The #1 Fastest Way to Lower Your Cortisol Instantly, from an Expert Doctor

Updated: Jul. 11, 2024

Some moments, it's almost as if you can feel your cortisol spike. A Cleveland Clinic doctor offers strategies to get control of your physiological stress response.

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Cortisol is often referred to as our “fight or flight” hormone. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that’s involved in managing the body’s reaction to stress, and it’s one of those science words that have become part of the common vernacular, thanks to how universal a phenomenon it is to experience a rise in cortisol these days. According to statistics the Cleveland Clinic cites, 27% of Americans report days of so much stress they can’t function. If you’ve ever needed to reach in your back pocket for a fast way to lower your cortisol and control your body’s response to stress, a doctor of integrative medicine at the Cleveland Clinic has solid suggestions.

Produced by the adrenal glands—small, cone-shaped organs situated on top of each kidney—cortisol is released into the bloodstream in response to physical and emotional stressors. Despite cortisol’s often negative reputation, it does “support overall health,” explains Dr. Yufang Lin, MD on the Cleveland Clinic’s Health Essentials blog, adding that cortisol “helps us wake up in the morning, gives us energy during the day, and lowers at night to help us sleep and rest.”

A rise in cortisol is nature’s way of readying us to confront or escape danger. While this response can be helpful in brief, intense moments of stress, it’s harmful if it doesn’t turn off over time—especially because we don’t need the energy to run from physical predators the way cortisol helped our ancestors do. These days we may need as much help dealing with that sudden dose of cortisol as we do to deal with the situation that’s causing it.

What do high cortisol levels feel like?

When cortisol levels rise, the body goes on high alert, then the brain signals to reduce the production of cortisol. However, ongoing stress can interfere with this process, keeping cortisol levels elevated longer than necessary, which can lead to a range of health problems, affecting our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Effects of high cortisol levels on the body include:

  • Increased blood sugar levels: Chronic high cortisol can lead to elevated glucose levels, contributing to insulin resistance and potentially type 2 diabetes.
  • Weight gain: Cortisol can increase appetite and signal the body to shift metabolism to store fat.
  • Sleep disturbances: High cortisol levels can disrupt sleep patterns, making it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Reduced immune function: Over time, elevated cortisol weakens the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections.
  • Mood swings and mental health issues: High cortisol is associated with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
  • Memory and concentration problems: It can impair cognitive functions, leading to difficulties with memory and concentration.

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How to lower cortisol fast, naturally

Several natural methods to reduce cortisol levels include lifestyle changes, dietary adjustments, and mindful practices. “You have to look at your whole lifestyle to understand what factors are contributing to elevated cortisol and how you can address those factors to reduce stress,” shares Dr. Lin.

Below you’ll find suggestions to lower cortisol naturally, supported by clinician insights and research:

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1. Regular exercise

Dr. Lin suggests regular physical activity as a great way to lower cortisol levels and improve your stress response. Aim for a mix of aerobic exercises, strength training, and flexibility exercises; just be sure to hit at least 150 minutes each week.

Keep in mind you don’t always need intense workouts to see benefits. According to Harvard Health, even a simple 20-minute walk can refresh your mind and lessen stress.

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2. Balanced diet

Dr. Lin says, ” Nutrition is important for coping with stress and supporting your mood, but there’s no single food that’s going to do it all.” Focus on various fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats to help balance your body and deal with stress.

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon), dark chocolate, fruits (especially bananas and pears), black and green tea, and probiotics (sauerkraut and Greek yogurt) are especially effective in reducing cortisol levels.

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3. Adequate sleep

A 2014 study found a direct link between insufficient sleep and higher cortisol levels. People who didn’t sleep well also had a stronger cortisol response to stress. Experts recommend sleeping for seven to nine hours each night for good health. Establishing a calming bedtime routine and keeping a regular sleep schedule can help achieve this.

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4. Mindfulness and meditation

Dr. Lin shares that activities like yoga, tai chi and meditation are excellent for relieving stress and maintaining low cortisol levels. Dedicating a few minutes daily to these practices can lead to significant improvements.

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5. Deep breathing exercises

Deep breathing techniques, such as this cyclic breathing exercise, can help activate the body’s relaxation response, reducing stress and lowering cortisol, according to a 2017 study.

One effective method to consider is the 4-7-8 technique, which draws from the ancient yoga practice of pranayama. This technique, developed by Andrew Weil, MD, an expert in integrative medicine, involves breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, and exhaling slowly over eight seconds.

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6. Laughter

Laughter truly may be the best medicine. A 2023 research review found that spontaneous laughter significantly reduces cortisol levels more than typical activities do. However, further research is required to understand its effects fully.

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7. Stay connected

Maintaining strong social connections can provide emotional support and reduce stress and its impact on cortisol levels. The CDC reports that people with stronger social bonds are 50% more likely to live longer than those with fewer connections and can prevent illnesses like heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, and anxiety.

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8. Be strategic about caffeine intake

Reducing caffeine can help regulate your cortisol levels—but if you’re not willing to give up coffee, consider when you drink it instead. Drinking coffee right after you wake up can increase cortisol levels, making you feel too alert. Coffee in the evening could interfere with your sleep.

Although there’s no exact science for the perfect timing, having your coffee between 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. can help keep the body in balance, according to Anthony DiMarino, RD, LD, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic.

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9. Supplements

Supplements like fish oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, have been linked to reduced cortisol levels. A study with 2,700 participants found that higher omega-3 blood levels correlated with less inflammation and lower cortisol. Ashwagandha, an adaptogen herb, has been traditionally used for stress relief. In a trial, adults taking 250 or 600 milligrams of ashwagandha extract for eight weeks saw decreased cortisol.

Always remember to consult a licensed healthcare provider before starting any new supplement.

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10. Limit alcohol and sugar

Drinking alcohol and consuming sugary drinks, such as sodas, can raise your cortisol levels, making stress and its effects on the body worse.

Instead, consider drinking herbal teas like green, black, chamomile tea, or a carbonated iced tea with all-natural ingredients, like Spindrift’s products. These teas can help lower cortisol levels because of their soothing effects and abundant antioxidants.

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11. Spend time in nature

Spending time outdoors is proven to lower stress levels and is a wonderful habit to cultivate. Take a stroll, go hiking, breathe in the fresh air—just venture out and discover.

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12. Listen to music

Everyone enjoys great music, right? Research from 2023 shows that listening to music can greatly decrease cortisol and anxiety levels in individuals having cesarean sections. So, feel free to turn up your favorite tunes whenever stress builds.

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