Ways to Lower Cortisol: The stress hormone cortisol is one of the most common reasons for anxiety. Today we explore cortisol and some ways to lower stress and manage anxiety using healthy lifestyle habits, tools, and supplements.
Ways to Lower Cortisol: What is Cortisol
Cortisol is often called the ‘stress hormone’ because it is crucial in managing the body’s stress response. Indeed, the body releases this hormone during stress to help promote alertness and energy.
Cortisol is not, however, only a stress response. This hormone also plays a crucial role in our circadian rhythm and is one of the hormones that wakes us up in the morning and plays a role in many other functions. Almost all cells of the body have cortisol receptors. Cortisol controls blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism, influences blood pressure, acts as an anti-inflammatory, and controls salt and water balance. Cortisol also helps the development of the fetus and triggers the birthing process.
The thing about cortisol, like any hormone, is that the body has to be balanced for it to work correctly. Balance means a healthy operating diurnal rhythm when it comes to stress hormones.
Like a circadian rhythm, your daily rhythm operates on a 24-hour clock.
Blood sugar levels and cortisol are naturally elevated to wake you up in the morning as the sun rises. They naturally drop off in the evening as melatonin hormone is produced to put you to sleep.
Within this typical hormonal flow, the body is also equipped to experience isolated bouts of stress. At this point, the body will excrete cortisol, adrenaline, and glucose as a response to help you get out of harm’s way. Ancestrally, stress was generally a case of life or death: having to fight off an invasion or escape the attack of a wild animal. Once the stressor was gone, the body would return to baseline, and the stress hormones kept you alert and energized for fight or flight.1,2
Ways to Lower Cortisol: The Cortisol Anxiety Connection
Modern-day cortisol is not limited to the isolated instances of the past. Whereas our ancestors would intermittently experience the need to fight or fight, today, many of us experience chronic stress daily.
Stress encompasses three categories: chemical, emotional, and physical. Your body doesn’t distinguish itself from them regarding a hormonal response. Any stress will induce the release of fight-or-flight stress hormones. The problem is, our stress is no longer isolated to real classic stress, and for many people, it just runs on a loop 24/7.1,3
Low levels of chronic stress, and therefore high cortisol, are associated with a wide range of health problems, including:
- Weight gain6-7
- Health complications 3
- Exhaustion and adrenal fatigue8,9
- Impaired cognitive function8-11
- Insomnia 8,13,14
Natural Ways to Lower Cortisol
Since most people are stuck in cortisol overdrive, finding hormonal balance will be rooted in lowering these chronic cortisol levels. Cortisol balance is rooted in lifestyle choices, and the benefits of these cortisol-lowering habits will show a wide range of benefits on overall health markers.
1. Sleep Quality
We often focus on how long to sleep, but the quality of sleep is just as (if not more) imperative when it comes to managing cortisol. 14 Having a regular bedtime and wake time is critical, and it is preferably in sync with the sun’s rising and setting. Frequent circadian rhythm disruption, like as a result of shift work, leads to a wide range of problems associated with chronic cortisol, particularly weight loss resistance, and obesity.15
Having disrupted sleeping patterns or insomnia for one night can lead to elevated cortisol levels for 24 hours and other hormonal implications like a loss of insulin sensitivity.16
Some key pointers to improve sleep quality include:
- Having regular bed/waketime
- Sleeping in total darkness without electronics
- Turning off the wi-fi at night
- Exposing yourself to the sun as soon as it rises
- Avoiding caffeine, especially after midday
- Don’t exercise 3 hours before bed
- Avoiding large meals 3 hours before bed
- Stay away from artificial lights and screens after sundown
- Using blue light-blocking glasses if artificial lights are used after sundown
- Avoiding overstimulation in general too close to bedtime
2. Moderate Exercise
Although exercise increases cortisol in the short term, it causes a decrease in the long term if implemented mindfully.  The key to mindful exercise is not overdoing it, and considering it as a form of stress on top of other types of all the other stressors in your life. If your daily life is very stressful (think chemical, physical, and emotional), stick to lighter forms of movement like yoga, walking, and stretching.
