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10 Ways to Lower Cortisol Naturally

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When you’re training to pack on muscle and ramp up your strength you need every hormone on your side.

Cortisol – the body’s stress hormone – can blunt your progress if it gets too high or is elevated for too long. This can have a drastic effect on your progress. In order to keep moving towards your targets you’ll need to bring that stress hormone back down to where it should be.

In this article we’ll tell you the best ways to keep it in check.


Cortisol Recap

Cortisol is a hormone released from the adrenal glands whenever you are in state of stress. It helps you to break down energy for simple things like waking up, movement and dealing with any kind of physical, emotional or mental stress.

Elevated levels of this hormone are meant to be short-lived – the adrenal gland releases just enough to deal or cope with the stressor and then decrease again before any long-lasting side effects can occur. However, with such hectic lifestyles and ever-increasing stress, cortisol levels in many of us are always elevated – and this becomes an issue.

Too much cortisol means loss of muscle mass and increased belly fat. Prolonged, elevated stress hormones become the arch enemy of any man who wishes to improve their physique. On top of that, cortisol can start to switch off your reproductive system leading to a loss of performance and libido. It can also start to shut down your immune system leading to increased chance of illness.

Remember that cortisol plays a direct opposite role to testosterone – if your stress hormones are elevated then T can’t do its job properly. They work very much like the gas and break when it comes to muscle building.

According to Weipeng [1] the role of T within the body is to maintain anabolism through the process of protein synthesis. By contrast, cortisol plays a catabolic function and is involved in the response of stress.

Here are the most effective ways of naturally lowering your cortisol levels…


#1. Sleep

Our society attaches an economic and moral value to sleeping as little as possible to extend the waking period to the longest tolerable limit [2] – simply put, we work too hard and don’t value sleep as much as we should do.

Your body is controlled by sleep-wake cycles called circadian rhythms. Naturally you’ll find that cortisol is higher in a morning as it helps to bring you out of deep sleep, and lower in an evening to help you drift off to sleep.

In order to help to regulate these rhythms you need to ensure good sleep quantity and quality.

Studies have found that in those who are fatigued or sleep deprived, cortisol levels increase not only in the morning, but also at nighttime too. [2]. Aim to get 8 hours per night if you can. Not only has restricted sleep been found to elevate cortisol levels, it can promote the development of insulin resistance, a risk factor for obesity and diabetes too [3].

Although easier said than done – if you can, make sure you wake up naturally in a morning and not when your alarm goes off. Waking naturally is far better for your body.

Sleeping-and-Testosterone

#2. Go for a Walk

Getting out in the great outdoors is a great way to boost stress recovery – especially if you live near rural areas. The Japanese refer to it as Shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’ and studies have found that simply walking through areas filled with greenery and nature can reduce cortisol, blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability [4].

It doesn’t need to be for prolonged periods either – even just 15 minute walks are enough to promote relaxation. It’ll make it easier to fit into your lifestyle too.

Walking-and-Testosterone

#3. Have Fun

Laughing and having fun is such as simple way of de-stressing that sometimes we forget how effective it is. Going to a comedy club, watching a funny film or catching up with friends are all great ways of lowering cortisol.

One review study, reported in eCAM [5], found that when participants were asked to watch humorous films, levels of cortisol and epinephrine both decreased. Laughter has a powerful effects on your mood and can even increase productivity.

laughter-and-cortisol

#4. Get a Hobby

One of the best things you can do to de-stress is something you enjoy – it can take your mind off of things and help you to channel your mindset. Disconnecting from whatever is stressing you and instead engrossing yourself in something you want to do will soon have you feeling relaxed.

Whether it is something physical like dancing or taking part in a sport, or something less strenuous like meeting up with friends or reading a book, it’ll all help.

In fact, studies show that some of the best cortisol-busting hobbies are creative or cultural. Arts and crafts have long been thought to promote relaxation; as does listening to, or attending live music events [6].

A study from the University of Westminster [7] found that when office workers visited an art gallery for 35 minutes, their cortisol levels dropped substantially.

painting-to-destress

#5. Eat Healthy

There are a number of foods that have a cortisol lowering effect and these should form the basis of any healthy eating plan.

Foods that are high in zinc such as oysters, beef and pumpkin seeds not only boost testosterone but can also reduce stress hormone levels too. Fruits such as berries are high in antioxidant vitamins – and the darker varieties are loaded with anthocyanins which can lower cortisol and oxidative stress [8].

As an occasional treat you might even consider dark chocolate – another antioxidant full food that has been found to reduce cortisol and epinephrine as well as help to restore gut function [9].

healthy-eating

#6. Train Heavy

Training for strength is one sure fire way of increasing your muscle mass and strength. Big compound lifts like deadlifts, presses and squats will boost your T levels and in turn keep cortisol low.

By keeping the reps low and the weight heavy you’ll significantly elevate your T levels – and by doing so you’ll reduce stress hormone activity. It’s what the pros call ‘heavy resistance exercise protocols’ (HREPS). 

