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How To Lower Cortisol & Manage Stress

Written by Jim Duncan, MSW | Last updated:

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Stress is associated with chronic inflammation, which can have a big impact on your health. Diseases associated with chronic inflammation are the most common cause of death worldwide, such as stroke, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Cortisol, if you hadn’t heard it before, is known as the “stress hormone.” This might lead one to wonder if you can learn how to reduce cortisol.

What Causes High Cortisol Levels?

First and foremost, cortisol is a steroid hormone. It is produced by the adrenal gland and synthesized from cholesterol. Its production and release are regulated by a combination of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. This combination is known as the HPA axis.

HPA Axis How to lower cortisol

When stress signals are received, it will send cortisol out into our system where it can bind to receptors. There are receptors for cortisol in nearly every tissue of the body. This means that cortisol can exert some kind of effect on nearly everything [1].

To be clear, this is a good thing. As human beings, we respond to stressors all day, every day. It can be the small annoyance of your friend not responding to texts or the panic and terror of driving through an intersection and realizing a vehicle has run through a stop sign and is about to hit you.

Your brain decides what level of stress this is and how to best respond. Muscles can tense, heart rate and breathing can increase. There are a lot of things that can and do happen in response to stress, and your genetics can help or hinder these processes.

Cortisol is not a part of this initial response. That isn’t its role. Cortisol is more concerned with continued threats. If that initial signal isn’t resolved and your brain believes the threat is ongoing, the HPA kicks into gear and sends out cortisol to keep your system on high alert. Its job is to make sure you maintain the ability to respond to the ongoing threat. This comes in the form of providing the energy needed for threat response [1].

Providing the energy means manipulating blood sugar, fat and carb metabolism. That tension to respond means higher blood pressure, immune and central nervous system activation [2]. It’s not hard to imagine that the longer you remain in this “ready for action” state, the more problematic it can become.

Think of the firefighter responding to a call that they never arrive at, constantly speeding toward the smoke in the distance but never actually arriving. When your system is out of balance, this is what it could be doing, trying to prepare for an event that never arrives. This constant state of preparedness wears you out after a while, slowly breaking you down.

Because cortisol’s reach is so vast across the body, we’ll narrow it down to what we started with, which is inflammation. Your immune system is part of your body’s defense system, and part of that immune response is inflammation.

Under normal circumstances, this is again, healthy for you. It’s part of healing and recovery. Research indicates that when the HPA activates and starts sending out hormones to deal with stressors, it both blocks some inflammatory elements and enhances others [3].

These elements work together in a negative feedback loop. That is, the hormones help stimulate some inflammatory elements which in turn work to inhibit the production of the hormones. It’s a finely balanced system. When stress becomes chronic, this feedback loop becomes compromised and the inflammatory elements then also become chronic.

The human body doesn’t handle constant inflammation responses very well over a long period of time. Thus, we start developing chronic diseases related to this chronic flow of stress and inflammation.

So, why is it good to lower cortisol levels? In a nutshell, it will help you stay healthier and to live longer, something that we all strive for. There are a number of symptoms of high cortisol levels, some of which you could have for other reasons as well [4]:

  • Weight gain, mostly around the midsection upper back, and face
  • Thinning skin
  • Easy bruising
  • Flushed face
  • Slowed healing
  • Muscle weakness
  • Severe fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • High blood pressure
  • Headache

But how to lower cortisol and go about alleviating this problem? It should start at the most basic and work its way out, which means a look at your genetics.

How To Reduce Cortisol Levels

First thing is understanding the basics. Earlier we saw that there are elements that interact with cortisol to help mitigate its production. These negative feedback loops help maintain balance. Your body likes balance in all things and is generally pretty good at informing you about when it isn’t.

Under normal circumstances, stressors happen, like they tend to do, you deal with them, hopefully for the better, and the stressor goes away. Your system slowly stops producing cortisol, heart rate slows, blood pressure goes back to normal, and so on.

Over the course of the day though, you encounter multiple stressors, and the cortisol can build up over time. Heck, being in a restful state from sleep and getting out of bed in the morning is a stressor on your body. It’s a continuum from the morning alarm to avoiding that car accident.

However, your body knows this is normal and has created a way to get everything back to normal. It’s called sleep, and without a healthy amount, achieving good health in other ways will be much more difficult.

Optimize Sleep

Cortisol levels fluctuate in the same pattern as sleep. Our levels naturally peak mid to late morning and slowly subside to a low point at midnight. The gradual rise into the early morning hours is part of what wakes us up.

There are a lot of things that can alter your resting cortisol level, including:

  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Having a sleep disorder like insomnia
  • Working at night

If your sleep is not optimal, you are not letting your body get back to its normal starting point. Over time this becomes your new starting point, and this chronic shift in cortisol can bring about a chronic inflammatory response. It might be slight, but it’s the long-term effects we’re concerned about [5].

Practice Exercise

The second basic thing is physical activity. It works not only to improve your health on a physical level but also helps with mental health. Exercising releases endorphins which function as painkillers and mood boosters. Also, some research out there indicates that low-intensity exercise may actually decrease cortisol levels [6]. So, sleep well and get even some mild, regular exercise!

Pay Attention To Your Nutrition

The last basic is nutrition. Cortisol does not have a healthy effect on diet. It stores itself in fat tissue, can create insulin resistance, and stimulate appetite [2]. Recall that cortisol’s job is to help maintain readiness for a stress response, and mobilizing energy sources is a part of that response. There’s a reason that stress eating is a thing.

