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How to Lower Cortisol to Protect Your Wellness and Your Waistline: Part 1

How to Lower Cortisol to Protect Your Wellness and Your Waistline: Part 1

How to Lower cortisol Naturally

If you’re like most people, you probably have some stress in your life—from work, family, school, or the myriad small (or not so small) things that can crop up and make any day less than a breezy stroll down easy street. Unfortunately, increasing intensity and regularity of stress is becoming more common, which can have catastrophic health impacts. Where does that cascade begin? Cortisol.

When the body is in a state of stress, it releases the hormone cortisol while regulating its stress response in the face of potential danger. When stress persists over an extended period, it can prevent the necessary ebbs in cortisol production and lead to serious health consequences—from weight gain, brain fog, and impaired immunity to diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

How can this cycle be prevented? At the heart of any effort to maintain healthy cortisol levels should be the reduction of mental and emotional stress. Here are four essential things to do for your body to keep cortisol under control.

1. Exercise Consistently, and Don’t Overdo It

Exercise is a highly effective, proven way to reduce stress. That combined with its ability to improve sleep and overall health makes exercise great for lowering cortisol over time, especially when done regularly.

With that said, exercising—especially high-intensity workouts like HIIT—actually raises cortisol temporarily. This is a natural, healthy physiological response to what the body perceives as physical stress, but it can cause your workouts to backfire if not taken into consideration. Here are five ways to make sure your workouts are cortisol-conscious:

  • Consider frequency and duration. Exercising for over an hour at a time has been shown to raise cortisol, as can too-frequent high-intensity workouts. So break up your 150–200 minutes of weekly exercise into chunks that allow you to get the benefits without the drawbacks. And remember, consistency is key!
  • Work out outside. Being outdoors is a stress-reducer all by itself. Activities like running, cycling, hiking, or outdoor group sports will add an extra cortisol-lowering factor to your calorie burn.
  • Cool down and recover—always. A cool-down period helps the body begin its post-exercise repair process and supports its natural hormonal reset—i.e. dialing down the cortisol spiked during exercise. Adequate recovery between workouts is also essential for ensuring healthy cortisol levels over time.
  • Always stay hydrated. A study of two groups of young adults with different levels of hydration during a soccer match showed that the more hydrated group had lower levels of cortisol after the match than the less hydrated group.
  • Most of all, listen to your body. Even for overachievers, exercising to the point of fatigue, agitation, or emotional stress will counteract your efforts to lower both stress and cortisol—and put you at risk of injury. 

Get the Sleep You Need, When You Need It

One more reason to prioritize quality sleep: Sleep deprivation, chronic sleep issues like insomnia, and nighttime shift work are strongly associated with the dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that increases cortisol levels. 

A 2011 review of 28 studies on shift workers showed that cortisol levels were higher in workers who slept during the day as compared to workers who slept at night (day shift workers). In addition, insomnia elevates cortisol levels, which can negatively impact mental health, energy levels, and hormone patterns and increase the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

So always aim for 7–9 hours nightly, and maintain good sleep habits, like avoiding screens and caffeine before bedtime, having a consistent sleep schedule, and maintaining a bedtime routine that helps signal to your body to start dialing down the cortisol and releasing melatonin. And if you work at night, black-out curtains and quiet—either naturally or via sound-blockers like earplugs or white noise—can help promote better sleep for you, too!

Eat a Healthy Diet

You reach into your freezer for that tub of your favorite ice cream and with every bite you melt your stress away…right? In reality, not so much. Regular intake of foods high in added sugar can result in high cortisol levels is a major culprit in unhealthy cortisol elevation. 

A 2019 study found that a diet high in added sugar, saturated fat, and refined grains led to significantly elevated cortisol levels compared with a diet high in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and polyunsaturated fats. And if that wasn’t bad enough, a 2015 study found that a high-sugar diet actually suppresses cortisol during stressful events (when cortisol is supposed to increase), making the body more dependent on sugar as a stress response. 

Overall, research has shown a strong relationship between a healthy gut microbiome and improved mental health. So whether your goal is a reduction in stress or your waistline, a balanced diet with whole, nutritious foods—and low on highly processed ones—can help reduce stress, maintain healthy cortisol levels, and enhance your overall health.

Relax your Body and Mind With a Massage

Nothing says stress-buster like a massage. Even better, an hour of this relaxing therapy can lower cortisol levels by an average of 31% while increasing serotonin and dopamine (the “happy hormones”) by up to 28% according to a 2005 study

Cutting cortisol and lifting serotonin offers a powerful boost to mental health as these chemicals carry positive signals throughout the body to combat feelings of anxiety and pain. In addition, a 2004 study demonstrated that massage therapy on women with pre-hypertension saw lowered blood pressure and reported less depression, anxiety, and hostility, along with their reduced cortisol levels.

A massage in the comfort of home may be just what you need to undo your stress, decrease your cortisol and give you complete mind and body relaxation.

But wait, there’s more! Learn about even more ways to naturally lower cortisol in part two of this article

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