Lowering cortisol is a goal of many who want to do something good for their body. Doctors often point out the need for this measure. However, some questions may remain unanswered.
That's why we give answers to areas such as: what cortisol is, what the body needs it for, where the normal range is. We give you the best tips on how to lower high cortisol levels. There is a lot that can be done, from diet and exercise to supplements and the right way to deal with stress. For an improved quality of life.
the essentials in brief
- Cortisol is an endogenous, vital hormone. It is involved in a variety of metabolic processes.
- Especially in times of crisis, under stress or under physical strain, cortisol is released more frequently. This provides the body with enough energy.
- If the cortisol levels are chronically elevated, it can cause metabolic disorders or obesity, for example.
Definition: what is cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone from the group of glucocorticoids. It can increase blood sugar levels. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal cortex and broken down in the liver.
The go-ahead for production comes from the hormone CRH from the hypothalamus, which in turn stimulates the hormone ACTH in the pituitary gland. From there the adrenal glands are given the job of producing cortisol.
In this way, the cortisol level in the blood can rise within a few minutes. The cortisol in turn inhibits the release of the other two hormones so that there is no overproduction.
Cortisol is known to most as a stress hormone. (Source: Ben White / unsplash)
Cortisol plays a role in metabolic processes involving glucose, bone formation, adipose tissue and protein, among other things. It also influences the immune system and is used in medicine, for example, to alleviate severe inflammatory reactions.
Cortisol can also help in the treatment of mental illnesses. For example, it seems to have a positive effect in the treatment of schizophrenia patients. (1)
Background: What you should know about high cortisol levels
Before you take any action against high cortisol levels, you should first know what it is. To make it easier for you to find your way around, we have answered the most important questions for you here.
What is the function of cortisol in the body?
Cortisol helps regulate growth, but is also involved in a variety of metabolic processes. Blood sugar, delayed water excretion - cortisol has an influence here. Ultimately, it serves to provide energy to make you perform well.
For example, cortisol increases body temperature, inhibits inflammatory pain and activates the energy metabolism. If you are exposed to stress, physical or psychological, you can deal with it better. For this reason, most people know cortisol as the stress hormone.
What is the normal range for cortisol?
Because CRH is secreted in spurts, a single cortisol reading is rarely meaningful. The time of day when the blood sample is taken is important. Cortisol levels are usually highest in the morning and drop to a minimum in the evening. You can find normal values in the table below. (2)
|time of day||reference range|
|Morning (6 a.m. to 10 a.m.)||6.24 - 18.0 µg/dl|
|evening (4 to 8 p.m.)||2.69-10.4µg/dl|
Repeated measurements or a special stimulation test can lead to a better assessment of the cortisol value. In addition to taking a blood sample, the proportion of cortisol in the urine or saliva can also be examined.
Why do cortisol levels rise?
There are various reasons why cortisol levels can rise. At the forefront are physical and mental strains such as stress or major sporting exertion. But other causes are also possible, such as:
- Unhealthy diet
- oral contraceptives
- Cushing's disease
Since cortisol is an endogenous hormone, you cannot consume it directly in food. However, some products can stimulate cortisol production. Sugar in particular, such as you find in baked goods or sweet treats, triggers increased cortisol release.
The circadian rhythm, according to which cortisol is high in the morning and low in the evening, can also reach higher levels during oral contraception ("the pill") or during pregnancy. (2)
Hormonal balance also changes during menopause. Stress can upset the balance, causing the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol and adrenaline. This is why the menopausal symptoms in stressed women get worse.
However, it is not the case that cortisol production changes with age. You just become more sensitive to stress, which causes more cortisol to be released.
In Cushing's disease (hypercortisolism), a high cortisol level can usually be traced back to a tumor.
What are the symptoms of high cortisol levels?
Although cortisol increases the body's performance, being on the alert all the time can be exhausting. Because of this, people with high cortisol levels often feel tired and exhausted. This can lead to a depressive mood.
An increased heart rate and high blood pressure are also companions of an unhealthy, permanent state of stress in the body. Inner restlessness and fears can also indicate that cortisol levels are too high.
Stress often affects the skin as well. Sudden acne and slower wound healing can be signs of excess cortisol.
Last but not least, women will know that the menstrual period also shows inner imbalance. It can either stay away completely or come only irregularly.
Another companion of elevated cortisol is weight gain, even when you're eating the same or less than usual. We'll go into more detail on why this is so in the next point.
How does high cortisol affect weight?
I'm sure you've seen it. Some people are under stress - and hey presto, they've gained a few pounds. Cortisol may be a contributor to this phenomenon.
The cause is that the body prepares for "bad times" by shutting down the metabolism and creating reserves.
For us, cortisol means that there is pressure somewhere. Even though gaining weight can seem like another stressor, your body really just wants to make you feel good.