That said, there are no specific foods you can eat that directly “reduce cortisol”. You can however make sure you aren’t eating foods that stress your system. Gut health is vital for a lot of reasons, and helping to reduce stress on the body is a major one.

There may be a number of things you can take, eat, or drink that will indirectly benefit cortisol levels by helping to reduce overall stress levels. We’ve also compiled a list of similarly useful supplements that may be beneficial in a number of ways [7].

Eat well, sleep well, and get some exercise. It’s a boring refrain, but for something like cortisol, which affects you system-wide, it’s vital. Balance is all important when it comes to your body. It craves that more than anything else and its systems and processes are designed to achieve homeostasis.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

If you are stressed out all the time or your life is such that your body thinks it’s in a constant state of stress, then it is going to alter the body to achieve a balance for what it thinks is normal. Your goal should be to put your body in a healthier state of normal. So, learning how to lower cortisol can help you not only reduce stress, but also improve your overall health.

If you are eating and sleeping well, and being active, then this can allow you to more readily “think” well. Stress is both mental and physical. They interact and intersect in many ways, such that it is nearly impossible to achieve a healthy state in one without the other.

When looking to achieve stress relief on the mental side, there are shelves of books on the subject. Three useful categories one can utilize for stress are:

  • Breathing
  • Meditation
  • Relaxation

Breathing can reduce stress? Yes. When you are stressed, your respiratory rate increases and becomes shallower, or, in a tense moment, you may find yourself holding your breath. Relaxed breathing is slower and deeper. Purposefully doing this can “trick” your body into calming down. Doing it on a regular basis can help settle cortisol levels to a healthier state [8].

Meditation and relaxation are both ways to focus on being calm. Stress is often a self-reinforcing loop of thought processes. There is a kernel of truth in the old adage, “Things are only as stressful as you allow them to be.” They feed off of each other, building layer upon layer.

Meditation and relaxation help you to break this loop. It’s a purposeful redirection of your mind and body away from sources of stress. Sometimes, this kind of “turning away” is all that is needed to reduce stress levels.

That said, mental health is complex. Things happen within and beyond your control that produce disorders that require more active intervention like seeing a psychotherapist. The same can be said with physical ailments that need a doctor’s attention.

The world around us also can be unkind and unpredictable when it comes to healthy living. Being healthy requires constant effort. It would be great if there was a, “take this and your cortisol will go down,” but there isn’t. Stress is complex, and it happens no matter what.

Even with there not being a “one thing” to address cortisol, there is a lot you can do, and building from the ground up is probably the best way to start. Assess where you are on the fundamentals of nutrition, sleep, and activity. Take the time to learn how to focus on yourself and be aware, not just of simple things like breathing, but also of things beyond your awareness, like your genetics.

But how can genetics help you learn how to lower cortisol? Your genes can help you in understanding on a fundamental level, how your body may handle stress, and thus point you in the right direction for addressing those needs.

The Impact Of Genetics On Reducing Cortisol

Up to 45% of differences in the way you perceive stress may be attributed to genetics. It can influence:

  • Stress hormones like cortisol
  • Calming brain chemicals
  • Brain function

It’s difficult to present an accurate scope of just how much your genes can affect an interactive system of stress-inflammation-disease. So many elements are involved that the list of potential mutations that might impact you would be pages long.

The other issue is the fact that these genes do not act in isolation. Your body is a system, interconnected in a vast number of ways, with so many interdependencies that it is impossible to just look at one element by itself. This also doesn’t even take into account the outside world, which is constantly changing and interacting with your body.

So, with that small grain of salt, here are a couple of examples of how genetics can have an effect on your cortisol levels.

  • A GRM8 gene variant is linked to higher stress. This variant may increase glutamate, a brain chemical involved in stress.
  • A GABRA6 gene variant may be more sensitive to stress. This variant may lower the activity of GABA, a mind-calming chemical.

Can knowing your genetics solve your cortisol problems? Not by itself. It will not give you definitive answers. It does give you better background and contextual information for how and why your body and brain may respond in the ways they do. Creating effective change requires this. It informs you about making the best decisions going forward.

We’ve discussed how exercise can help you reduce cortisol, but is genetics involved? As an example, let’s take a look at the SERPINA6 gene, which codes for a protein that binds to, transports, and inactivates cortisol. Variants of this gene have been linked to:

  • Stress
  • Cortisol levels
  • Heart disease

If you have a variant of this gene linked to higher cortisol levels, you may want to pay special attention to your physical activity levels in order to manage your stress [9, 10].

Everyone has different needs. Your genetics can be the reason why some stress-boosting strategies may work for someone else, but not you. If you want to understand how your genes play a role in your stress response, you should check out SelfDecode. The SelfDecode Stress DNA Report analyzes over 380,000 genetic variants to calculate your genetic risk score and gives you personalized diet, lifestyle, and supplement recommendations to help you manage stress.

Learning how to lower cortisol can help you optimize not only stress, but your overall health. Regardless of what you do, be proactive! Good health is within reach, but you have to take the steps to reach it. With over 30 DNA wellness reports (including stress, anxiety, and mood), SelfDecode can give you tailored advice based on your DNA to help you optimize all aspects of your health.

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About the Author

Jim Duncan

MSW
Jim completed his M.S.W. in Social Work Administration at Portland State University. He has always been interested in analyzing social issues, and he helped fund and start a program against domestic violence. He has also conducted many public speaking sessions about violence against women, and published 3 fiction novels. Inspired by SelfDecode’s mission to make precision health a reality, he decided to use his natural writing ability to help teach the world about the power and promise of genomics. His areas of interest include science-based writing,  astronomy, and genomics.

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