How to reduce cortisol levels in your body - and why you might need to

tired business woman with headache burnout in work working in cafe
How to reduce cortisol - and why you might need toOleg Breslavtsev - Getty Images

Cortisol has become the latest buzziest hormone in the wellness world, being held responsible for everything from weight gain to bad sleep. So the chances are you're wondering how to reduce your cortisol for better health.

But before we worry about our levels, we need to know what cortisol actually is. 'Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by your adrenals which perch neatly just above your kidneys,' explains Hannah Alderson, a registered nutritionist and hormone specialist.

'It’s one of a group of hormones called glucocorticoids. Cortisol is also a hormone that can affect the entire body - think of it like a the fog horn hormone. It’s a bit of a double edge sword as it’s is essential for optimal health - it wakes you up, aids your stress response, can increase blood sugar when needed, regulate your metabolism, reduce inflammation and save your life in a dangerous situation (like being chased by a bear) - but on the other end of the spectrum you can have too much of a good thing.'

What causes excess cortisol?

Excess cortisol is a serious medical condition. 'Too much cortisol is called Cushings syndrome,' says Dr Jayashekara Acharya, a consultant in diabetes and endocrinology at Cheltenham and Hereford Nuffield Health Hospitals. 'Common causes are taking too much steroid tablets or the body producing too much cortisol as a result of a tumour or growth in the pituitary gland of the brain, producing excess ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) or tumour in one of the adrenal glands, producing excess cortisol.'

When people online discuss excess cortisol it is likely they aren't talking about Cushings syndrome but generally raised stress levels. 'The presence of any of the signs and symptoms associated with elevated Cortisol blood level should raise the suspicion of Cushings syndrome, so it is vital to be talk to a doctor,' says Dr Acharya.

Alderson adds: 'Any physical or psychological stimuli that disrupt homeostasis results in a stress response and, when your body feels under threat, cortisol is released. Over the last few hundred years, stress has evolved and the saber-toothed tiger of the past has been replaced with deadlines at work, the cost of living, a pandemic, financial worries, work-life balance, social media… the list goes on. Our bodies haven’t evolved to define these new stresses (which tend to be more physiological than physical) and it will class all of the above as a threat.'

Sure enough, research from Psychoneuroendocrinology showed that cortisol levels of healthcare workers during the pandemic, measured from hair, increased by up to 27%, while other research from the University of Nottingham shows the general public's cortisol levels increased by 23%.

Signs you have high cortisol

According to Dr Acharya, the signs of Cushings syndrome include weight gain with thin arms and legs, a fatty hump between the shoulders, easy bruising, wide purple stretch marks mainly on the abdomen, breasts, hips, and under the arms and uncontrolled blood pressure and diabetes control.

Some of these symptoms may also exist in people who don't have Cushings but have less-than-optimal cortisol or stress levels. Symptoms include feeling anxious, depressed or stressed, a low sex drive, irregular periods, abdominal weight gain or metabolic changes, including insulin resistance.

'Recent studies have shown an association between uncontrollable stress and abdominal fat distribution. There has been shown to be a bit of a stress and belly fat cycle scenario observed in women. Where there is more stress there can be more abdominal fat, and where there is more abdominal fat, you may produce more cortisol.

'One study investigating whether women with central fat distribution (as indicated by a high waist-to- hip ratio across a range of body mass indexes) displayed consistently heightened cortisol reactivity to repeated laboratory stressors and concluded that central fat distribution is related to greater psychological vulnerability to stress and cortisol reactivity. It also concluded that there is likely a link between psychological stress and risk for disease,' explains Alderson.

How to reduce your cortisol

'The reduction of cortisol for those with Cushings will require specialised medical and surgical management, as lifestyle interventions may not be effective,' says Dr Acharya. However, for those who feel they may be over-stressed, there are ways to get cortisol back down to more relaxed levels.


If cortisol is produced as a stress response, it makes sense that lowering your stress is a good way to lower cortisol. 'Mindfulness, meditation and relaxation interventions have been shown to be the most effective at changing cortisol levels,' says Dr Acharya, noting a 2024 meta-analysis that showed this effect.

If meditation really isn't for you, then anything that makes you feel calm will be a good antidote to the high-stress way we live our life. That might be walking, spending quality time with friends, getting away from devices or painting.


Exercise has an interesting impact on cortisol levels. Low-intensity movement, like walking or gentle jogging, has been shown to lower cortisol levels both immediately after training and over time, too. Higher-intensity training has the opposite effect: it immediately increases cortisol levels but, when performed regularly and over time, cortisol levels decrease - as long as the body doesn't see it as an additional and prolonged stress on the body.

You can do that by not overdoing intense exercise when you are already stressed, or allowing time to down-regulate after hard movement with slow breath work or calming practices.


'Ashwagandha root extract has been shown to be useful for reducing cortisol levels and improving stress,' says Dr Acharya. In a 2023 study, ashwaganda was shown to improve stress and anxiety by reducing cortisol and increase serotonin, while, in a 2022 systematic review, it was shown to significantly reduce anxiety and stress levels.


'Being kind and hanging out with the people you love can harness the positive power of oxytocin, your love and bonding hormone. Think of this dynamite of a hormone like cortisol’s kryptonite,' says Alderson. 'Many little moments of positive action can build up like a tapestry and form a feeling. A feeling that reminds the body that it is not under threat. That you are safe. This can help dampen your stress response.'

More from Women's Health...

You Might Also Like