Avoiding vigorous exercise too close to bedtime balances cortisol and promotes deep sleep. Avoiding overstimulating your body 3 hours before bed.
Proper nutrition is key to balancing cortisol. Although dietary needs are highly bio-individual, there are still a few key factors that apply to the general population when it comes to eating well: 
- A diet high in good fats (like sardines, avocado, grass-fed butter, and other animal fats)
- Enough high-quality protein (from pasture-raised animals)
- A variety of organic vegetables
- Avoiding eating too close to bedtime (3 hours before bed)
- Properly preparing your food for optimal digestion and bioavailability (sprout, soak, ferment, and cook your food)
- Consider intermittent fasting (eating within a constricted feeding window of 6-12 hours daily)
- Consider implementing ‘diet variation’ with some higher carb days, some lower carb days, and some fasted days
4. Mindfulness: Calm the Mind
Cortisol is released into the body due to stress, but the body cannot distinguish between a perceived or a real threat. This inability to distinguish means that thinking about stressful things (either past or future) leads to the same stress response you would experience in times of real imminent threat.
Calming the mind can be done in various ways, and studies show that things as simple as making a daily effort to focus on positive aspects of your life can lead to drastically lower cortisol levels.19
Other ways to promote a calm mind include:
- Mindful and slow, controlled breathing
- Restorative or yin yoga
- Watching the sunrise and sunset
- Listening to mantra music or classical music
A large part of mindfulness is also rooted in equanimity: the act of observing what is. By distancing ourselves from our thoughts, we can start to see the stress as a thing we are experiencing instead of a situation we are in. Instead of identifying with it, ie. “I am stressed out,” you can take a step back and acknowledge that “I am experiencing stress, but it too will pass.” One study even highlights that recognizing emotions alone can lower cortisol levels. It’s less about what you think and more about how you relate to it. 20
5. Relax: Calm the Body
Similar to calming the mind, there are many tools to ease the physical body to help wind down and lower cortisol levels. Many tools and tactics to calm the mind will also ease the body and vice-versa. Mindfulness, when applied mentally or physically, can profoundly impact reducing cortisol levels. 21
Some ways to tap into a relaxed physical state include:
- Taking a long, gentle walk
- Earthing (walking barefoot in nature)
- Yoga (especially yin or restorative)
- Gentle stretching
- Tai Chi
- Qi Gong
- Take a nap
6. Faith/ Spiritual Practices
Having a faith-based practice is a powerful tool to calm the mind and body and lower cortisol levels. Various studies highlight the ability for spirituality to have a potential cortisol-lowering effect during periods of high stress (like illness).
There are various reasons why spirituality may lead to lowered cortisol levels, including the ability to see a bigger picture (not get caught up in the potential hardship of the present moment) and the support that comes from a shared faith-based community. 
7. Play/ Laugh
Believe it or not, joy is one of the quickest ways to lower cortisol levels. Positivity, joy, and laughter have a profound impact on a variety of health markets, including heart rate and blood pressure, and also boost your immune system.23-25
There are various ways to promote playfulness and laughter, either alone or in groups; some ways include:
- Spend time with children
- Watch a comedy show on TV.
- See a live comedy show
- Spend time with friends and family
- Join a recreational sports team
- Play with animals
8. Healthy Relationships
Human contact and building strong, healthy relationships are vital tools for promoting joy and mitigating stress. We know stress promotes cortisol release, so having a community to support you through hard times is a great way to alleviate stress hormone production. Having supportive loved ones can also mitigate the stress response of a problematic situation before it happens. 26
Two critical aspects of cultivating healthy relationships include communication skills and boundaries.