What are the long-term consequences of high cortisol levels?
If the cortisol concentration is too high for a long time, it can have negative effects on the whole body and lead to chronic problems such as:
- metabolic disorders
- immune deficiencies
- heart diseases
- high blood pressure
There is also evidence that the hippocampus, a part of the brain important for memory, may be damaged by glucocorticoid exposure. These hormones, which include cortisol, are released under stress, among other things. (3)
A chronic excess of cortisol can result in Cushing's syndrome. Both overdose of medication and endogenous cortisol production can be a cause.
Even if elevated cortisol levels don't seem particularly worrying at first, they can worsen your health in the long term. (Source: impulsQ / unsplash)
What are the consequences of high cortisol during pregnancy?
It is quite normal for pregnant women to worry about the well-being of their offspring. With constant stress and the associated increased cortisol, the question arises as to how this affects mother and child.
First of all, there are differences in cortisol levels depending on the stage of pregnancy. As time goes on, cortisol levels rise, especially in the evenings. (4)
Studies indicate that high cortisol during pregnancy can lead to a lower IQ in the child. The foundation for neuropsychiatric disorders can also be laid. (5.6)
It is therefore highly recommended to reduce stress with consideration for the well-being of the child. This step also makes sense for the expectant mother herself.
When should you lower your cortisol levels?
First of all, it is important to get a reliable diagnosis from a qualified doctor.
As already mentioned, cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day. If measurements repeatedly show values that are too high, you should try to lower your cortisol level. Find the root cause of your problem. There you can start with solution strategies.
Lower cortisol: The best tips & tricks
A healthy lifestyle is the key to getting high cortisol levels under control. Below we show you some ways you can do something good for your body.
Cortisol is released during stress, among other things. In order to lower cortisol levels that are too high, it makes sense to reduce stress factors. In hectic everyday life, it helps if you learn to deal with stress.
Canadian researchers conducted a study of cancer patients in which participants completed a mindfulness program. Activities such as meditation or yoga were included. Patients reported a better quality of life, and stress symptoms associated with cortisol levels, among other things, were alleviated. (7)
Not everyone has time to participate in a mindfulness program, but even a few minutes a day can help. Try to incorporate relaxation rituals into your everyday life. Breathing exercises, for example, are an easy way to calm down in between.
So that the body can regenerate, good sleep is just as essential. Make sure you really switch off at night. It can help not to have your cell phone next to the bed and to completely darken the room. This is how the hormone melatonin, which acts as an "antagonist" to cortisol, is released.
The recommended sleep duration for different age groups can be found in the table below. (8th)
|age group||Recommended sleep duration in hours|
|0 - 3 months||14 - 17|
|4 - 11 months||12 - 15|
|1 - 2 years||11-14|
|3 - 5 years||10 - 13|
|6 - 13 years||9 - 11|
|14 - 17 years||8 - 10|
|18 - 25 years||7 - 9|
|26 - 64 years||7 - 9|
|65+ years||7 - 8|
Hobbies can also increase stress resistance. Gardening, dancing, reading or tinkering with the car - do something that brings you joy.
Try to eat as healthy as possible. Even if you tend to eat when you're stressed, it doesn't help your body deal with it.
Like caffeine, sugar triggers increased cortisol release. In addition, energy drinks, coffee and the like make it difficult to fall asleep in the evening. If you don't want to do without it completely, you should try to reduce your consumption. For example, instead of coffee, you can drink green tea.
The popular after-work beer reduces the cortisol release only for a short time. The effect wears off after just a few hours - the body can no longer cope with stress. So alcohol is not a solution.
Trans fats also indirectly increase cortisol levels. Fried foods like fries affect cholesterol, which in turn is linked to cortisol.
A balanced, varied diet helps your body function well. With enough vitamins and nutrients, life is easier. For example, increased omega-3 intake, such as from fish oil, can lower cortisol levels. (9.10)
Dietary Supplements & Medicines
In order to lower your cortisol levels to a healthy level, it can make sense to take supplements or medication. However, they are not a substitute for an all-round healthy lifestyle.
In a study of marathon runners, vitamin C helped keep the rise in cortisol levels lower than without. Around 1000 mg per day seems to be necessary to be effective. (11)
Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea) appears to help with stress-related fatigue by keeping cortiol levels low. This improves the ability to concentrate and react to stress. Alternatively, there are studies that suggest ashwagandha extract to lower cortisol and increase stress resistance. (12.13)
Doctors usually prescribe hormone replacement therapy for hypercortisolism. The drugs help the body to get the problem of high cortisol levels under control.
Psychotropic drugs can also affect cortisol. Several studies suggest that people with depression have higher cortisol levels during treatment than people without depression. If necessary, talk to a medical professional about your problems. (14)
Physical activity can also help against high cortisol. You don't have to sweat for hours in the gym or run a marathon every week. That would indeed be counterproductive! Your body would produce more cortisol again.
