Chill Out Naturally: Your Guide to Cortisol Control.

Article published at: Agora London May 14, 2024
Chill Out Naturally: Your Guide to Cortisol Control.
All Wellbeing

A Conversation on Wellbeing 

Imagine if we held the key to reduce stress and anxiety not through pills but through natural methods readily available to us! This May, in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month, we're teaming up with some of our experts to bring you deeper insights into natural solutions for reducing cortisol levels.

Let’s start with our Integrative Psychotherapist expert Stephanie Queen that clearly explains to us what happens to our brain when we enter a state of "fight or flight” mode.

The Sympathetic nervous system, also known as "fight or flight," triggers a state of heightened activation and energy mobilisation. Usually accompanied by a heightened sense of anxiety and sensitivity to your environment. In “fight or flight”  mode you may experience symptoms such as: anxiety, panic, fear, hypervigilance, anger, heart palpitations and so on. As we are so activated in this state it can make it difficult to sleep, eat, manage emotions or even concentrate. In this state, cortisol floods our body and brain, mobilising us to act, move, protect, and defend — originally to help us protect ourselves. The “fight or flight” response is designed for short, sharp bursts. We haven't evolved to experience this over days, hours, or months; it was meant for a few minutes while fleeing from immediate danger and then recovering. So, when we encounter a threat in our modern lives, very different from what we would have faced in the wild, we often fail to recognise that it's a different type of threat than a wild tiger! If your entire life is characterised by high stress and anxiety, constantly pumping out cortisol can lead to several negative health effects, such as increased blood sugar levels, digestive problems, weight gain, a suppressed immune system, and an increased risk of heart disease. Therefore, the stakes are high.

For this reason it is very important to learn how to manage our level of stress and anxiety  using some natural methods. Stephanie suggests using focused breathing and here is what she says: Considering how stress and anxiety manifest in our bodies, one effective method for managing them is through focused breathing. Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, sending signals to our brain that we're safe and don't need to engage the fight, flight, or freeze response. Regular practice of calming breathing exercises enhances our ability to regulate emotions more swiftly.

This natural method appears to be simple and offers quick relief from the symptoms of stress and anxiety. You can practise these exercises while standing, sitting, lying down, or even at your desk. If seated or standing, place both feet flat on the ground. She recommends dedicating at least 5 minutes to practise this exercise to soothe your nervous system. The more you practise, the more responsive you'll become. If you want to read more on Breathing technique check our Conversation ‘Mastering Stress with Breath Techniques’.

 According to Stephanie another natural way to lower the level of cortisol and induce relaxation is sleeping. 

Sleep isn't just about feeling rested; it's a game-changer for your mood, stress levels, and anxiety. If you struggle with sleep or the quality of your sleeping is poor, it's time to take action. Quality sleep shapes your entire outlook on life, how you think, feel, and behave. A solid night's sleep leaves you feeling refreshed, ready to tackle whatever life throws your way. However if you are going through a period of poor mental health, establishing solid sleeping routines can feel like an uphill climb. It's crucial to discover new routines and exercises tailored to you, ensuring you take charge of your sleep patterns before things escalate. If this is an ongoing struggle for you, I’d really recommend booking an appointment with your GP and asking for a referral for CBT-I, cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia and it is the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia. To learn more about sleeping read our article’ A Holistic Exploration of Sleep-Time Struggle’.

Finally,  we fully agree with Stephanie that social interactions contribute to reducing stress. Therefore, we should actively promote laughter, having fun, and fostering positive relationships in our lives. She suggests that having strong social connections is one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health. I’m aware that when your mental health is dipping you don’t necessarily want to connect. This is the downside of mental health. All of the things that can improve your mental health are going to be the things that you likely don’t feel like doing. Try to think about a way of connecting that feels appealing - is it a group, an activity, a phone call? Think for a moment, are there people that you have lost connection with?

Humans are social creatures and our social brains need people to lean on during times of difficulty, strong relationships provide us with a sense of safety which is invaluable. People in our support systems can provide empathy or simply help us laugh, reminding us we are not alone in the fight. Investing time and effort into building a personal support network is essential. It doesn't happen overnight, I understand it requires effort. However, it's absolutely worth it.

Lorraine Collins our Integrative Psychotherapist and Cognitive Behavioural Therapist expert, also believes in the importance of engaging in social activities like dancing and making time for fun to mitigate the effects of stress: Dancing frequently brings laughter and a feeling of joy, prompting our bodies to release endorphins, often referred to as the body's natural painkillers. These hormones not only ease pain but also enhance our overall sense of well-being. Numerous studies confirm that laughter is linked to a significant reduction in cortisol levels. In fact, laughter has not only been shown to decrease stress hormone levels in the body but also to increase the production of health-promoting hormones like endorphins. This biological shift can uplift our mood, fostering feelings of happiness and relaxation. Making time for fun and engaging in activities we enjoy triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter often associated with the reward centre of the brain. This not only brings us pleasure but also can motivate us, making stress seem more manageable.

