7 Science-Backed Ways to Lower High Cortisol Levels

As someone who has a Type A personality, I often joke that I was born stressed out. I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t worried about an upcoming deadline at work, getting all the errands I needed done during the weekend, or trying to find time to spend with friends and family. So when my doctor recently told me I have high cortisol levels, I wasn’t shocked. 

I’ve been through big life changes in the past couple years—buying a home, losing my brother, and changing jobs—all of which my doctor explained can put excess stress on my body, leading to higher levels of cortisol. Cortisol, or the stress hormone, is naturally produced to help our bodies function properly, but it can also spike as our fight-or-flight response to stressful situations. These small spikes in cortisol are natural, but prolonged periods of stress can begin to have negative effects on physical and mental health (think: weight gain, weakened immune system, decreased energy levels, irregular periods). TLDR; high cortisol levels can wreak havoc on our systems. 

After years of gaining weight and feeling fatigued, I finally decided enough was enough. I made it my mission to take control of my health, which led me to find a doctor who provided me with natural ways to lower my cortisol levels. Keep reading to find out the lifestyle changes I made to help me and my body chill TF out (AKA how to reduce cortisol).

“You deserve to live your fullest, best life–high cortisol levels need not apply.”

Signs you have high cortisol levels

Feeling stressed out or anxious all the time may be the first clue that you have high cortisol levels, but there are other tell-tale signs our bodies will give us to signal that something’s off. If your body is producing too much cortisol, you may experience the following symptoms

  • weight gain around the midsection and upper back

  • weight gain and rounding of the face

  • acne

  • thinning skin

  • easy bruising

  • flushed face

  • slowed healing

  • muscle weakness

  • severe fatigue

  • irritability

  • difficulty concentrating

  • high blood pressure

  • headaches

Science-backed ways to lower cortisol levels

1. Regulate your body’s stress reaction with enough sleep 

Yes, we always hear the advice to get more sleep, but it’s worth repeating: sleep is one of the most important factors when dealing with high cortisol. According to a 2015 study, poor sleep and inconsistent sleep schedules can disturb the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which produces hormones and regulates the body’s stress reaction. Disruption of the HPA axis can lead to increased cortisol production. If you’re stressed, you’re probably not getting the best sleep possible, but it’s important to aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep a night to regulate cortisol levels. Need help getting better (and more) sleep? Click here for the best sleep supplements, click here for how to “sleep sync” for better quality sleep, or click here if you tend to wake up in the middle of the night.

2. Limit or adjust HIIT workouts 

Working out is great for physical and mental health, but if you’re dealing with high cortisol, the type of workout can either make it worse or help calm it down. High-intensity workouts can confuse your brain into thinking you’re in survival mode, at which point cortisol and other hormones are released. When your body is overtaxed with too much intense exercise without enough recovery, it can lead to elevated levels of cortisol in the bloodstream and heightened symptoms of physical stress, even when you’re not working out. If you already have elevated cortisol levels, it may be beneficial to opt for low-impact workouts like Pilates or walking, which give the benefits of working out without spiking cortisol too much.

If you do want to opt for high-intensity workouts while dealing with high cortisol, Healthline suggests no more than 2-3 days a week, with rest days in between. Integrative nutritionist and hormone expert, Alisa Vitti, recommends limiting high-intensity workouts to 30 minutes or only doing HIIT in follicular and ovulatory phases (if you have a reproductive cycle) when resting cortisol levels are naturally lower. As board-certified endocrinologist Dr. Elena A. Christofides, M.D., recommended to Shape, you can also try doing your workouts in the morning. This will align your exercise-induced cortisol spike with the spike that happens naturally, limiting the impact of the cortisol spike on the body. BTW, if these tips feel overwhelming, simply choose workouts that feel enjoyable rather than draining; your body knows what it needs. Talk to your doctor or trainer about the exercise routine that will best support your body.

