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Article written and designed by Cosimo Simeone, Msc, PgdDip, Bsc, Physiotherapist

In our fast world, stress is always there, making our minds and bodies feel not so great. But here’s the good news: you can do things to make it better. I will explain you simple ways to make you feel less stressed (- cortisol) and more in control.

First, let’s talk about cortisol – it’s like a stress signal in our bodies. It’s there to protect us, but with too much stress, it can make us feel bad. The goal isn’t to get rid of all stress – that’s hard nowadays – but to handle it better.

Now, onto some easy things you can do. Mindfulness is a big one. It’s just about being in the moment, something anyone can do. Think of it like building a mental shield against stress, one small moment at a time. Physical activity is another good thing. Even a short walk or some easy home exercises can really help make cortisol go down.

Keep reading as we talk about how food and sleep play into making less cortisol. These aren’t hard things, they’re just everyday tools to help you feel more in control, less stressed, and ready to be your best self.

Signs of High Cortisol Levels:

High cortisol levels, shown in studies over 20 years, can cause various health problems. These include:

  1. Chronic diseases: Long-term high cortisol increases the risk of issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
  2. Weight gain: Cortisol can boost appetite and signal the body to store fat, leading to weight gain.
  3. Tiredness/trouble sleeping: Elevated cortisol can disrupt sleep hormones, affecting sleep quality.
  4. Difficulty focusing: Known as “brain fog,” high cortisol can make it challenging to concentrate.
  5. Weakened immune system: Excess cortisol makes it harder for the body to fight off infections.
  6. Cushing’s syndrome: Rare but serious, very high cortisol levels can lead to this illness.

Furthermore, various factors contribute to high cortisol, like gland issues, chronic stress, or certain medications. Existing health problems, such as obesity, may worsen this cycle.

In addition, you can consult our health experts to understand and address high cortisol levels. They can guide you in making lifestyle changes to improve your situation.

A Key Step in Managing Stressful Thoughts

It’s important to notice when you’re thinking stressful thoughts because paying attention might help you feel less stressed. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a way to become more aware of thoughts that make you feel stressed. Instead of judging or fighting against these thoughts, you learn to accept them and deal with them in a better way.

Learning to pay attention to your thoughts, as well as keeping an eye on your breathing, heart rate, and other signs of tension, helps you catch stress early on. When you become aware of how your mind and body feel, you can watch your stressful thoughts without feeling like they control you.

Recognizing stressful thoughts means you can choose how to react to them. For example, a study with 43 women who practiced mindfulness found that being able to talk about stress was linked to having lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Other studies have also shown that doing mindfulness regularly can help lower cortisol levels.

So, try adding mindfulness to your daily routine. It can help you manage stress better and reduce cortisol levels. By noticing and dealing with stressful thoughts, you can take control and feel better overall.

The importance of Sleep:

Ensuring you get an adequate amount of sleep can be a valuable strategy for lowering cortisol levels. Persistent sleep challenges, such as obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, or irregular shift work, have been associated with elevated cortisol levels.

A review of 28 studies involving shift workers discovered that those who slept during the day (night shift workers) exhibited higher cortisol levels compared to those who slept at night (day shift workers). Individuals on rotating shifts have also been linked to adverse health outcomes, including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and compromised mental health.

Insomnia, characterized by difficulty sleeping, can be triggered by various factors, including stress and obstructive sleep apnea. This condition can lead to increased circulating cortisol levels, impacting daily hormone patterns, energy levels, and overall health.

For night shift or rotating shift workers with limited control over their sleep schedule, optimizing sleep is crucial.

How to improve your sleep?

  1. Establish a bedtime routine: Consistently engage in activities like showering or reading a book to signal your brain and body to wind down for the night.
  2. Maintain a regular sleep schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same time daily is one of the most effective ways to enhance sleep.
  3. Exercise earlier in the day: Regular physical activity can improve sleep quality but should be completed at least 2–3 hours before bedtime.
  4. Limit caffeine intake: Cease consumption of caffeinated foods and drinks approximately six hours before bedtime.
  5. Avoid nicotine and alcohol: Both substances can impact sleep quality and duration.
  6. Reduce bright light exposure at night: Diminish exposure to bright and/or blue light 45–60 minutes before sleep by avoiding electronic devices and opting for activities like reading or listening to a podcast.
  7. Create a quiet sleep environment: Minimize disruptions by using white noise, earplugs, and muting your phone.
  8. Consider napping: If your shift work reduces your sleep hours, strategic napping can alleviate sleepiness and prevent a sleep deficit.