Incorporating these activities into our daily lives doesn't just offer a temporary escape from stress; it helps rewire our brain to handle stress more efficiently. By doing so, we not only improve our mood and reduce our risk of stress-related health issues, but we also enhance our overall quality of life. So, in a very real sense, finding joy in dancing, laughing, and fun activities is not just about seeking pleasure, it's a vital part of managing stress and fostering well-being.

Next, we consulted our women's health nutritionist, Stephanie Smith, about how food can contribute to lowering our cortisol levels. Here's what she had to say:

While there isn't a single food that can miraculously lower stress or improve cortisol levels, adopting a balanced diet is crucial. It's important to understand that there's no magic solution to achieving good health. However, there are numerous foods and nutrients known to help reduce cortisol levels. These include magnesium-rich foods like avocados, bananas, dark chocolate, broccoli, and spinach, as well as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish (especially anchovies, salmon, mackerel, and tuna), chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts. Additionally, incorporating antioxidants, fibre, probiotics, and complex carbohydrates into your diet can also contribute to stress reduction.

The key to getting all the essential nutrients is a balanced diet. This includes whole grains, colourful fruits and vegetables, fibre, healthy fats, and protein. Such a diet supports overall health, including the well-being of the adrenal glands, which produce cortisol. Food greatly influences cortisol levels. Items rich in phospholipids, such as egg yolks, and those containing serine, found in protein-rich foods, are particularly significant. Since the body can synthesise serine from other proteins, ensuring adequate protein intake is vital. Ensuring an adequate intake of food is essential. Restricting or eliminating food groups, or undereating, can stress the body, leading to increased or dysregulated cortisol levels.

A balanced diet, particularly the Mediterranean style, is associated with lower cortisol levels, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and an overall improved mood. This is likely due to the anti-inflammatory nature of the diet, which includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, moderate dairy consumption, and limited red and processed meat. Furthermore, a balanced diet supplies sufficient energy, potentially reducing reliance on "stress eating" foods like sugar or ultra-processed foods (UPFs) for immediate gratification. High consumption of UPFs can harm the gut, which is closely linked to mental health, possibly leading to higher cortisol levels.

Here's a breakfast or snack suggestion to help keep cortisol levels in check:

Enjoy a serving of full-fat Greek yogurt topped with blueberries, pomegranate seeds, and sliced figs (you can use dried ones if fresh ones are not available). Sprinkle it with crushed almonds and walnuts, and add a dash of cacao nibs or grated 80% dark chocolate for extra flavour and health benefits. Finally, it may be beneficial for those experiencing periods of stress or prolonged heightened cortisol levels to reduce or avoid caffeine. If you want to continue enjoying your cup of coffee, here are some tips: 1) always consume caffeine with a meal rich in fibre, healthy fats, or protein, 2) hydrate before your morning caffeine intake, and 3) avoid caffeinated drinks after 2 pm. It's also wise to limit yourself to just one cup a day. Here's a tip for you: consider trying cacao as an alternative to your morning coffee. Cacao contains a small amount of caffeine, providing a gentle stimulant and energy boost. Additionally, it's rich in antioxidants and compounds believed to enhance mood by stimulating the release of endorphins, the 'feel-good' hormones. Give almond hot cacao a try by heating your choice of milk in a pan and whisking in 2 teaspoons of cacao powder along with 1 teaspoon of smooth almond butter.

Finally our experts unanimously agree that engaging in regular physical activity, whether it's a gym workout, yoga, walking, swimming, or dancing, has been proven to lower cortisol levels, reduce the risk of depression and anxiety, and improve sleep quality. They emphasise that physical activity also triggers the release of endorphins, known as 'feel-good hormones' which can alleviate stress and enhance mood. Additionally, many physical activities involve socialising with others, further aiding in stress reduction and improving sleep quality. It's clear that prioritising physical activity is an invaluable tool for reducing cortisol levels.

To wrap things up exploring natural remedies to reduce cortisol levels unveils a wealth of accessible and effective solutions for managing stress and promoting overall well-being. From incorporating stress-reducing foods rich in magnesium and antioxidants to embracing relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing exercises, the options are diverse and adaptable to individual preferences and lifestyles. Additionally, prioritising regular physical activity, ensuring quality sleep, and fostering supportive social connections further contribute to cortisol regulation and stress resilience. By integrating these natural remedies into our daily routines, we empower ourselves to navigate life's challenges with greater ease and vitality, fostering a harmonious balance between mind, body, and spirit.

As I conclude, know that you are not alone on this path to better health and wellness. Your journey is unique but together we form a community of strength and support.

Let’s thrive together,

Cristina x