Communicating your wants and needs is imperative to ensure you can show up for those around you and be seen and heard. Assumptions are projections at the root of many relationship problems, so learning to express yourself clearly is vital. Listening skills are equally important when it comes to being an excellent communicator.27
Boundaries are just as important and rely heavily on knowing when to say no. Start by setting your physical, emotional, and mental limits regarding your values in life. When people cross these boundaries, it’s up to you to be assertive and enforce your self-worth. This can be very difficult given our upbringing and past traumas, but in time and with practice, it becomes easier.
Earthing positively impacts various health conditions, including inflammatory responses, wound healing, and autoimmune. 28 It promotes deeper sleep, reduced pain and stress, and a profound reduction in cortisol levels.29
Earthing, also known as grounding or forest bathing, is the simple act of reconnecting your bare feet to the earth. Scientifically, the action releases positive ions, which help balance out your body’s natural electrical field. Most cells of the body carry a negative charge. Still, many environmental toxins (like pollution, chemicals, pollen, mold, synthetic carpeting or paint, pet dander, and other harmful chemicals) carry a positive electrical charge. Other things that generate positive ions include electronic devices (like T.V.s, cellphones, and wi-fi) and fluorescent lighting. These positive ions can lead to an increase in cortisol and sensations of anxiety or depression.30
By returning to nature, preferably daily, you help reset your electrical charge and calm your nervous system. Although a local park will do, you want to ensure not to be barefoot in city grass sprayed with herbicides. The further away from a big city/ the chaos of modern life, the better: the beach, a dense forest, and waterfalls. The air is particularly charged with negative ions after heavy rainfall!30
Although you cannot out-supplement poor lifestyle choices, there are a handful of great supplements you can lean on when times are particularly high stress to help reduce cortisol and anxiety.
- Passion Flower 31
- Ashwagandha 32
- Panax Ginseng33
Relax with a Weighted Blanket
How can a blanket change your hormones, lower your heart rate, and increase feelings of happiness and well-being? It may sound crazy, but the science-backed benefits of weighted blankets are strong. The only catch? You have to find the right ones.
Xalm works by measurably lowering stress hormones and increasing the Bliss Molecule hormone. And yes, more of this hormone feels as good as it sounds.
Weighted blankets can help with restless nights and promote deeper sleep. These micro-bead blankets can help anxiety naturally. They have 192 pockets, each filled with tiny glass beads up to a certain weight. They work by placing light pressure all over the body, which feels just like a warm hug. These blankets can help lower anxiety, help you sleep quickly, and stay asleep at night!
Many people live a lifestyle that puts them in a constant state of underlying stress. As a result, the stress hormone cortisol is continuously secreted, which may lead to a wide range of ailments like anxiety, depression, weight gain, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, and more. By managing stress levels, and using simple lifestyle techniques, you can re-establish a healthy stress response. These methods include sleep quality, moderate exercise, diet, mindfulness, relaxation, faith, play, healthy relationships, earthing, and supplementation.
- Esposito, Alonzo, and Vito Bianchi. Cortisol: Physiology, Regulation, and Health Implications. Nova Science Publishers, 2012.
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- Vedhara, Kav, et al. “An Investigation into the Relationship between Salivary Cortisol, Stress, Anxiety and Depression.” Biological Psychology, vol. 62, no. 2, 2003, pp. 89–96., doi:10.1016/s0301-0511(02)00128-x.
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- Kudielka, Brigitte M., et al. “Exhaustion Is Associated with Reduced Habituation of Free Cortisol Responses to Repeated Acute Psychosocial Stress.” Biological Psychology, vol. 72, no. 2, 2006, pp. 147–153., doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2005.09.001.
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- Het, S, et al. “A Meta-Analytic Review of the Effects of Acute Cortisol Administration on Human Memory.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol. 30, no. 8, 2005, pp. 771–784., doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2005.03.005.
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- Chen, Chong, et al. “The Exercise-Glucocorticoid Paradox: How Exercise Is Beneficial to Cognition, Mood, and the Brain While Increasing Glucocorticoid Levels.” Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, vol. 44, 2017, pp. 83–102., doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2016.12.001.
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