Keeping a lid on the stress hormone cortisol has always been smart. Why? Curbing spikes in the “fight or fight” hormone eases anxiety and ushers in calm. But research reveals learning how to lower cortisol in the morning (when it tends to spike) has a powerful ability to enhance both physical and mental health. And while outsmarting stress-induced spikes in the hormone may seem like a tall order in today’s go-go-go world, it’s not. In fact, experts say it’s easy to counter cortisol climbs during even your busiest mornings and most hectic days.
Understanding the role cortisol plays in your body
Produced by the adrenal glands, cortisol plays a key role in the body’s stress response. “Cortisol was initially a hormone of survival. It mobilized us to run from threats like tigers, and then spiked appetite afterward so we could refuel,” explains Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Fight Fat After 40. In small bursts, the hormone sparks the release of stored blood sugar, increases your heart rate and boosts your circulation — physiological effects meant to energize you to respond to a threat. “The problem is, modern stressors like bills and deadlines rarely go away,” cautions Shawn Talbott., PhD, author of The Cortisol Connection. This leaves the adrenals in an almost-constant state of cortisol production. (Click through to learn how to discover if adrenal fatigue is causing your unexplained weight gain.)
How high cortisol levels harm your health
Excess cortisol increases storage of belly fat
In a nutshell, stress triggers a fight or flight signal that is sent from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. The pituitary then triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which keeps both insulin and blood sugar levels high. That’s bad news, since insulin fosters the storage of excess blood sugars as fat, particularly in the belly. “And because fat cells in the belly are especially high in receptors for both cortisol and insulin, repeated stress insults add to fat storage in this region,” Dr. Peeke explains.
Indeed, research in Metabolism found that women with the highest cortisol levels harbored up to 32% more belly fat than those with lower levels of the hormone. And findings in the Journal of Obesity suggest that lowering morning cortisol levels may reduce excess belly fat by as much as 50%.
Circulating cortisol triggers cravings
And in the same response that once helped us refuel after evading predators, cortisol increases hunger hormones and drives up sugar cravings, says Dr. Peeke. “We don’t literally run from stressors anymore, yet cortisol still produces that hunger and we gain weight,” she adds.
“Cortisol is a bully, and if it is high, it impacts all the hormones in our bodies,” says women’s health expert Sara Gotttfried, MD. “As you rush from task to task, your cortisol levels climb even higher, causing cravings for sugar. There’s no doubt about it. Stress is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to craving carbs.”
Indeed, a Yale University study found folks with high cortisol levels experienced stronger cravings for sweets. And not surprisingly, they gained 89% more weight in a six-month period compared to their lower-cortisol counterparts. (Click through to our sister publication to discover a simple keto hack that quashes cravings.)
Elevated cortisol slows your metabolism
What’s more, elevated cortisol alters the efficiency of your body’s ability to burn calories. “Dysregulated cortisol levels affect the production of thyroid hormones, which regulate how quickly we burn calories and maintain our metabolism,” Dr. Gottfried explains. That’s more bad news for our waistlines. As thyroid expert Izabella Wentz, PharmD, points out, women under stress experience all the draining symptoms of an underactive thyroid, plus the inflammation, slowed metabolism, cravings and dangerous belly fat that come from cortisol overload.
Adding to the problem: Dieting itself foils fat-loss efforts by increasing the level of cortisol in the body. In fact, findings in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine revealed higher levels of psychological stress and notable increases in cortisol output in women who counted calories and restricted their daily food intake. Dr. Peeke affirms, “This is strong evidence that obsessing over every bite constitutes a form of stress that sends cortisol into overdrive.”
Excess cortisol raises risks of diabetes and and high blood pressure
High cortisol’s also a culprit that ups risk of diabetes by 26%, say researchers reporting in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Experts explain cortisol makes the liver produce more glucose, causing a buildup in the bloodstream. What’s more, it makes it harder for insulin to shunt glucose into muscles so it can be burned as fuel. (Click through to our sister publication to learn how to reverse prediabetes naturally.)
In addition, cortisol has blood pressure spiking effects. In fact, a study in the journal Hypertension found high cortisol increased folks risk of developing high blood pressure by 23% over a period of 6-1/2 years. And after 11 years, their risk of suffering cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes skyrocketed. (Click through to see how to breathe your way to better blood pressure.)
But as big a bully as high cortisol is, you’re not at its mercy. There are plenty of ways to bring high levels of the hormone down. And when you do, wow! Research in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism suggests curtailing cortisol surges blocks belly fat storage, lowers cholesterol and balances blood sugar. The payoff: Heart disease risk drops by 63%, and diabetes risk dips by 69%.
How to lower cortisol in the morning – and all day
Cortisol peaks naturally to awaken you in the morning in what’s known as the cortisol awakening response. That’s why samples for cortisol blood tests are typically taken early in the day. But daily demands and stressful schedules can magnify morning spikes and cause surges to occur throughout the day. Luckily, these simple strategies lower cortisol in the morning and curb climbs all day long.
