How to Reduce Cortisol and Manage Stress for Better Health

Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” because it is released in response to stress. While cortisol is an important hormone that helps our bodies react to danger, chronic high levels of cortisol can lead to negative health effects. In this article, we’ll explore how to reduce cortisol by managing stress through lifestyle changes and natural remedies.

What is Cortisol and Why Do We Want to Reduce It?

Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands as part of the body’s “fight or flight” stress response. It raises blood sugar, increases blood pressure, and suppresses immune, digestive and reproductive systems so the body can react quickly to perceived threats.

While this response is useful for short-term survival, chronic stress and elevated cortisol can lead to:

  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Muscle wasting
  • Impaired immunity
  • Digestive issues

By learning to manage stress and reduce cortisol levels, we can prevent or improve all of these health issues.

Understanding the Stress Response

The stress response is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary body functions. It has two main branches:

Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system activates the body’s “fight or flight” reaction to perceived threats. It increases heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and suppresses immune and digestive functions.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates “rest and digest” functions like immune responses, digestion, and reproduction. It promotes healing and regeneration.

Ideally, these systems are balanced. But chronic stress leads to overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and excessive cortisol release. Re-establishing parasympathetic tone can help normalize cortisol levels.

Causes of Chronic Stress

Stressors that can lead to elevated cortisol include:

  • Chemical stressors: Infections, toxins, unstable blood sugar
  • Physical stressors: Injury, posture problems, lack of movement
  • Emotional stressors: Anxiety, anger, grief, overwhelm

Often we aren’t aware of these stressors. The key is addressing all three areas – chemical, physical and emotional – to reduce cortisol and rebalance the nervous system.

The Role of the Frontal Lobe

Our frontal lobe helps regulate the stress response by inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system. The more active the frontal lobe, the better it can calm the stress response.

Activities like meditation that increase frontal lobe activity can help turn down sympathetic activity and cortisol release. The frontal lobe also indirectly activates the parasympathetic system, turning on healing functions.

Lifestyle Changes to Lower Cortisol

Here are some of the top lifestyle changes to lower cortisol by calming the sympathetic nervous system and activating the parasympathetic system:

1. Aerobic Exercise

Gentle aerobic exercise like walking helps interrupt the stress response pattern, increases oxygenation, and stimulates the frontal lobe. It also promotes growth hormone release which counters cortisol.

2. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

Vigorous exercise like HIIT causes a brief cortisol spike, but dramatically boosts growth hormone if kept to short durations. This is an advanced technique for the fit.

3. Rest and Recovery

Ensure adequate rest between workouts and avoid overtraining, which can increase cortisol.

4. Yoga

Yoga’s stretching and focused breathing interrupts the stress pattern and stimulates the frontal lobe. Avoid fast-paced “hot yoga” styles.

5. Deep Belly Breathing

Long exhales activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathe in for 4 counts, out for 5-6 counts.

6. Meditation

By training focus and attention, meditation builds frontal lobe activity to turn down the stress response.

7. Mindfulness

Practice mindfulness throughout the day by making your inner peace the priority, and focusing on the positive.

8. Celebrate Wins

Take time to appreciate and enjoy even small accomplishments and joys. This builds positive momentum.

9. Practice Gratitude

Regularly express gratitude for the good things in life. This boosts mood and trains the brain to see the positive.

10. Read Uplifting Material

Reading positive and inspiring content builds optimism, interrupts repetitive thinking, and stimulates the frontal lobe.

11. Surround Yourself with Positive People

Avoid toxic people who trigger stress. Seek out positive social connections.

12. Use Calming Scents

Essential oils, candles, or natural scents engage the senses to interrupt stress thought patterns.

13. Try Herbal Supplements

Adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha help normalize cortisol and energize or calm the nervous system as needed.

14. Laugh Out Loud

Laughter and smiling stimulate joyful neurochemicals that reduce stress hormone levels.

15. Prioritize Sleep

Adequate quality sleep, and sleeping before midnight, increases growth hormone release.

16. Intermittent Fasting

Going longer periods without eating increases growth hormone. This works best with a low-carb diet.

17. Stabilize Blood Sugar

Swings in blood sugar signal the need for cortisol. Eat low glycemic index foods.

Nutritional Support for Cortisol Reduction

Certain nutrients support healthy stress response by nourishing the brain and adrenal glands:

  • B vitamins – Found in nutritional yeast, greens, eggs. Help adrenals manage stress.
  • Vitamin C – From citrus, berries, peppers. Supports adrenal and immune function.
  • Magnesium – From leafy greens, nuts, seeds. Has a calming effect.
  • Potassium – Bananas, avocados, potatoes. Important for adrenals.
  • Calcium – Dairy, leafy greens, nuts. Supports nervous system.
  • DHA – From fatty fish, fish oil. Calms the brain.

Additional Tips for Lowering Cortisol

  • Massage adrenal reflex points – Rub gently below belly button to calm adrenals.
  • Consider a pet – Caring for pets lowers cortisol.
  • Take up a hobby – Fun activities interrupt repetitive thoughts.
  • Try counseling – Therapy can help process emotions and trauma.
  • Rule out medical issues – In some cases, cortisol issues may need medical treatment.

Elevated Cortisol Indicates Stress

Our cortisol levels provide a window into the health of our stress response system. Elevated cortisol indicates excessive stress that can contribute to chronic health problems. By adopting lifestyle changes and natural remedies that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, support healthy brain function, and help us manage stress, we can reset our body’s stress response and reduce cortisol for better health.

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