What is cortisol? (and what does cortisol do?)
Cortisol is commonly referred to as the body’s stress hormone. You may prefer to think of it as your body’s alarm system, as cortisol is released when you detect a threat in order to help you prepare you to fight or flee from the detected threat. While the body developed this mechanism eons ago, when threats were very much real, the same mechanisms are at work when we’re faced with an imagined threat. This hormone originates from the adrenal glands near the kidneys, it enters our circulatory system and spreads throughout the body, affecting every system in the body. In this blog, you’ll learn about some of the harmful effects stress can have on these systems when running amok, and how you can manage it effectively.
Is cortisol bad?
Since cortisol has been most closely associated with stress in the media, many people think of it as bad for our health. However, cortisol is essential to our natural rhythms and function. Levels of this hormone are highest during the day and gradually decline through the day until their lowest levels around midnight. Through this cycle, cortisol helps us keep awake and alert during the day and by decreasing allows us to wind down and get restful sleep at night. In addition to supporting our circadian rhythm, cortisol also plays an important role in regulating our blood pressure, blood sugar, immune system, and anti-inflammatory processes.1,2
Negative effects of cortisol
Cortisol is essential to our survival, but when our body has too much circulating for too long, it can begin to harm our health. In the modern age’s pandemic of stress, people are finding themselves chronically stressed by work, personal finances, and/or their health. Add a pandemic and climate change to the list and you have a recipe for a very stressed population. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in AmericaTM report, 84% of adults recently reported feeling at least one harmful emotion associated with prolonged stress.3 The effects of prolonged stress can include:4
- Anxiety and depression
- Heart disease
- Memory and concentration problems
- Problems with digestion
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight gain
In instances where the body makes too much cortisol due to a mass or tumor in the adrenal glands or brain, Cushing syndrome may develop. Symptoms of this syndrome may include rapid weight gain, skin that bruises easily, muscle weakness, diabetes, and many other health problems.4
10 ways to reduce cortisol naturally
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to stress. Chronic stress causes high levels of cortisol that creates a level of arousal in the body that is exhausting, anxiety-producing, and sleep-depriving -- compounding our problems. While there are solutions you can use for acute instances of stress, it is more beneficial to get into a regular practice of using all the tips listed here in order to build your natural resilience to stress over time.
- Identify and reduce or avoid stressors. We can’t always avoid stressful situations. Try to identify the most common sources of stress for us and develop strategies to reduce, cope with, or overcome them. Keeping a journal is an excellent way to reflect on the events of your life and identify patterns of stress. For instance, holiday stress is common for many and is difficult to avoid, but identifying you’re spreading yourself too thin with commitments may help you manage your schedule with a more critical eye.
- Improve sleep. Poor sleep can increase cortisol production and dysfunction of activity in the part of the brain that regulates cortisol. Studies also show that insufficient sleep and inconsistent sleep schedules, like those caused by shift work, can increase cortisol. This creates a vicious cycle where a lack of sleep causes stress and the stress deteriorates our sleep further.5 Focus on improving sleep hygiene with an evening routine where you disconnect from all devices at least an hour before bed, then sleep in a cool room that is as dark as possible. Getting good quality sleep can also reduce your risk for more serious stressors like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.6
- Use ashwagandha. The root of the Withania somnifera plant, commonly known as ashwagandha, has found special use in Ayurvedic, Indian, African and Unani (Grecco-Arab) medicine. For over 6,000 years it has been used to promote a balanced youthful state of physical and mental health. Ashwgandha belongs to a class of plants coined adaptogens. In 1947, the term adaptogen was developed to describe plants that protect the body against physical, mental, and emotional stress by strengthening the immune system. Supplementing with ashwagandha has been shown to improve restorative sleep in studies while also decreasing symptoms of anxiety.7,8 Check out our blog to learn more about ashwagandha’s benefits for stress and anxiety.
- Try meditation or other relaxation techniques. For thousands of years, cultures across the world have been practicing meditation and other forms of mindfulness to cope with the stress of life. These practices now have a wealth of research that support their effectiveness in reducing stress and cortisol. Psychology researchers found strong evidence that people who received mindfulness-based therapy were less likely to react with negative thoughts or unhelpful emotional reactions in times of stress. They also found participants could focus on the present better and worried or ruminated less.9 If you’re not sure where to start, YouTube and Insight Timer have thousands of free guided meditations at your fingertips.
- Eat a whole food plant-based diet. Eating a varied diet of whole foods that emphasizes plants is a sure-fire way to get all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your body needs to work optimally. We’ve written about key vitamins and minerals your body needs to fight stress effectively.
