Five simple steps to lower cortisol levels and reduce stress
This article explains the role of cortisol in the stress response, how elevated cortisol impacts a number of bodily functions, the benefits of stress reduction, and some stress management techniques to help lower cortisol levels naturally.
Five simple steps to lower cortisol levels and reduce stress
Stress! We're all familiar with the feeling, but what exactly happens in our bodies when we're stressed? Chronic stress is known to lead to a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes. Cortisol, often called the 'stress hormone', plays a central role in the stress response. Given its critical role, digital health companies spanning mental health to diabetes management use Vital's Lab Testing API to orchestrate cortisol testing across their user base. Understanding its function in the body provides us with valuable insights into more effective stress relief.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands and transported around the body via the circulatory system. Cortisol levels vary naturally through the day following a circadian rhythm, so they’re generally higher when you wake and then fall towards the end of the day.
At normal daily levels, cortisol helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar, strengthens the heart muscle, heightens memory, increases immune system function, reduces inflammation, and lowers sensitivity to pain. However, when stress levels remain high, cortisol production doesn't stop, which has negative effects, such as increasing the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
How does cortisol function?
Cortisol is known as the body's stress hormone because it prepares you for a fight-or-flight response by altering or shutting down some of your body’s functions to ensure efficiency while you’re on high alert.
When your brain perceives stress, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This triggers corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) to be released, which in turn causes the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The adrenal gland is stimulated to secrete cortisol by the higher levels of ACTH, and once cortisol is released into the bloodstream, it has the following physiological effects:
i) Triggers a flood of glucose to supply large muscles with an immediate energy source
ii) Inhibits insulin production so glucose won’t be stored but instead remain available for immediate use
iii) Narrows the arteries, while another hormone called epinephrine increases the heart rate, and together this forces your blood to pump harder and faster
iv) Shuts down functions which may slow the body down, such as your digestive and reproductive systems
v) Triggers an anti-inflammatory response to ready the body for recovery from injury or infection
Once the perceived crisis is over, hormone levels return to normal via a negative feedback loop, with high levels of cortisol blocking the hormones released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
Impact of high cortisol levels
If your body experiences chronic stress on an ongoing basis, you may start to notice some of the following:
Constipation, bloating or diarrhea
Increased blood pressure
Anxiety or depression
Looking deeper reveals more about the knock-on effects of high cortisol on the body:
Increased blood sugar levels
Insulin typically helps cells convert glucose to energy. As your pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in your blood remain high, and your cells don’t get the sugar they need. The body therefore continues to produce more glucose than necessary leading to raised blood sugar levels and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
The body remaining in an insulin-resistant state causes your body to send signals to the brain that you are hungry and need to eat. These false hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods, overeat, and gain weight, and the unused glucose in the blood is eventually stored in the visceral fat cells in the abdomen.
Suppressed immune system
Cortisol reduces inflammation in the body at normal levels, but elevated cortisol levels may actually suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and contagious illnesses. Your risk of developing food allergies, autoimmune diseases, and some cancers also increases.
Cortisol slows the less critical functions in the body such as digestion, so if stress levels remain consistently high, you won’t be digesting or absorbing food properly. An inefficient digestive system can exacerbate the symptoms of colitis or irritable bowel syndrome, and even lead to stomach ulcers.
The constant constriction of arteries and high blood pressure means your circulatory system is being overworked. This can lead to blood vessel damage and plaque buildup in your arteries, which are the precursors for a heart attack or stroke.
Simple ways to lower cortisol
There are times when lowering your stress levels can seem impossible, but simply tweaking some aspects of your daily routine could help keep your cortisol levels under control.
Here are five key areas that could have a positive impact on cortisol levels:
Sleep deprivation elevates cortisol levels, it’s thought the body is triggered to secrete more cortisol during the day in an effort to stimulate alertness. It’s therefore important to get better sleep, in terms of duration and quality.
2. Regular exercise
Regular Physical activity is known to relieve mental and physical tension, and we also know that low intensity exercise actively reduces circulating cortisol levels. However, the key is not to overdo it, as studies have shown that intense exercise provokes a significant increase in cortisol.
3. Healthy eating habits
The best way to lower cortisol in the body is to focus on an anti-inflammatory diet, including whole foods where possible and fewer processed foods. Magnesium-rich and protein-rich foods, and foods high in vitamin B and omega-3 are all excellent choices, including green vegetables, nuts and seeds, fortified grains, dairy, meat, and oily fish. Cortisol levels are also triggered by dehydration so including drinking enough water is critical too.
4. Breathing Exercises
A number of studies have shown that meditation, and specifically deep breaths trigger body relaxation responses and benefit both physical and mental health, but a 2017 study looking at the direct effect of regular diaphragmatic breathing practice on stress showed that it causes levels of cortisol to significantly decrease.
5. Spend time outside in nature
Spending just 20 minutes connecting with nature can help lower cortisol levels, according to a 2019 study. We’ve known for some time that interacting with nature reduces stress, but it wasn’t clear how much time we needed to spend to realize the benefit or what the setting should be. The study revealed that the biggest drop in cortisol levels came after 20 minutes, regardless of the time of day or specific setting.
Cortisol plays a critical role in the body's stress response and understanding its impact on bodily processes can help prevent, manage and detect a number of health conditions.
Our end-to-end lab testing API has digital health companies to orchestrate their cortisol testing, across test kits, at-home phlebotomy and walk-in labs. Combining this with data from our Wearables API, for key biomarkers like sleep and heart rate variability - we’ve enabled companies to form a holistic view of their users and better tailor their care plans.
If you’re looking to run cortisol testing or any other testing, book a demo with our team to learn more about our APIs!