What Is Cortisol And How To Lower It

Summary: Cortisol is necessary for regulating stress, but maintaining the right levels is crucial, as excess cortisol can be harmful. Here are some tips on how to lower your cortisol naturally through stress reduction techniques. These include a healthy diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep and enjoyable activities.

The reality of life is that everyone deals with stress at some point. You may experience brief moments of high stress like when you are running late for work or in the minutes before an important presentation. Or you may suffer from chronic stress due to a long-term illness or financial insecurity.

Thankfully, our bodies are designed to combat stress by producing cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is commonly known as the “stress hormone” and helps your body regulate how it responds to a threat or challenge. Too much of it, however, can be a bad thing.

Let’s look at what cortisol is and how to lower cortisol levels.

Understanding cortisol, the stress hormone

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that plays an important part in many functions of your body. Cortisol helps us manage stress by preparing our bodies for either fight or flight — the ability to confront a problem directly or run from it. Besides regulating your stress, cortisol also helps:

  • Manage your blood pressure
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Regulate your body’s metabolism
  • Control your blood sugar levels
  • Influence your body’s sleep-wake rhythms

Your pituitary gland, a small gland at the base of your brain, and the hypothalamus, a region of your brain that controls the release of hormones, work together to regulate the levels of cortisol in your body.

Why it’s important to maintain healthy cortisol levels

Cortisol levels that are either too high or extremely low can be hazardous to your health. There are at-home tests you can get at your local pharmacy to check and monitor your cortisol levels.  Wearable technology for tracking these levels is also on the verge of being launched. It’s important to maintain balanced levels of cortisol for your overall well-being.

Elevated cortisol levels over a prolonged period of time can have negative effects on your physical and mental health. Symptoms of high cortisol can include:

  • Bruising easily
  • Muscle weakness
  • Weight gain in your abdomen and face
  • High blood pressure
  • Purple stretch marks
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Irritability, anxiety and depression

It can also cause Cushing’s syndrome, which is a rare pituitary disorder that occurs when the body produces too much cortisol.

On the other hand, insufficient cortisol levels can restrict your body’s ability to respond to stress. Symptoms of low cortisol include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weight loss

Low levels of cortisol can be due to Addison’s disease, a potentially life-threatening condition where your body’s adrenal glands don’t produce enough cortisol.

How to lower cortisol naturally

The most straightforward way to lower your cortisol naturally is to reduce the stress in your life, a task that may be challenging but is definitely within your control.

The good news is that many of the tips on how to lower cortisol levels naturally are easy to follow and implement. Consider implementing some of these techniques for how to lower cortisol levels into your daily routine:

Practice mindfulness and relaxation: Spending just 15 minutes a day practicing relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises can help reduce stress and lower cortisol levels. Deep breathing is known to activate the vagus nerve, dampening the fight or flight response and thus lowering cortisol.

A popular breathing exercise is the 4-7-8 breathing technique. All you need to do is find a comfortable place to sit, and if possible, close your eyes. Then:

  1. Breathe in through your nose for four counts.
  2. Hold your breath for seven counts.
  3. Exhale through your mouth for eight counts.
  4. Repeat the exercise until you feel comfortable and calm.

Other stress-busting techniques include journaling, listening to calming music, or taking a warm bath.

Exercise regularly: Physical activity like walking, Pilates, swimming, or even some easy stretches can do wonders in relieving stress. However, high-energy exercise may have the opposite effect and could raise your cortisol levels, especially in short bursts. So, stick with low- to moderate-intensity exercise such as brisk walking or gentle yoga to if you are looking to reduce cortisol.

Get a good night’s sleep: Sleep deprivation can lead to a vicious cycle of irregular cortisol levels in your body. Lack of restful sleep can cause a rise in cortisol levels, and too much cortisol can cause sleep deprivation. To ensure you get a good night’s sleep, do something that helps you relax before bed, such as reading a book, drinking chamomile tea or taking a warm bath.

Control your exposure to blue light before bedtime: Blue light from cellphones or tablet screens can impact both cortisol and melatonin levels. Exposure to blue light can trick your brain into thinking it’s morning, causing cortisol to rise. In addition, melatonin — the sleep hormone — can’t be produced in the presence of blue light. So, read a book instead of scrolling through social media while in bed.

