By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Dr. Sinatra, I was just diagnosed with elevated cortisol. How can I lower it?
Great question, Angela, and one I get a lot. In this article I’ll explain:
- What Cortisol Is and What It Does
- Why It’s Important to Reduce Cortisol
- How You Can Reduce Cortisol Levels
What Is Cortisol and What Does It Do?
If you’re wondering, “what the heck is cortisol?” you’re probably not alone; most people have never heard of this hormone that can have a tremendous impact on health, especially heart health. Basically, you’ve got to keep cortisol under control to stay healthy. In other words, while Nature designed cortisol to be your friend, it can easily become your enemy.
Cortisol is one of several stress hormones your body churns out when you experience stress. Your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) gets triggered, and those stress hormones prepare you for fast, and sometimes dramatic, action.
Cortisol’s job, specifically, is to ensure that your body has enough energy to cope with the danger it perceives. It helps narrow arteries and increase blood pressure; it also raises blood sugar and blunts insulin sensitivity. You might be scratching your head right now… and you’re right, all of these effects are not good for your body. The thing with cortisol is, it’s a survival mechanism: you want it when you need it, and definitely not all the time.
Why Reducing Your Cortisol Level Is Important
It’s one thing when your cortisol surges over the course of an hour or so—as the result, say, of a near miss on the roadway or from trying to stop a child from running into traffic — here and there, it’s no big deal.
Problems begin when stress is constant… everyday, and your sympathetic nervous system is always on. I call this being in a state of “sympathetic overdrive.”
Once you go into the overdrive state, the stress-related changes become inflammatory and can lead to arterial damage, atherosclerosis, and even heart attacks. In fact, a study published in the journal Stress reported that men who have heart attacks are likely to have elevated cortisol levels during the three months prior to their event.
Of course, heart disease isn’t the only health concern associated with higher cortisol levels. The hormone has also been linked with metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, insomnia, suppressed immune function, weight gain and depression.
How to Reduce Cortisol Levels
The best way to lower your cortisol level is to get a handle on your stress level and to adopt habits that help rebalance, or “turn down,” your sympathetic nervous system. Here are a few of my favorite options:
When you’re all fired up, one of the best things you can do is to ground. Walking barefoot or using grounding devices, such as pads or bed sheets, is one of the best—and simplest—ways to address stress, because it reverses sympathetic overdrive and increases heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is essentially a measure of how “flexible” your heart rhythm is.
When you’re under stress and producing a lot of cortisol, HRV is usually low. This increases your risk for a cardiac event. On the other hand, when HRV is high, cortisol levels—and risk—tend to drop.
My favorite ways to get grounded are to walk on the beach or in my yard for 20 to 40 minutes per day… I get some sun and fresh air, and feel refreshed. You can also ground on dirt and even unpainted concrete (that sits on the Earth). Connecting the soles of your feet to the Earth’s surface allows you to absorb the Earth’s natural electromagnetic fields, which have a calming effect on the nervous system.
I also sleep grounded using conductive sheets whenever I can. Earthing, through a conductive device, all night has been shown to reduce cortisol levels and promote better sleep.
Remember, cortisol raises your blood sugar to prepare your body for action. Eating excess sugar on top of this can cause blood sugar to rise, which can, over time, lead to diabetes and weight gain. Sticking to a healthy anti-inflammatory diet – like my PAMM diet, which is full of low-glycemic fresh vegetables, and with healthy fats and quality proteins – can help keep your blood sugar at bay as you also try to keep that cortisol away.
There’s a saying that “misery loves company”—but research shows that if you really want comfort in stressful situations, you’re better off with a dog than a friend. In a study conducted at SUNY–Buffalo, researchers found that women who were asked to perform a stressful task experienced less sympathetic nervous activity when with a dog than when alone or with a close friend.
The research team proposed that this was because the dogs rendered no judgment about the women’s performance. I couldn’t agree more. The unconditional love of a pet is truly a gift from the heavens. If you are able, consider adoption—of a dog, cat, or another companion animal. Few things can ease your worries like seeing love and loyalty in their eyes!
Dozens of studies show that mindfulness, prayer, and other meditative practices are great ways to reduce stress and cortisol levels. The reason I recommend meditation, though, is because I do it when fishing, and truly enjoy the peace it brings me.
One of the simplest ways to meditate is to sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor, and to focus on your breath as it passes in and out of your body. If your mind wanders, don’t worry; simply refocus on breathing. Do this for 10 minutes each day, increasing your time as it’s comfortable. You can also meditate while walking or doing some other relaxing activity (like fishing); the point is to empty your mind and be your breath.
As a general rule, you’ll feel the benefits more strongly the longer you practice—but at least one study suggests that this ritual can begin lowering cortisol in as few as four days.
Alternate nostril breathing
If you practice yoga, you may already be familiar with this technique, which is positively associated with HRV. To try it, sit in a chair or on the floor. Hold your left nostril closed while you inhale through the right nostril. Then hold the right nostril closed while exhaling through the left. On the next breath, reverse the pattern.
There are several good videos online that demonstrate this technique, including this one:
Reduce EMF exposure
Cutting down on your screen time can be helpful for reducing cortisol. In addition to eliminating the stress that comes from a steady stream of email and social media notifications, spending less time with a computer, tablet, or phone (cellular or cordless) also reduces the likelihood that electromagnetic radiation will disrupt your HRV. If you have some degree of insomnia, which is associated with higher cortisol levels, you definitely want to turn off your electronic devices a few hours before you go to bed to keep your circadian rhythms in “good night’s sleep” territory.
Art, music or another creative activity
Want an excuse to make a mess or turn up your favorite music? A 2015 study that compared participants’ cortisol levels before and after 45 minutes of art-making recorded improvements occurred in three-fourths of them.
The participants in this study worked with paper, pens, and modeling clay, but I wouldn’t worry too much about which type of art you focus on. Music, photography, model-building, wood carving, writing—just do something creative. Interestingly, the strategy was especially effective in younger people, so if you’re a parent who struggles with helping a child relax, you may want to try this as a way of rerouting their energy.
Nutritional supplements can also be helpful tools for reducing cortisol, particularly adaptogens. Ashwagandha has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to help the body tolerate stress. A potent form of it was shown in a double-blind placebo-controlled study to reduce not only cortisol, but also heart rate, blood pressure, and C-reactive protein.
Finally, remember most of what we get upset about is small stuff and will soon pass, so why sweat it? Keep your eyes on the big picture, and focus on feeling gratitude for what you have.
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