- Switch from coffee to tea. Much to your dismay, coffee may be contributing to your increased levels of cortisol. Drinking coffee causes a spike in cortisol, especially in those who don’t drink coffee regularly and in those who drink it later in the day.10 Drinking tea on the other hand, even green and black varieties which contain caffeine, has been shown to decrease cortisol levels. How does tea achieve this paradoxical effect of making you calm and alert at the same time? This might be due to the effects of L-theanine and EGCGs together with caffeine. Studies have shown that L-theanine and EGCG influence brain activity in a way that increases relaxation and attentiveness while also improving brain functions.11,12
- Get physically active. Exercising is another form of relaxation because it actually reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol.13 Moving your body is a practice that yields benefits for practically every aspect of health. In addition to improving sleep quality, regular physical activity will improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.13, 14 Health problems are reported as one of the biggest stressors for people, so engaging in exercise has both short- and long-term stress reduction benefits as it decreases the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, colon and breast cancers, osteoporosis and fractures, obesity, depression, and even dementia.13
- Avoid caffeine after noon. If you enjoy coffee too much to follow tip number 6, then give some serious consideration to abstaining from coffee and any caffeinated drinks after midday. A study found that even among habitual coffee drinkers, a second cup of coffee at 1pm caused a cortisol spike.10 Caffeine is a stimulant with a half-life of about 5-6 hours, which means that half of the caffeine from your cup of coffee, coke or diet coke is still coursing through your veins after 5-6 hours.15 Since this stimulant effect may last even longer while caffeine remains in your system, it is important to stop caffeine intake earlier in the day to ensure your cortisol decreases throughout the day and eases you into a restful night of sleep.
- Get a pet. Having a pet may decrease your cortisol levels. A study from 2014 found that participants who were placed through a stress test and had a dog present had lower levels of cortisol than participants who had a friend present or those that were in the control group.16
- Garden. A study from 2015 suggests that gardening may help reduce cortisol levels.17 The study also suggested that quality of life and depressive symptoms improved for those who gardened.
Stress affects us all and fluctuations in cortisol levels are a normal part of life, though levels do rise with age and are higher in older females than males.18 It is important to develop healthy coping strategies to stress as we age and to seek professional help when we can’t manage it ourselves. If you find yourself feeling stressed for extended periods of time, or if you begin to experience symptoms of high cortisol, contact your healthcare professional as you may need the support and guidance of a trained medical provider.
- Victoria State Government. Hormones – cortisol and corticosteroids. Retrieved Sept 29, 2021, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/Hormones-cortisol-and-corticosteroids
- Society of Endocrinology. Cortisol. Retrieved on Sept 29, 2021, from https://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol
- American Psychological Association. Feb 2 2021. U.S. Adults Report Highest Stress Level Since Early Days of the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2021/02/adults-stress-pandemic
- WebMD. Dec 13, 2021. What is Cortisol? https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol
- Hirotsu, C., Tufik, S., & Andersen, M. L. (2015). Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep science (Sao Paulo, Brazil), 8(3), 143–152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002
- Sleep Foundation. December 4, 2021. How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Heart. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-deprivation/how-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-heart
- Henson, S. (2021, April 15). Ashwagandha Supplementation Improves Sleep Quality in Participants with Nonrestorative Sleep. American Botanical Council. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbclip/issues/issue-662/ashwagandha-improves-sleep-quality/
- Langade, D., Kanchi, S., Salve, J., Debnath, K., & Ambegaokar, D. (2019). Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Insomnia and Anxiety: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Study. Cureus, 11(9), e5797. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.5797
- Gu, J., Strauss, C., Bond, R., Cavanagh, K. (2015) How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies. Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2015.01.006.
- Lovallo, W. R., Whitsett, T. L., al'Absi, M., Sung, B. H., Vincent, A. S., & Wilson, M. F. (2005). Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. Psychosomatic medicine, 67(5), 734–739. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.psy.0000181270.20036.06
- Haskell, C. F., Kennedy, D. O., Milne, A. L., Wesnes, K. A., & Scholey, A. B. (2008). The effects of L-theanine, caffeine and their combination on cognition and mood. Biological psychology, 77(2), 113–122. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.09.008
- Scholey, A., Downey, L. A., Ciorciari, J., Pipingas, A., Nolidin, K., Finn, M., Wines, M., Catchlove, S., Terrens, A., Barlow, E., Gordon, L., & Stough, C. (2012). Acute neurocognitive effects of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). Appetite, 58(2), 767–770. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.11.016
- Harvard Health Publishing. July 7, 2021. Exercising to relax. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved on Sept 29, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax#:~:text=Exercise%20reduces%20levels%20of%20the,natural%20painkillers%20and%20mood%20elevators
- Paul D. Loprinzi, Bradley J. Cardinal, (2011) Association between objectively-measured physical activity and sleep, NHANES 2005–2006, Mental Health and Physical Activity, Volume 4, Issue 2, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mhpa.2011.08.001.
- Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research. Caffeine for the Sustainment of Mental Task Performance: Formulations for Military Operations. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 2, Pharmacology of Caffeine. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK223808/
- Polheber, J. P., & Matchock, R. L. (2014). The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends. Journal of behavioral medicine, 37(5), 860–867. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-013-9546-1
- Detweiler, M. B., Self, J. A., Lane, S., Spencer, L., Lutgens, B., Kim, D. Y., Halling, M. H., Rudder, T. C., & Lehmann, L. P. (2015). Horticultural therapy: a pilot study on modulating cortisol levels and indices of substance craving, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and quality of life in veterans. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 21(4), 36–41. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26030115/
- Larsson, C. A., Gullberg, B., Råstam, L., & Lindblad, U. (2009). Salivary cortisol differs with age and sex and shows inverse associations with WHR in Swedish women: a cross-sectional study. BMC endocrine disorders, 9, 16. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6823-9-16