Feeling stressed out and exhausted? You might be tempted to blame the infamous “stress hormone” known as cortisol.
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There’s a lot of information and theories about cortisol floating around. For instance: You can lower cortisol levels with a nice cup of tea or — even better — chocolate.
Alas, it’s not quite that simple. (Is it ever?) “Nutrition is absolutely important for coping with stress and supporting your mood, but there’s no single food that’s going to do it all,” says integrative medicine doctor Yufang Lin, MD. “You have to look at the whole lifestyle picture.”
Taking everything like that into account is more important than ever right now as we deal not just with the stress from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but the emotional ups and downs that come with it.
Here’s her big-picture advice for keeping cortisol — and the rest of your body and mind — in balance.
Cortisol and stress: The basics
Cortisol is one of several hormones the body produces naturally. Cortisol levels do go up when you’re stressed. But it doesn’t deserve its bad rap.
“Cortisol supports overall health,” Dr. Lin says. “It helps us wake up, gives us energy during the day and lowers at night to help us sleep and rest.”
The problem arises when chronic stress keeps cortisol levels high for the long haul. High cortisol levels over weeks or months can lead to inflammation and a host of mental and physical health problems, from anxiety to weight gain to heart disease.
Are there foods that reduce cortisol?
Yes, no and maybe. Some research suggests that foods like tea, chocolate and fish oils might lower cortisol. But such studies tend to be small and not very conclusive, Dr. Lin says.
You’re unlikely to balance cortisol levels by adding anchovies to your pizza or scarfing a block of chocolate, she says. But good nutrition can make a difference.
Cortisol interacts with neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that send signals in the brain. Neurotransmitters play an important role in mood. And cortisol isn’t the only compound that influences them. “To make those neurotransmitters, you need all the raw ingredients: vitamins, minerals and other nutrients,” Dr. Lin says.
The best way to get them is with a balanced, plant-heavy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, she adds. “A healthy diet is the underpinning of stress management.”
A balanced meal plan can ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs. “And talk to your doctor about taking a basic multivitamin. It’s a good insurance policy to make sure you’re not deficient in any vitamins,” Dr. Lin says.
Are there herbs or supplements to reduce cortisol?
The supplement aisle at the natural foods store is hardly a one-way ticket to a stress-free life. But some items may help keep cortisol levels in a healthy range, Dr. Lin says. Research suggests these herbs and natural supplements might lower stress, anxiety and/or cortisol levels:
While some herbs might help lower cortisol levels naturally, you don’t want to swallow everything in sight, Dr. Lin says. “Teas like lemon balm and chamomile are quite safe. But if you’re thinking about trying herbs in supplement form, talk to a trained provider first.”
How to reduce cortisol naturally
Dr. Lin stresses that a big-picture approach is key to maintaining healthy cortisol levels and feeling less stressed. These go-to strategies are good for the body and the mind.
Exercise benefits health from head to toe. So it’s no surprise that it helps with stress relief, too, possibly by reducing cortisol levels. Studies show, for instance, that exercise can bring down cortisol levels in the elderly and in people with major depressive disorder.
Almost nothing beats a good night’s sleep. “When you’re not sleeping well, you tend to be more anxious, irritable and stressed,” Dr. Lin says. Like exercise, sleep is important for health in all sorts of ways — including managing stress and keeping cortisol in check.
Sleep deprivation may increase cortisol levels. The increased cortisol can impair memory, contribute to weight gain and even accelerate the aging process. In other words: Don’t skimp on shut-eye.
Spending time in the great outdoors is a great way to lower cortisol and calm your brain. The practice of “forest bathing” — essentially, hanging out in the woods and breathing the forest air — can reduce cortisol levels and lower stress. (Just pack your bug spray, so the mosquitoes don’t stress you out.)
While they might not be something you’ve ever considered, practices like yoga, tai chi, qi gong, mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises can be great stress busters — and a lot of skeptics have turned to converts. Research has found, for example, that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy can lower cortisol and feelings of stress. And yoga can bring down high cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure.
When it comes to de-stressing, cortisol is just one piece of the puzzle, Dr. Lin adds. No one food or pill can deliver you to blissful calm. But healthy choices can set your body up for low-stress success.