Do something you enjoy: Participating in an activity or hobby you enjoy can help reduce your stress and lower your cortisol. Some possible activities include gardening, dancing and even cleaning, if it brings you joy.

It might seem like odd advice, but laugh or giggle as much as you can, as both spontaneous and ‘forced laughter’ can bring cortisol levels down. Besides improving your mood and energy, ‘laughter yoga’, a combination of exercise and playfulness, has been shown to reduce cortisol levels of regular practitioners.

Limit coffee, cigarettes and alcohol: The caffeine in coffee and nicotine in cigarettes are stimulants that can disrupt your sleep pattern and increase your cortisol levels. Alcohol can have the same effect. So, it’s wise to limit your use of coffee, cigarettes and alcohol, especially close to bedtime, so you can rest easy and maintain low cortisol levels.

Spend time with a pet: There’s a reason dogs are called “man’s best friend.” Studies show that interacting with a (well-behaved) dog can help reduce stress and anxiety and improve your overall mood. In fact, spending time with a friendly pup can even increase levels of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin. If you’re a cat person, spending time with your feline friend can have the same effect.

Eat a healthy diet: The food we put in our bodies can have a significant impact on our cortisol levels. One study found that foods containing dietary fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids, as well as those that are aged or fermented, can help to reduce stress and anxiety, thus lowering cortisol levels. So fill your body with nourishing food.

Dehydration can also temporarily increase cortisol, so make sure to drink enough water throughout the day to stay hydrated.


Cortisol is a hormone that controls a wide range of vital functions in your body. Though it’s colloquially known as the stress hormone, it actually helps regulate your blood pressure, blood sugar and metabolism. However, too much cortisol can be harmful, especially over a prolonged period of time. That’s why it is important to know how to lower your cortisol levels. Practicing ways to manage your stress better, eating healthy, exercising regularly and getting a good night’s sleep are all easy things you can do to lower cortisol levels and lead a healthier life.

Mutual of Omaha is committed to providing you with the resources you need to help you live a longer stress-free life. Head on over to our website to learn more.


Q1: What foods lower cortisol?

Making smart choices during your main meals or while snacking can make a big difference to your cortisol levels. Some foods that directly impact your cortisol are:

  • Fermented foods: yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, tempeh and apple cider vinegar.
  • Foods rich in dietary fiber: fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, lentils and whole grains.
  • Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids: fish and other seafood (like salmon and tuna), chia and flax seeds.
  • Foods containing high levels of polyphenols: berries, dark chocolate

Q2: Should you take a supplement to lower cortisol levels?

There are some natural supplements that you can take to help lower your cortisol levels. For example, if you do not have enough foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, you could consider taking an Omega-3 or fish oil supplement. However, it’s important to note that supplements should not replace a balanced diet, and it’s always best to consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen.

Studies show that the supplement, Ashwagandha, may be useful in reducing stress and anxiety, which in turn lowers cortisol levels. Ashwagandha is a herb derived from evergreen shrubs in Asia and Africa. It is also called Indian ginseng or winter cherry.

Remember it is important to consult your health care provider before taking any supplements.

Q3: What is cortisol belly and how do you get rid of it?

‘Cortisol belly’ is a term used to describe the accumulation of fat in your abdomen area that builds up due to prolonged high levels of cortisol in your body. This can lead to weight gain, and in some cases, it can also cause purple stretch marks on your belly.

Several factors contribute to cortisol belly, including chronic stress, limited exercise, and poor diet.

The best way to get rid of cortisol belly is to:

  • eat a nutritious diet that limits sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed foods and saturated fats
  • get moving and exercise more
  • practice stress-reducing techniques like meditation and breathing exercises

Q4: What is the fastest way to lower cortisol levels?

The fastest way to lower your cortisol levels is to reduce your stress. This can be done through breathing exercises, yoga, meditation or just taking a few minutes to do something that you enjoy.

Q5: What role does exercise play in managing cortisol levels?

Exercise is key to managing cortisol levels. Regular low to moderate activities like walking, yoga, Pilates, or swimming reduce stress, lower cortisol and improve hormonal balance. It also enhances sleep, further lowering cortisol.

High-intensity cardio exercises like running, cycling, weightlifting, or bodybuilding can elevate cortisol levels. However, if you’re looking to lower chronic cortisol, opt for low-to-moderate intensity exercise, which tends to reduce stress and promote overall hormonal balance.