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Stressed Out? 10 Science-Backed Ways to Combat Cortisol

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

I'm no stranger to cortisol. Chances are, neither are you. Up to 90% of doctor’s visits are due to stress-related illnesses and complaints[1]. If you’ve recently visited your doctor in search of help with high blood sugar, weight gain, trouble sleeping, or skin issues… the culprit could have been cortisol.

What happens if there is too much cortisol in the body?

Cortisol is a hormone that gets released when your body senses any perceived stressor or threat. The trouble is that your body can’t tell the difference between being chased by a tiger or being late for a meeting.

Does any of this sound familiar?

6:00am: You wake up exhausted.

6:30am: After you make his toast, your toddler decides he wants oats instead. You say

no, he can have oats tomorrow. He gets upset. You get upset.

7:00am: Time to get dressed. It’s summer and your toddler refuses to wear anything

other than his snowsuit. You finally come up with a compromise of summer clothes with

mittens, but you’re officially late.

8:00am: As you’re driving to work, you take a much-needed sip of coffee at a red light.

Before that delicious drink of warm hug can reach your taste buds, you spill some down

your cream-colored shirt. Before you have time to try and sop some of it up, the light

turns green…

...And that’s all before 8:30am.

If your body never gets a break from these “threats” throughout the day, it never has a chance to reset and go back to normal. After weeks or months of chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels, your body starts to wear down and health issues start to creep in.

Okay, so how do I lower my cortisol levels?”

There’s good news. You don’t need medication. And you don’t need to spend a lot of money.

Here are 10 ways to naturally lower cortisol that are proven to work. Pick one and start lowering your cortisol TODAY.

10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Reduce Cortisol Naturally

  1. Yoga

  2. Meditate

  3. Aromatherapy

  4. Tea

  5. Cut Afternoon Caffeine

  6. Exercise... Not Too Much!

  7. Music

  8. Sleep

  9. Limit Alcohol

  10. Pet a Dog

1. Yoga

It’s an expected answer, I know. But, IT WORKS.

Just one 90 minute Hatha Yoga session significantly decreases your cortisol levels and boosts your mood[1]. Just one time! Why not give it a try?

In another study, patients suffering from depression practiced yoga for a month. They ended the month with lower cortisol levels than the patients that were prescribed medication for the month instead of yoga. The yoga practicers also reported significant improvements in their symptoms of depression[2]. All from doing yoga!

2. Meditate

There’s a reason meditation is such a hot topic right now. The science backs it up! You don’t need to sit cross-legged chanting “Ommm” for it to work, either.

Mindfulness Meditation involves focusing on your breath. Follow the breath and the

sensations you feel as you inhale and as you exhale. Repeat.

After practicing Mindfulness Meditation for 4 hours per day for 4 days, people show a 20% decrease in cortisol levels[3]. FOUR HOURS?? Don’t worry, I know you don’t have time for that.

Instead, incorporate meditation into your regular relaxation activities. Meditation is more effective in decreasing cortisol levels than simply relaxing[4]. Taking a bath? Try some breathwork for 5 minutes when you first get in. Reading a book? Meditate for a few minutes between chapters.

3. Aromatherapy

Get your essential oils ready! They don’t just smell nice. They’re scientifically proven to help reduce cortisol levels.

The good news is, you don’t have to give up your regular activities to incorporate aromatherapy into your routines. Breathe some in when you’re sitting at your desk, when you’re watching tv, or before you go to bed.

Lavender: Dilute 4 drops of lavender essential oil into 20ml of hot water. Inhale for 30

Minutes, and decrease your cortisol levels by 25%[5].

Lavender and Rosemary: Don’t have 30 minutes? In one study, five minutes of inhaling lavender and rosemary essential oils significantly decreased cortisol levels[6].

Basil, Lavender, Rosemary, Rose: Looking for a blend? For 5 days, study participants

inhaled this blend three times per day. They also applied it to their neck and shoulders (with a carrier oil) one time per day. At the end of five days, this resulted in a 22.6% decrease in cortisol levels![7].

