick to it. Keep your bedroom dark and cool. Put away electronics before bed. And aim for seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night.
Try Aerobic Exercise (But Don’t Overdo It)
It’s no secret that a sedentary lifestyle adds to stress. Sitting for over eight hours a day has been linked to a greater risk for depression, anxiety and chronic stress. Exercise is a natural answer. Aside from improving your overall health, exercise can directly influence your cortisol levels, depending on the intensity.
Higher intensity exercise can increase your cortisol, although it will decrease later in the day. It initially rises to manage your body’s growth as you tackle the stressful exercise. Interestingly, with routine training, your system adapts. Your hormonal response is muted. And in some cases, you can lower your base cortisol levels. That comes with a host of potential health implications for dealing with chronic stress.
While higher intensity exercise momentarily increases your levels, researchers have found that lower intensity exercise can decrease it. In fact, when researchers studied those with major depressive disorder, which is linked to chronic stress and an imbalance of cortisol levels, they found that not only does exercise help lower cortisol, the type (aerobic) and frequency (five times a week) helped too. Just be careful. Excessive exercise can cause more stress, leading to overtraining syndrome.
Meditate or Practice Meditative Yoga
Meditation is a powerful way of managing stress, anxiety and depression. In one meta-analysis, researchers found that it reduced cortisol as well as blood pressure, heart rate, triglycerides and more. This makes sense considering that simply worrying over past or future events can prolong your cortisol release. And mediation requires the practice of mindfulness. In one observational study, larger increases in mindfulness were linked to decreases in cortisol later in the day.
In the same vein, yoga also helps. It can increase mindfulness while decreasing cortisol. But the type of yoga matters. In one study, researchers found that cortisol levels were significantly lower after meditative (Hatha style) yoga, but remained the same following power (Vinyasa style) yoga.
Learn Deep Breathing to Relieve Stress
Meditation reduces stress for a number of reasons, but here's a little-known one: It encourages deep breathing. Deep, controlled breathing exercises not only help prepare your body to handle stressful events, they’re also linked to decreases in cortisol.
It comes down to our body’s wiring. Stress triggers our sympathetic nervous system, activating our fight-or-flight response. Cue increases in cortisol, blood pressure, breathing rates, etc.
When we take a moment to calm ourselves, to breathe slowly and deeply, our parasympathetic system takes over. This system controls our body when at rest and helps us relax. So, by controlling our rapid, shallow breaths, we’re essentially pausing our bodies’ fight-or-flight alarm system.
That’s why deep breathing exercises – also called paced respiration, diaphragmatic breathing and abdominal breathing – are beneficial to our overall health. They impact our brains, hearts, digestion, immune system and more. Try incorporating some regular 10-minute (or longer) breathing exercises into your day.
In one example, simply sit or lie flat in a comfortable position. Breathe deeply through your nose, and let your belly fully expand as you fill your lungs. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth, deflating your belly. You may feel the benefits pretty quickly.
Spend 20 Minutes Walking in Nature
When you’re stressed, take a break and go outside. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel good, but it has very measurable impacts on your physical health. It reduces your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, LDL cholesterol and cortisol levels. Meanwhile, it also lowers instances of stroke, hypertension, asthma and coronary heart disease.
In one 2019 study, researchers were even able to quantify how much time should be spent outside for the optimal benefits. Participants who spent 20 to 30 minutes outside, at least three times a week, saw a significant drop in cortisol levels. However, levels dropped in as little as 10 minutes. Studies also underscore that walking in nature does more than simply viewing it or walking in an urban environment.
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How to Reduce Your Cortisol
Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. Think of it as your body’s natural alarm system. While you produce it daily in order to help regulate your sleep-wake cycle, your metabolism, your blood pressure and more … cortisol levels surge in your bloodstream during periods of stress.
In short bursts, that can benefit you. Cortisol can raise your blood sugar, for example, and give you a boost of energy to handle a stressor. Then it can restore balance afterward. But with chronic stress, cortisol levels remain high … and health complications can follow. Long-term stress is a contributing cause to practically every disease known to man, from heart disease to diabetes.
So, in order to reduce cortisol, we have to reduce your stress. And that starts with some self-reflection. Stress is often a result of our lifestyles — it’s a way of life that we have adapted and turned into a habit. Because of this, sometimes we don’t even know we’re under stress. For example, we might not be drinking enough water, and dehydration is an often overlooked stressor. It follows, then, that in order to control stress, we have to acknowledge our stressors and change our lifestyles.
That may sound like a significant transformation. But large goals are often attained through a series of small adjustments. With that in mind, we’ve searched through a collection of science journals to compile a list of simple lifestyle changes you can make. These adjustments can immediately help you start to take back control and lower your cortisol levels.
Of course, it’s best to work with a qualified health professional to establish the main reason for any health concerns. The suggestions here could be paired with other changes you and your doctor decide to make. Here are some top ways to start lowering your stress today: