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How To Lower Cortisol Levels? It’s More Than Reducing Stress

Learn how to lower cortisol levels at the right times to make this stress hormone work for you instead of against you.
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Contrary to popular misconception, learning how to lower cortisol levels isn’t solely about naturopathic remedies. For example, supplements like ashwagandha, prebiotics, probiotics, and magnesium are revered for their cortisol-regulating properties. While these substances may or may not work, your goal shouldn’t be to keep your cortisol load low all the time.

The thing is, your body requires high cortisol concentrations at the right times (read: early in the day) and low cortisol levels at other times (i.e., late in the day). This keeps yourself in circadian alignment such that you feel and function at your best.

Ahead, we explain how a healthy cortisol rhythm works so you have a better idea of when and how to lower your cortisol levels when you need to. It’s all about making this hormone work for you instead of against you.

The Natural Timeline of Cortisol Production

Before we get into the fine print of how to lower cortisol levels, we first have to know where this stress hormone is manufactured in your body. In which case, look toward the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis is a complex biological system encompassing the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands (where cortisol is produced).

Cortisol follows its own circadian rhythm, scientifically known as the cortisol rhythm. When your cortisol rhythm is properly functioning, your body’s cortisol production timeline looks like this:

  • In the early morning hours, your body temperature increases ever so slightly by roughly one degree. This minute change is enough to ramp up your body’s levels of cortisol, activating the cortisol awakening response (CAR). For that same reason, cortisol is also colloquially known as the alertness-promoting hormone.
  • After jolting you into wakefulness in the early morning, your body’s release of cortisol surges for 30-45 minutes before gradually quieting down as the day wears on.
  • Cortisol concentration then reaches its low point around midnight. Two to three hours after you’ve fallen asleep, your body resumes cortisol production until its peak in the early morning, when the cycle repeats itself.

In essence, a healthy cortisol rhythm surges in the early morning before ebbing once it’s past the late morning hours.

When Not To Lower Your Body’s Cortisol Reserves

High cortisol levels aren’t necessarily ruinous for you. As you can see from the previous section, a pre-dawn cortisol hike coincides with the usual hours for waking up. Without the alertness-boosting effects of this hormone, it becomes that much more difficult to push through your morning sleep inertia and feel like you’ve had a full night of invigorating sleep.

Cortisol is also vital to your overall health throughout the day as it helps:

  • Mediate your stress response (i.e., the fight-or-flight mechanism activated during stressful situations)
  • Regulate your metabolism rate for energy production
  • Fight inflammation to boost your body’s rest-and-repair mechanism
  • Develop and maintain a functioning immune system

On a medical note, too-low cortisol levels lead to a health issue known as Addison’s disease. It’s a manifestation of adrenal gland disorder commonly accompanied by symptoms like low blood pressure and low blood sugar levels.

When To Lower Your Cortisol Load

While you don’t want to lower your cortisol load altogether, you definitely want to avoid high levels of this stress hormone later in the day, especially as your bedtime draws near.

Unfortunately, everyday factors like sleep loss, chronic stress, and circadian misalignment incite HPA hyperactivity. In this scenario, cortisol continues to circulate in your system even after a stressor has passed. This spells trouble for your nighttime sleep as you:

  • Wake up more frequently in the middle of the night,
  • Have less restorative deep sleep, and,
  • Cut short your total sleep duration

Lo and behold, you’ve now accrued sleep debt, the amount of sleep you’ve missed out on in the past 14 days relative to your sleep need.

You can blame your shoddy sleep patterns on the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). It’s a precursor to cortisol secretion that represses melatonin production. For the uninitiated, melatonin is a sleepiness-promoting hormone naturally created in your body when you're in the dark. Think of it as the key that unlocks the gateway to sleep.

Unfortunately, excessive amounts of the stress hormone (courtesy of CRH) delay melatonin synthesis, so you’re more likely to stay up past your bedtime. And we all know what that entails: Late-night activities like phone-scrolling and Netflix-binging, all of which expose you to bright artificial light, further suspending the manufacturing of melatonin within your body.

To worsen the issue, cortisol dilutes the sleep-promoting effect of adenosine. Diminishing your body’s sleep pressure means you’re less likely to drift off by your target bedtime. Sleep deprivation also fails to quell cortisol creation, leading to a vicious cycle of more cortisol and less sleep.

Cortisol overload doesn’t just affect sleep, though; it also impoverishes your physical and mental health. For instance, an increased cortisol concentration raises glucose production and is associated with type 2 diabetes. More research indicates that a cortisol influx worsens several markers of heart disease — think high blood pressure, weight gain, and obesity — in healthy individuals and people with Cushing’s syndrome (a health issue resulting from chronically high cortisol levels).

With so much doom and gloom surrounding your health outlook, it’s fundamentally critical that you learn how to lower cortisol production in the latter part of the day.

How To Lower Cortisol Naturally To Boost Your Well-Being

So, how to lower cortisol levels naturally when you need to?

You may have heard that certain foods like dark chocolate and green tea decrease cortisol supply. The same can be said for an anti-inflammatory, healthy diet comprising unprocessed foods like whole grains and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

That said, what you eat doesn’t make up the entirety of your game plan on how to lower cortisol when you want it low (i.e., later in the day). Instead, it’s very much about positive lifestyle changes in the form of healthy sleep hygiene and stress reduction techniques.

Cultivate Good Sleep Hygiene 24/7

Prioritize good sleep hygiene all the time as it keeps your sleep debt low and your body clock in circadian alignment to combat excess cortisol the natural way. From perfecting the ideal sleep environment to cutting off your caffeine consumption, healthy, sleep-promoting behaviors help you get the hours of sleep you need for better energy during the day.

In particular, well-timed light exposure is of vital importance. Light is one of the most potent circadian cues that reset your internal clock. Expose yourself to bright natural light the moment you awake. Steer clear of artificial light sources in the few hours before bed. We recommend wearing blue-light blocking glasses before bedtime to protect your eyeballs from the wavelengths that dampen melatonin production. Doing so helps keep your circadian rhythm running smoothly and meet your sleep need more easily.

Strategic light exposure is only one of the many pieces to the puzzle of optimal sleep hygiene. Only when you have all the tabs in place will you be able to form the full picture of healthy sleep practices and their benefits. To learn the gamut of good sleep hygiene, check out our in-depth Sleep Guide.

Scale Down the Stress Levels

Add the "Evening routine" habit to your Energy Schedule on the RISE app to customize your wind-down routine.

Stress management is the other half of the equation when solving the question of how to lower cortisol naturally for optimal wellness. It can be as simple as spending time in nature or reading a book to lower stress.

For the most part, science recommends mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques like progressive muscle relaxation — tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups — and diaphragmatic breathing, which features deep breathing exercises. (You can find these relaxation methods in the RISE app — just add the Relaxation habit to your Energy Schedule.)

You may also wish to try mind-body interventions like tai chi and qigong to promote relaxation and lessen tension. A 2018 systematic review also advocates for regular physical activity against stress. According to the review, staying fit means you’re more likely to reduce your cortisol and heart rate reactivity. You will also experience less anxiety, more calmness, and a better mood. Not to mention, exercising has the added bonus of encouraging weight loss, which, for the overweight, can aid with getting sufficient sleep. Just make sure you don’t work out right before you sleep.

Other stress-reduction techniques you may wish to try:

No matter which stress reduction tactics you choose, it’s imperative that you prioritize them in the latter half of the day. Perhaps you can fit in a workout session before dinner and segue into your evening wind-down afterward. Because everyone’s wind-down routine looks different, the "Evening routine” habit in the RISE app lets you build it the way you want.

Keep Cortisol Low at the Right Times

As you’ve learned, timing is everything when regulating your cortisol rhythm. You want it high to jumpstart your day and low later on to welcome sleep more effortlessly.

If you already experience an out-of-whack cortisol rhythm, we feel you. Anyone caught in the vicious cycles of sleep loss, chronic stress, and circadian misalignment often feels at a loss about the starting point for reducing their cortisol levels. Before you resort to medical interventions, good sleep hygiene and stress management techniques are your best bet when deciding how to lower cortisol volume.

That’s where the RISE app can help. It features 16 science-based habits tied to your unique chronobiology to help you make wise sleep-related choices. This, in turn, keeps you circadianally aligned and your sleep debt low to ward off cortisol overload.

Need more proof that this is the only app you need to feel and function at your best? 80% of RISE users feel the benefits within five days in terms of improved productivity, performance, and well-being.

Summary FAQ:

Can cortisol be lowered naturally?

Yes, cortisol can be lowered naturally through positive lifestyle changes, specifically healthy sleep hygiene and stress reduction techniques.

What foods reduce cortisol levels?

A diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods like whole grains and oily fish may help reduce cortisol levels, along with specific foods like dark chocolate and green tea.

What supplements reduce cortisol levels?

Supplements like ashwagandha and fish oil can help reduce cortisol levels. 

What are high cortisol symptoms? 

Common symptoms of high cortisol include weight gain (around the midsection, upper back, and face), fatigue, muscle weakness, a slowed healing process, thinning skin, acne, and high blood pressure.

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