4. Tea

Coffee may be your first love, but you may want to consider incorporating some tea into your diet as well.

Black Tea: Drinking black tea helps you recover from stressful situations. Your cortisol levels drop back to normal more quickly and easily[8]. So next time you’re anticipating a stressful work meeting, brew up a cup of black tea to bring along.

Oolong Tea: When people drink four servings of oolong tea per day, they have cortisol levels 28.6% lower than water drinkers[9]. Why not try it out and see how you feel?

5. Cut the Afternoon Caffeine

Speaking of tea and coffee, if you were nervous I was going to tell you to quit the caffeine… you’re in luck. I’m not.

If your body is accustomed to the caffeine (that’s definitely me!), and you keep consumption to the morning, there is no negative impact on your cortisol levels.

A quick warning, though. Don’t drink more caffeine than your body is used to. And don’t drink it in the afternoon or evening. This causes a spike in cortisol levels exactly when you don’t want it… when it’s time to sleep[10].

6. Exercise… But Not Too Much!

Before you start pounding the pavement for hours on end, take a look at what the research shows.

Low intensity exercise lowers cortisol levels over time. Intensity can depend a lot on your body’s current abilities. But typical low intensity exercises include: walking, a casual bike ride, or a beginner’s yoga class. You should still be able to talk or sing during these exercises.

If you are going to take a walk, if possible, do it in nature. A 20 minute walk in

nature is more effective in lowering cortisol levels than a walk in the city[12].

Moderate intensity exercise increases cortisol levels 7x more than low intensity exercise immediately after the activity. Moderate intensity exercises include: weight training, jogging, cycling, swimming laps, an advanced yoga session, or maybe even some uphill walking. You will be struggling to carry on a conversation during these exercises.

High intensity exercise increases cortisol levels twice as much as moderate intensity exercise[11]. This is after just 30 minutes of exercise! High intensity exercises include: circuit training, vigorous weight training, sprinting, or anything that keeps you from speaking more than a few words at a time.

7. Music

Turn on those tunes! Listening to classical or pop music for 30 minutes decreases cortisol levels by 29%[13].

If you do hit the gym a little too hard, music has been shown to combat the effects of

physical exercise and other stressful situations[14][15]. So, after a hard HIIT session, or a stressful commute to work, throw on some Mozart. Breathe easy and feel your cortisol levels fall back to normal.

8. Sleep

I know, this can be a tough one. How are you supposed to get more sleep if your cortisol levels aren’t allowing you to sleep? It can be a cyclical effect.

Focusing on your sleep routines could be essential in your healing process, though.

Even one night of reduced sleep leads to decreased morning cortisol levels and increased evening cortisol levels[16].

What does reduced sleep mean? Getting 6 hours of sleep per night leads to an increase in cortisol by 50-80% compared to getting 8 hours per night![17].

9. Watch Your Alcohol Intake

I know how tempting a glass of wine (or 3) can be after a stressful, cortisol-filled day. But, keep in mind that alcohol consumption leads to poor sleep.

Also, If you’re consuming 21 or more standard drinks per week, you have higher cortisol

than a lighter drinker[18]. Be honest with yourself! An official serving of wine is only 4 ounces!

10. Pet a Dog

In a stressful situation, the presence of a dog is more effective in keeping cortisol levels down than even a supportive friend![19].

Now What?

Don’t let these 10 methods stress you out even more! You don’t have to do all of them. And please, don’t do any of them that would just bring you more stress!

Yoga not your thing? Instead of getting stuck in downward dog for 90 minutes, try a 20 minute walk in nature instead. Absolutely hate the taste of tea? Turn on some music and focus on your breath for a few minutes instead!

So which of these can you start implementing today? What can you add to your routine next week? Make these activities a part of your daily routines. Give your body time to reset, and watch your cortisol levels fall back to normal.

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  1. Khalfa, Stephanie, et al. "Effects of relaxing music on salivary cortisol level after psychological stress." ANNALS-NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES 999 (2003): 374-376.

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