Instead, low-to-moderate-impact sports are better suited. Hiking, cycling or yoga can help to relax and thus lower cortisol.
If you don't have time for such activities, you can cover shorter everyday distances on foot or by bike. Even a 20-minute walk helps.
Try to incorporate exercise into your everyday life. (Source: Dane Wetton / unsplash)
We humans are social beings. We need the company of others to feel good all around.
So put your worries aside every once in a while and make time for family and friends. Last but not least, it is said that laughter is the best medicine. It actually appears to lower cortisol levels! (15)
These relationships don't always have to involve human companions. For example, studies show that having a dog as a pet can lower cortisol levels as well as heart rate. (16)
In our highly connected world, social media is also part of everyday life. Sometimes it's good to take a break from all the information. A 2017 study shows that taking a break from Facebook for several days can lower cortisol levels. (17)
Your body needs cortisol to be able to react to mental and physical stress. It is essential for top performance. However, chronically high cortisol levels can pose a serious health problem. Obesity, heart disease or insomnia are just some of the possible long-term consequences.
In terms of prevention, you should take quick action to counteract elevated cortisol levels. Stress management, exercise, a varied diet or spending time with friends and family are easy options. If necessary, you can also use dietary supplements and medication. In this way, your body stays healthy and efficient.
- Miodownik C, Maayan R, Ratner Y, Lerner V, Pintov L, Mar M, Weizman A, Ritsner MS. Serum levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and cortisol to sulfate of dehydroepiandrosterone molar ratio associated with clinical response to L-theanine as augmentation of antipsychotic therapy in schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder patients. Clinic Neuropharmacol. 2011 Jul-Aug;34(4):155-60. doi: 10.1097/WNF.0b013e318220d8c6. PMID: 21617527.
- associate Prof Univ. Dr. Rodrig Marculescu (07/02/2015): Reference values for cortisol in serum. AKH Vienna online. [accessed on 09/29/2020]
- Sapolsky RM, Uno H, Rebert CS, Finch CE: Hippocampal damage associated with prolonged glucocorticoid exposure in primates. Journal of Neuroscience 1990 September 1, 10(9) 2897-2902; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990
- Obel, Carsten, et al. Stress and salivary cortisol during pregnancy. Psychoneuroendocrinology 30.7 (2005): 647-656.
- Kaja Z LeWinn, Laura R Stroud, Beth E Molnar, James H Ware, Karestan C Koenen, Stephen L Buka, Elevated maternal cortisol levels during pregnancy are associated with reduced childhood IQ, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 38, Issue 6, December 2009 , Pages 1700-1710, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyp200
- Claudia Buss, Elysia Poggi Davis, Babak Shahbaba, Jens C Pruessner, Kevin Head, Curt A Sandman: Prenatal cortisol and brain development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 2012, 109 (20) E1312-E1319. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1201295109
- Linda E Carlson, Michael Speca, Kamala D Patel, Eileen Goodey. Mindfulness-based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress and levels of cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) and melatonin in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 29, Issue 4, 2004, Pages 448-474. doi:10.1016/S0306-4530(03)00054-4.
- Hirshkowitz, Max, et al. National Sleep Foundation's sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep health 1.1 (2015): 40-43.
- Barbadoro P et al., Fish oil supplementation reduces cortisol basal levels and perceived stress: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial in abstinent alcoholics, Mol Nutr Food Res. 2013 Jun;57(6):1110-4. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201200676. Epub 2013 Feb 6.
- Delarue J et al. Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men Diabetes Metab. 2003 Jun;29(3):289-95.
- Peters EM, Anderson R, Nieman DC, Fickl H, & Jogessar V (2001). Vitamin C supplementation attenuates the increases in circulating cortisol, adrenaline and anti-inflammatory polypeptides following ultramarathon running. International journal of sports medicine, 22(7), 537-543.
- Olsson EM et al., A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardized extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue, Planta Med. 2009 Feb ;75(2):105-12. doi: 10.10
- Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012 Jul;34(3):255-62. doi: 10.4103/0253-7176.106022. PMID: 23439798; PMCID: PMC3573577.
- Burke, HM, Davis, MC, Otte, C, & Mohr, DC (2005). Depression and cortisol responses to psychological stress: a meta-analysis. Psychoneuroendocrinology , 30(9), 846-856.
- Berk LS et al. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter, Am J Med Sci. 1989 Dec;298(6):390-6
- Polheber, JP, Matchock, RL The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends. J Behav Med 37, 860-867 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-013-9546-1
- Eric J Vanman, Rosemary Baker & Stephanie J Tobin (2018) The burden of online friends: The effects of giving up Facebook on stress and well-being, The Journal of Social Psychology, 158:4, 496-508, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2018.1453467