Sing in the shower
Or as you get dressed. It’s no secret that listen to music eases stress. And according to a report in the journal Brain Sciences, tuning in to tunes you enjoy can drop cortisol levels by 17% in 20 minutes. But singing has even more powerful effects: In a Stanford University study, 20 minutes of singing lowered folks’ cortisol by 30%. Lifting your voice in song optimizes levels of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces cortisol production and release.
Savor a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast
Cereals like oatmeal and muesli are chockful of fiber. That’s key, since a study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests eating fiber in the morning leaves cortisol levels 60% lower by noon. “Fiber lowers blood sugar levels to slow the production of cortisol, which is responsible for stress-related snacking,” explains nutrition expert Kristine Clark, PhD.
Nibble on dark chocolate
Feel like savoring a sweet treat at breakfast? Go right ahead! In a study in Antioxidants, folks who enjoyed 25 grams of dark chocolate (about 2 mini snack bars) daily lowered their cortisol by 31% in four weeks. Credit goes to compounds called flavonoids in the confection. They inhibit enzymes that convert a hormone known as cortisone into cortisol. (Concerned about your caffeine intake? Click through to learn how much caffeine is in dark chocolate.)
Cozy up with a cup of tea
Lingering over a second cup of tea in the morning and enjoying two more cups during the day sends stress-induced cortisol spikes plunging by 57%. That’s the word from researchers reporting in the journal Psychopharmacology, who found the benefits in people who drank four cups of black tea daily for six weeks. Experts note black tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that calms cortisol-producing adrenal glands. And in good news for women who prefer green tea, a study in the journal Pharmacognosy Magazine research reveals it’s 28% higher in L-theanine than black brews. (Extra tea bags? Click through to see genius solutions for leftover tea bags.)
Supplement with arctic root
The herb rhodiola rosea grows in cold, mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. And in a study in the journal Planta Medica, folks who supplemented with rhodiola daily experienced drops in morning cortisol that were up to three times greater than their counterparts who took a placebo pill. Turns out compunds such as rosavins in the herb enhance the body’s ability to adapt to stress. One to try: Nature’s Answer Rhodiola 100 mg. Vegetarian Capsules (Buy from iHerb.com, $14.24). (Click through to see more amazing health benefits of rhodiola.)
Sweeten with chicory root
“Chicory root has a relaxing effect on the body and is shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as help detoxify the liver,” says Josh Axe, DC, DNM. Use the sweetener, which has a nutty aftertaste, to sweeten drinks or drizzle it on pancakes. One to try: Good Balance Health Chicory Root Syrup (Buy from Amazon.com, $17.99). (Click through to our sister publication to see how chicory root can speed weight loss.)
Take a ‘touch break’
Gently stroking your upper arms or belly for a mere 20 seconds as you wait for your tea to steep drops your cortisol by as much as 37%. And the benefits persist for 40 minutes, say investigators reporting in Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology. They explain that skin-to-skin contact stimulates receptors on nerves to enhance activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. This triggers a “rest and digest” response that tamps down cortisol production.
Savor food flavors with every bite
Homing in on each flavor when eating curbs cortisol by 25%, a study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine suggests. The reason: Briefly concentrating your attention on individual flavors, such as focusing on the cheese, then the tomato, then the bread when eating pizza, reconnects you to the present moment and blocks the production of stress hormones. Bonus: Other research research found dieting women who savored food this way effortlessly lost five times more weight.
Revel in nature for 20 minutes
Whether you stroll around your garden or simply sit on your porch to admire the birds passing by, spending 20 to 30 minutes in nature lowers cortisol by 19%. That’s the word from Harvard researchers, who say natural settings have restorative effects that counter negative emotions and soothe stress. Can’t head outside? Pull up a picture of a pretty flower up on computer. A study in The Journal of Environmental Psychology found simply gazing at the image of a flower tamps down activity in the brain’s stress center. This reduces cortisol levels within minutes. (Click through to learn how to harness the healing benefits of being in nature.)
Take a whiff of rosemary
Rosemary compounds such as rosmarinic acid, carnosinic acid and luteloin suppress activity of the sympathetic nervous system to blunt cortisol release. In fact, a study in Psychiatric Research found inhaling a rosemary scent significantly lowered within minutes. Tip: For an on-the-go assist, add 3 drops of rosemary essential oil to a cotton ball and place it inside a clean, empty lip balm jar or ziplock bag. Tuck it in your purse or pocket and take a whiff anytime stress mounts. (Click through to our sister publication to learn how to grow your own rosemary from cuttings.)
Listen to a good story
Cue up a fun audiobook whodunit or a feel-good romance while you’re clearing the table or tidying up the kitchen and you’ll turn a tiresome chore into a surprising stress-buster. According to a report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, listening to a fictional story read aloud triggers a phenomenon known as narrative transport. This calms the nervous system, reducing cortisol by 60% within 30 minutes.
Read on for more natural ways to keep your cortisol levels in check:
- Expert: If You’re Over 50, You’re Riding a Cortisol Roller Coaster — And Those Ups & Downs Are Packing On The Fat
- The ‘Lullaby’ Lavender Tea Guaranteed to Melt Stress and Deepen Sleep
- Top Doctors Say Toning Your Vagus Nerve Undoes the Toll Chronic Stress Has Taken on Your Body — and All It Takes Is Cold Water
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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