3. Incorporate meditative practices 

If you’re stressed out, chances are you can’t get your mind off how stressed out you are. And that only prolongs more cortisol release. Practicing mindfulness techniques signals to the body that it does not need to keep producing cortisol. But where do you start? Meditation will likely give you the biggest bang for your buck. A 2013 study found that four days of meditation lowered cortisol levels in participants’ blood. Another study showed that participants with long-term meditation experience had lower cortisol levels in the morning. So how long do you need to meditate to make a difference in cortisol levels? Yoga and meditation teacher Kelly Smith shared on The Everygirl Podcast that research shows just 8-10 minutes of meditation a day can majorly impact stress levels. If meditation isn’t your thing, yoga, journaling, and deep breathing exercises are also easy ways you can reduce stress levels. The goal is to train your body to feel safe, therefore turning off the fight-or-flight response.

how to lower cortisol
Source: Emily Patnaude | Dupe

4. Eat cortisol-friendly meals

The foods we eat affect our mental health and can increase or lower cortisol. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to reach for your favorite comfort foods or whatever is easiest (hi, fast food). While these foods may feel good at the moment, they can lead to inflammation in the gut. Because of the gut-brain axis, the two-way street of communication between the gut and brain, inflammation further increases stress and the release of cortisol. Diets high in added sugar, refined grains, and saturated fats have been shown to lead to high cortisol. On the other hand, a more nutritious meal can help stabilize cortisol levels. Reach for more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats which can help keep the stress hormone in check

5. Take ashwagandha

If you’re a wellness girlie like me, you’re no stranger to taking supplements, but did you know that taking certain supplements can help combat high cortisol? Adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha have been found to reduce cortisol and improve stress management. A 2019 study found that taking ashwagandha daily significantly reduced cortisol levels and even improved sleep quality. Another study proved that daily ashwagandha supplements helped improve overall mental health. Before taking any supplements, it’s important to consult your doctor to make sure they’re right for you and your specific needs.

6. Laugh more and prioritize relationships

“Laughter is the best medicine” sounds like a cheesy sign you’d find at HomeGoods, but in the case of high cortisol, it’s actually true. A 2023 analysis of eight studies found that spontaneous laughter, including watching a comedy movie, laughter therapy, and self-administered laughter therapy, lowered cortisol levels by 31.9%. The Blue Zones are a testament to the power of social connection on physical health; each Blue Zone (or regions of the world with the longest living populations) considers engaging in relationships a key daily principle of their lifestyle. There’s a biological reason that social connection is good for high cortisol, and it’s because of what’s known as the hormone hierarchy. According to this balance, when oxytocin increases (or “the love hormone” that’s released when you bond socially, laugh, or engage in physical touch), it immediately lowers cortisol like a seesaw.

“While there are many things we can try to add to our routine that will help lower cortisol, the most effective thing we can do is ask ourselves why we have high cortisol”

7. Identify all stressors–and then make a plan

While there are many things we can try to add to our routine that will help lower cortisol, the most effective thing we can do is ask ourselves why we have high cortisol–and then work to remove stressors at the root cause. We all experience inevitable stressors daily from traffic to work deadlines, and then there are the big stressors that are a part of life: a breakup, losing a job, a toxic boss, or moving. While these things don’t feel good–and can feel really, really bad–your body’s fight-or-flight response works because it’s interpreting these as life-or-death situations. To ease chronically high cortisol levels, we have to either get rid of stressors (breaking up with that toxic friend, delegating tasks when you can) or change our relationship with them if we can’t get rid of them (such as playing enjoyable music or taking deep breaths while doing chores or sitting in traffic).

Try this journal exercise: list all current stressors in your day-to-day life. Then make a plan of what to do about each one (even if it is just reframing the experience, rather than getting rid of the stressor). For example, if you’re stressed about your finances, try a new budgeting strategy. Those aforementioned chores? Do them on Sunday when you have more time, or play music and light a candle so it feels more enjoyable. Also, adjust your mindset when it comes to things that stress you out; instead of worrying about how you have to manage your finances, think about how you get to decide how you spend your money. For stressors that feel impossible to take away, change, or reframe, work with a therapist to heal your reaction to them. You deserve to live your fullest, best life–high cortisol levels need not apply.

Please consult a doctor or a health professional before beginning or stopping any treatments, supplements, or medications. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article.

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