Feeling stressed? You’re not alone. High stress is a common ailment, and in addition to stressors that are out of our control (like COVID-19), our lifestyles may also play a part in triggering abnormally high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have a negative impact on our health.
Luckily, science has our back! Research has identified a few proven techniques to help keep your cortisol levels low, which we’re covering today.
But first: what is cortisol, and how does it work in our bodies?
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is the stress hormone that is part of a normal, functioning body. It helps you wake up in the morning, when levels are higher, and lowers later in the day to help you sleep. It also regulates body functions. Most of your body’s tissues have cortisol receptors, so cortisol affects so many of your body’s functions, including the nervous system, digestive system, respiratory system, and immune system.
Cortisol levels also rise to give you a boost of energy to handle stressful situations. After stress passes, cortisol levels lower, and your body systems go back to normal.
Cortisol levels rise to give you a temporary boost of energy to handle stressful situations.
How chronic stress affects your body
Long-term stressors can keep cortisol too high for too long, which can throw off your body’s normal processes of digestion and sleep, for example, and lead to inflammation and other health problems. For this reason, it’s extremely important to manage your stress!
Note that abnormally high or low cortisol levels may be a sign of a more serious health issue such as Cushing’s syndrome or adrenal insufficiency, which require medical intervention. Talk to your primary care provider if you have symptoms of either of these disorders.
How can I keep my cortisol normal throughout the day?
There’s no single prescription for lowering your stress, but looking at your lifestyle as a whole, you may find some opportunities for improving your well-being.
Start with the basics—nutrition, exercise, and sleep
Healthy food, full of nutrients and vitamins, provides the building blocks that allow your body to produce cortisol and other chemicals that keep all of your body systems functioning optimally. Avoid focusing on calorie restriction, which may be counterproductive! Instead, identify healthy options you can regularly enjoy. (We like roasted broccoli and chickpeas with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and spices to taste!)
You’ve heard that exercise is good for everything, and it’s true, too, of managing stress. Fitness helps you bounce back from everyday stressors and may promote healthier responses to psychosocial stress. Exercise has also been shown to help improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, which in turn helps with stress.
Stress and lack of sleep go hand in hand—each one can cause the other—so aim to keep your circadian rhythms steady by sleeping 7 or more hours each night. Remember that cortisol levels are supposed to be lower at night, so incorporating a wind-down routine before bed can be especially helpful. Here are some tips for promoting your sleep hygiene:
- Reduce caffeine intake.
- Keep your phone on silent.
- Stop looking at screens several hours before bed.
- Carve out time for self-care, like a relaxing foot soak followed by your skin care routine.
- Lower bright lights (try a red light or Himalayan salt lamp).
Incorporate calming practices
There are many proven practices that, with a small amount of dedication, have been shown to reduce cortisol levels:
- Nature: Spend time in nature! A meta-analysis of studies that examined the effects of “forest bathing” on cortisol levels found that both anticipating spending time in nature (a placebo effect) and actually spending time in nature significantly reduced this marker of stress. Those who live in urban areas with more green spaces also may benefit from healthier cortisol rates throughout the day.
- Mind-body practice: Practice mindfulness to cultivate a mind-body connection and reduce cortisol with yoga, qigong, or tai chi. The slow movements help you to refocus your attention on your body and your breath, and have numerous other health benefits in addition to reducing cortisol.
- Make art: A 2016 study found that 45 minutes of art-making significantly reduced cortisol levels in participants—whether or not they had any experience making art before. Where to begin? Check out this guide to starting an art habit.
- Do something that makes you laugh: Research found that simply anticipating laughter reduces cortisol levels, giving you a very good excuse to watch TV—just choose something fun!
- Spend time with your pet: Even when compared with the presence of a human friend, the companionship of a dog has been shown to reduce cortisol levels. The effect of a dog’s love may even be stronger for non-dog owners.
Practice self-care at PureLee Redefined medical spa in Colorado Springs
If you are in the Colorado Springs area and are looking for treatment to pamper and relax you while also enhancing your natural beauty, consider scheduling an appointment with board-certified doctors Dr. Kenya and Dr. Marvin of PureLee Redefined. We are devoted to treating our patients holistically, in order to help you look and feel like yourself, but refreshed! Call (719) 452-8541 or contact us online today to get started.