The human stress response, often referred to as fight-or-flight, was designed for short-term stressors. When faced with a stressor, the body produces a surge of adrenaline followed by an elevated level of the hormone cortisol. When the stressor is removed, cortisol levels return to normal levels. But what if the stressor is never removed?
If you’re faced with lingering stressors such as financial problems, you may be experiencing chronically elevated levels of cortisol that are leaving a lasting impact on your health. You may not be able to eliminate the stress from your life, but you can take steps to reduce your cortisol levels. Here’s how:
Sleep: Unfortunately, when we’re stressed, our sleep is the first thing to suffer. Like stress, lack of sleep leads to elevated cortisol levels, so it’s a double whammy of added cortisol. Go to sleep 30 minutes earlier each night to reduce those cortisol levels and invoke a feeling of calm.
Exercise in moderation: You’ve likely heard that exercise is a healthy way to manage stress and it is—in moderation. Intense exercise actually stresses the body and can exacerbate the effects of stress. Instead, focus on low-intensity exercise that can promote health and relaxation. When you’re in a state of chronic stress, a 30-minute walk will do more for your cortisol levels than an hour-long, intense Spin class.
Sing a little ditty: “Sing, sing a song. Sing out loud, sing out strong…” Singing has actually been shown to relieve stress even more than simply listening to music does. Researchers theorize that it serves as a distraction by breaking the pattern of worry in the brain. So, crank the music and belt out a tune.
Cut the (refined) carbs: Not all carbs are “bad.” In fact, some carbs actually promote emotional health by stimulating serotonin levels. However, refined carbs—highly processed foods comprised of sugar and white flour—break down quickly, spike the blood sugar and in turn, spike cortisol levels. If you want to cut the cortisol, cut the refined carbs by eating foods that are low on the glycemic index.
Increase magnesium levels: Magnesium helps regulate serotonin and promotes a sense of calm. Low magnesium levels are associated with increased anxiety and insomnia. Eat magnesium-rich foods such as spinach, nuts, or halibut. Alternatively, you can supplement with 250 mg of magnesium daily or soak in a bath of Epsom salts several times a week.
Go for a caffeine boost: It may seem counterintuitive, but a little caffeine can actually counteract anxiety. A lot of caffeine, on the other hand, will exacerbate anxiety. Go for a small amount of caffeine—200-300 mg—if you want the boost without the jitters.