One study found that training with a 5RM – a weight you can’t lift any more than five times – with 3 minutes rest between sets – was the best T producing stimulus [10] whereas others have found that 8-10 reps does the same [11].

The idea is to lift heavy enough that your body is put under stress – aim for any rep range between 5-10 reps. Make sure you get out of your comfort zone- once you’ve mastered technique in a lift then load it up. Heavy.

leg-training-for-muscle

#7. Ditch the Long Cardio

Endless hours of cardio are not only an unproductive way of burning fat, they can also skyrocket your cortisol levels.

Spend too many hours pounding on the pavement and you could be exercising yourself to lower lean muscle levels and a decreased metabolism. Whilst we’re not saying that cardio will make you fat, these factors can certainly contribute in the long-term.

One study found that after an ultra-marathon race, runners had elevated cortisol levels of 30% – not only that, their inflammatory hormones were elevated too – a surefire sign of physical stress [12].

In reality, unless you’re clocking up mile after mile, your cortisol levels probably won’t be too high from cardio – but there are certainly better exercises you can be doing.

steady-cardio

#8. Reduce Caffeine Consumption

Caffeine is a natural alkaline compound found in coffee, tea, cocoa and guarana amongst other foods. Whilst it has been shown to boost fat loss in healthy individuals, it also triggers cortisol stimulation by inhibiting your adenosine receptors.

These receptors help us to relax and feel calm. When inhibited, you’ll stimulate your stress response and flood the bloodstream with cortisol.

Studies show that as little as 2-3 cups of coffee can elevate cortisol by as much as 30% and ACTH – a hormone that triggers stress hormone release from the adrenal gland – by 33% [13].

caffeine-cortisol-effect

#9. Try Relaxation Techniques

When you get stressed the body goes into its sympathetic response – the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This means that your body floods itself with epinephrine and cortisol in preparation of fighting or running away. Even psychological stressors such as worrying about paying the bills have this effect.

Your heart rate and blood pressure will increase, as will your breathing and body temperature. These are all autonomic responses controlled by your nervous system.

If you can participate in activities that relax your breathing you can control the stress hormone levels in your body – relax and they’ll decrease. Yoga, meditation, diaphragmatic breathing techniques and Tai Chi are all good for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous systemthis brings all of your autonomic responses back to resting levels [14].

relaxation-techniques

#10. Have Sex

Those who have healthy sex lives not only have lower cortisol levels – they are at less risk of heart disease, stroke and depression too.

Frequent orgasms open up the chemical pleasure pathways which help you reduce stress and anxiety by increasing levels of the hormones prolactin, oxytocin and endorphins. These help you to feel relaxed and sleepy.

One study found that those who participated in sex more than once per week had significantly higher levels of the immune-boosting antibody IgA [15]. Regular sex will also help you to improve your sleep quality, decrease blood pressure and boost overall health.

sex-for-health
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References

  1. Weipeng, T et al. Circadian Rhythms in Exercise Performance: Implications for Hormonal and Muscular Adaptation. J Sports Sci Med. 2011 Dec; 10(4): 600–606
  2. Leproult R, et al. Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. Sleep. 1997; 20: 865–870
  3. Spiegel, K et al. Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet. 1999; 354: 1435-1439
  4. Park, BJ et al. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010; 15(1): 18–26
  5. Bennett, MP et al. Humor and Laughter May Influence Health: III. Laughter and Health Outcomes. eCAM. 2008; 5(1): 37-40
  6. Fancourt, D et al. Attending a concert reduces glucocorticoids, progesterone and the cortisol/DHEA ratio. Public Health. 2016. 132: 101-4
  7. Clow, A. Normalisation of salivary cortisol levels and self-report stress by a brief lunchtime visit to an art gallery by London City workers. Journal of holistic healthcare. 2006; 3(2)
  8. Stockton, A et al. Biophenols-rich pomegranate extract intake inhibits salivary cortisol and 11β-HSD1 activity and improves overall quality of life scores in healthy volunteers. Endocrine Abstracts. 2014; 34: 344
  9. Martin, FP et al. Metabolic Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on Energy, Gut Microbiota, and Stress-Related Metabolism in Free-Living Subjects. J Proteome2009; 8(12): 5568–5579
  10. Kraemer, WJ et al. Endogenous anabolic hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise in males and females. Int J Sports Med. 1991; 12(2): 228-35
  11. Craig, BW et al. Effects of progressive resistance training on growth hormone and testosterone levels in young and elderly subjects. Mech Ageing Dev. 1989; 49(2): 159-69
  12. Peters, EM et al. Attenuation of Increase in Circulating Cortisol and Enhancement of the Acute Phase Protein Response in Vitamin C-Supplemented Ultramarathoners. Int J Sports Med 2001; 22(2): 120-126
  13. Lovallo,WR et al. Stress-like adrenocorticotropin responses to caffeine in young healthy men. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1996; 55(3): 365-9
  14. Zope, SA et al. Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health. Int J Yoga. 2013; 6(1): 4–10
  15. Charnetski, CJ et al. Sexual frequency and salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA). Psychol Rep. 2004; 94(3 Pt 1): 839-44