Moderate exercise To Lower Cortisol Levels:

Moving your body by doing exercise can change the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, in your body. It depends on how hard you exercise. If you do really tough exercise, your cortisol goes up right after, but it goes down a few hours later.

This quick increase helps your body grow to handle the challenge. If you keep exercising regularly, the increase in cortisol gets smaller because your body gets used to it.

Many studies show that regular exercise is good for different things, like making your sleep better, lowering stress, and improving your overall health. These good changes also help reduce cortisol over time.

But you have to be careful not to do too much exercise. Doing too much can actually make cortisol go up instead of down. So, it’s a good idea to aim for about 150–200 minutes of exercise each week, mostly at a not-too-hard level. And don’t forget to take breaks between your exercise times. This way, exercise can be a good way to control cortisol and keep you feeling good.

The role of Nutrition:

The food you eat can affect how much cortisol, the stress hormone, is in your body – it can either make it better or worse.

While it’s okay to enjoy different foods in the right amounts, paying attention to what you eat can help you feel less stressed and manage cortisol levels better.

Eating a lot of sugary foods can make cortisol levels go up. Surprisingly, a sugary diet might also stop cortisol from being released when you’re stressed, making it harder for your body to handle tough situations.

A study found that eating a lot of added sugar, processed grains, and fatty foods raised cortisol more than a diet with whole grains, fruits, veggies, and healthier fats.

Scientists have discovered a link between having a healthy mix of tiny organisms in your gut (they call it the gut microbiome) and feeling better in your head. So, eating foods that keep your gut healthy might help you stress less, feel less anxious, and be healthier overall.

Some foods are good for managing cortisol levels:

  1. Dark Chocolate: It has something called flavonoids that can help lower cortisol.
  2. Whole grains: These are better than processed grains because they have good things for your body that can help with stress.
  3. Beans and lentils: They have stuff that’s good for your gut and can help control your blood sugar.
  4. Fruits and veggies: They have things that fight against things that can hurt your body.
  5. Green tea: It has something called L-theanine that helps you feel calmer and more alert.
  6. Probiotics and prebiotics: These are in foods like yogurt and sauerkraut. They help your gut and head feel better.
  7. Healthy fats: Foods with good fats, like fish and nuts, are good for your body and mind.
  8. Water: It’s important to drink water because not having enough can make cortisol levels go up for a little while.

Other useful tips:

Having fun and laughing can lower stress hormones like cortisol. Whether it’s real or fake laughter, it reduces stress. For example, laughing yoga, where people intentionally laugh, has been shown to lower cortisol, reduce stress, and boost mood.

Doing things you enjoy, like hobbies, can make you feel good and lower cortisol levels. Additionally, listening to calm music has been found to lower cortisol levels.

Studies on cortisol in kids hair show that calm and loving families have less stress than those from homes with lots of fighting.

Getting support from loved ones can also lower cortisol during tough times. For example, one study found that having a nice interaction with a partner or friend before a tough activity made stress markers like heart rate and blood pressure go down.

Fish oil has omega-3 fatty acids, which might help lower cortisol, a stress hormone. A study found that taking 60 mg of fish oil and 252 mg of docosahexaenoic acid daily reduced cortisol during stress compared to a fake pill.

Ashwagandha, an herb used in traditional medicine, may also help with stress. In a study with 60 adults, taking 240 mg of ashwagandha extract daily for 60 days lowered cortisol and ease anxiety symptom levels a lot.

Feeling ashamed, guilty, or not good enough can make you think negatively and increase cortisol. If the cause of guilt is something you can change, like a habit, making a change in your life can help. But if it’s something you can’t change, like a mistake, forgiving can make you feel better.

Also in relationships, forgiving and finding conflict resolutions solutions is essential to reduce cortisol levels. Furthermore having a pet can lower cortisol.

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