How to lower cortisol levels

April 24, 2024
How to lower cortisol levels

Often called the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol is a key part of the body’s normal stress response. However, having consistently high levels of cortisol could negatively impact your health. Read on to learn how to reduce stress hormones, plus discover practical tips to support healthy cortisol levels.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands. These small, cone-shaped glands are located on top of each kidney. The brain triggers the body to release cortisol into the bloodstream in response to physical and emotional stressors.

For example, when faced with a stressful situation, the body activates the ‘fight or flight’ response. In the short term, cortisol is released in order to remain on high alert. When the threat or danger passes, cortisol levels drop. Problems arise when cortisol levels are consistently high, which can increase the risk of a range of health conditions, including:

The amount of cortisol circulating in the bloodstream varies during the day – it’s higher in the morning and lower late at night. A number of factors cause cortisol levels to rise, such as chronic stress, certain medications, diet and dysfunction of the adrenal glands.

As well as responding to stress, cortisol regulates metabolism and the immune response, manages blood pressure, suppresses inflammation, controls blood sugar levels and plays a role in circadian rhythm (wake/sleep cycle).

Is cortisol bad for you?

The increased stresses of modern life – whether that be bad traffic or a big work meeting – mean that many of us are having the same biological response that our ancestors would have experienced in a life-or-death situation. The concern is that we are producing high levels of cortisol when it’s not required, and that this could cause damage to health over time.

Signs and symptoms of high cortisol include:

  • Weight gain around the middle (sometimes called ‘cortisol belly’)
  • Bruising easily
  • Muscle weakness
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased thirst and frequency of urinating

10 ways to lower cortisol levels

1. Focus on a balanced diet

Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, lean proteins and healthy fats to provide all the micronutrients required to deal with stress. Following a Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower cortisol.

2. Include omega-3 fatty acids

These ‘essential’ fatty acids must be obtained through the diet. High levels of cortisol have been linked to low levels of omega-3. Include oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, in your diet at least twice a week. Walnuts, pumpkin seeds and linseeds are good sources, too.

3. Don’t skip meals

Restricting calories often means you’re riding a blood-sugar rollercoaster all day, which can add stress to the body.

4. Watch the caffeine and alcohol

Excessive amounts of either can contribute to stress and inflammation in the body.

5. Look after your gut

The gut and our mental health are linked via the gut-brain axis. Include probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir.

6. Avoid screens

Not just before bed, but also first thing in the morning.

7. Get enough sleep

Studies have shown poor-quality sleep can lead to higher stress levels, making it harder to handle daily stressors and regulate emotions.

8. Exercise

Activity is helpful in reducing stress levels. Aim for a mix of aerobic, strength training and flexibility exercises. Even a simple 20-minute walk can reduce stress.

9. Try stress-management techniques

Meditation, journaling, talking to a therapist and spending time in nature can lead to stress reduction.

10. Consider supplements

Adaptogenic herbs, such as rhodiola and ashwagandha, are reported to have beneficial effects on the body’s response to stress.

What is the best way to reduce cortisol?

There is no doubt that we live increasingly ‘stressful’ and frenetic lives, and this might be contributing to elevated cortisol levels. However, it can be helpful to look at the root causes of what might be causing the stressors in order to treat the symptoms. Some simple changes to diet and lifestyle can have a profound impact on health.

Further reading 

What is stress and how to reduce it
10 tips to manage stress eating
10 diet and lifestyle tips to help manage stress
How to sleep better
How stress affects weight

Jo is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Since graduating from the University of Westminster in 2010, Jo has worked in a variety of public and private contexts, delivering weight management programmes, community cookery projects, and corporate wellness packages. Alongside trying to grow more of her own fruit and veg at her allotment, Jo works as a Nutritionist and Health Coach for Second Nature. She has contributed articles to a number of nutrition websites, including Good Food.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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