Feel Stressed and exhausted? No wonder. We are bombarded with demands every day through work, school, our relationships, extracurricular responsibilities, and the stressors of the trappings of modern life. To us this may just feel like normal life, but our brains frequently treat these constant pressures and demands as stresses and threats. This triggers our systems to respond with the production of the stress hormone called cortisol. When we become habituated to this life style, we simply live in a state with elevated cortisol levels and our health suffers as a result. When your cortisol remains high, you’re at risk for weight gain, sleep disruptions, mood changes, thyroid disorders, low energy levels, high blood pressure, and diabetes, to name a few.
You can start to unwind this cycle by starting with some simple ways to lower your body’s cortisol level; small changes that really make a difference. Try some or all of these 15 things today to lower your body’s cortisol and improve your health.
- Sleep - In times of stress it can be very difficult to sleep. You may have stress, weighty responsibilities and be dealing with intense emotions. Circumstances may make it difficult to sleep well and get enough sleep, and cortisol may make it difficult to get good quality sleep. The Catch 22 here is that getting enough quality sleep can reduce the stress hormone that is keeping you up in the first place. Disrupted sleep patterns can be difficult to re-regulate, so it’s important to see this as a project and take it step by step. Start with some basic steps that will help. Work to schedule your sleep time and stick to it. Go to bed at regular hours and make sure that you leave your smart phone and iPad out of the bedroom. Our electronic devices work to stimulate our brains, which makes falling asleep much more difficult. Ensure that you create a restful and dark sleep environment and use relaxation techniques like deep breathing to catch up on your zz’s.
- Move - Mild or moderate exercise can help lower cortisol levels. 30 minutes of walking 5 days per week will lower cortisol and meet the exercise recommendations of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the American Heart Association - improve your overall heart health. Bonus!
- Reflect - Use mindfulness to help you be more aware of and understand what is creating and promoting stress in your life. This is the first step to lessening its hold on you. Awareness can help you cope and decide on necessary changes. Once you recognize stressful thoughts and situations, you can teach yourself to re-focus on positive thoughts and feelings.
- Relax - Give your mind and body a break from the stress by ensuring there’s time for relaxation. When you’ve been under stress for a long time, it’s not easy to relax. Take it slow and work relaxation time gradually into your routine; start with 10 minutes at any point during your day (we all have 10 minutes somewhere!). Try various techniques like deep breathing, meditation, massage, yoga, tai chi, or listening to relaxing music.
- Laugh - Laughter has been shown to both decrease your stress responses and boost your immune system. Spend time with friends or family who make you happy and laugh. Watch a funny movie or some great comedy; you can find it easily on the internet. Times of stress may not seem like the most appropriate times to have fun, but a good belly laugh is exactly what your mind and body may need to let off some steam.
- Create -Spending time with hobbies or creative pursuits can move our focus inward and can be downright meditative. Especially when concentration and/or repetitive steps are involved (think playing an instrument, knitting, wood working or pottery). Spend quality time doing the hobbies that your kids love, it will give you a break and bring you and your children closer together.
- Relate - Healthy relationships with friends, family, and partners can be a great source of happiness and can affect cortisol levels in a positive way. Nurture your positive relationships, and spend time with people who generate happy feelings in you; contentment can help reduce your cortisol levels.
- Pets - Interacting with pets has been proven to decrease stress in the human and the pet! There’s a reason we see therapy dogs in hospitals and emotional support animals in the news. If you’re already a pet person, spend some quality time with your furry friend. If not, consider walking a friend’s dog or volunteering at a shelter; you’ll benefit and so with the animals.
- Forgive - Negative self-talk and feelings such as resentment, anger, guilt, shame, and inadequacy increase cortisol. Identify those feelings and learn to let them go where you can. Learn to forgive yourself and others for an increased sense of peace and decreased levels of stress.
- Connect - Developing your spirituality can help you feel a deeper sense of purpose and connection with both your inner self and the world around you. You don’t have to be drawn to a religion or belief system, but rather focus on figuring out what is meaningful to you. There are many ways to support your spiritual life and help you find answers to your questions, such as meditation, reading, journaling, volunteering, and being part of a community.
- Give - Giving and receiving acts of kindness can improve your cortisol levels. Caring for others or volunteering are powerful ways to show kindness, but even a small act can benefit both the giver and receiver. Think about the “pay it forward” movement we see in the news. A simple act such as helping a neighbor or paying for someone’s cup of coffee can be a positive boost to both your days. Do for others and you’ll do for yourself as well.
- Eat - Support positive cortisol levels with the foods you eat every day. Especially watch those comfort foods. While sugar can temporarily lower cortisol in times of sudden stress, supportin a cupcake habit may increase cortisol over time. So, use that sweet release in emergencies if you must, but make a long-term plan to combat cortisol with healthy options. Dark chocolate, fruit, black or green tea, water, and pro and prebiotics will all help lower your cortisol.
- De-caffeinate - Research shows that drinking caffeine regularly can double (or more) your cortisol level. If you need that hot drink and a little boost, try switching to black or green tea which can have less caffeine plus 2 compounds that help relax you: l-theanine and EGCG.
- Breath - Did you know that smells you enjoy can decrease cortisol while smells you don’t like can increase it? Surround yourself with natural scents that you enjoy. Try scented candles, flowers, essential oils, herbal teas, even the smell of your favorite meal cooking can help. For an extra mood boost, lavender is proven to reduce cortisol. Whatever you choose, go natural. Many chemical air freshers have been shown to be harmful to your health and breathing.
- Unplug - Our cellphones and tablets are amazing tools that keep us connected, informed, productive, and let us document our lives like never before. But all that instant access makes it easy to fall into the trap of being instantly available. Unplug and shut out the outside world for a while to help quiet and rest your mind. You’ll be surprised at how refreshing an hour or two of freedom from all those email and social media notifications can feel. Decrease the stress, decrease the cortisol.
Any one or more of these techniques can help you control your body’s stress responses naturally, and the best part is you can do them at any time without any special training or gear. Taking control of your cortisol levels naturally can help you live a longer, happier life no matter what life throws at you.