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How To Achieve A Healthy Balance Of Cortisol—And Make It Work For You

Cortisol, widely known as the ‘stress hormone’, has a bad reputation. But actually, there is nothing inherently nefarious about cortisol. On the contrary, “cortisol is one of the most important hormones for staying alive,” according to dual board-certified endocrinologist and internal medicine specialist Elena A Christofides, M.D., F.A.C.E. However, balance is important. Too much cortisol can wreak havoc on the body, causing a slew of unwanted symptoms like fatigue, sleep issues, weight gain, and more. 

But what is the cortisol sweet spot, exactly? And how do you help your body achieve it? Ahead, a full breakdown of what cortisol does, why the hormone is important, and what can cause overproduction. Plus, six things you can do to help your body produce just enough. 

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Elena A. Christofides, M.D., F.A.C.E., is a dual board-certified endocrinologist and internal medicine specialist. Dimitar Marinov M.D., Ph.D., is a medical doctor and assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Medical University in Varna, Bulgaria.

What Is Cortisol? 

Cortisol plays an essential role in regulating the stress response in the body. It works with parts of the brain known as the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which influence overall mood, fear, motivation, and yep, stress. 

However, this steroidal hormone does far more than its colloquial name suggests. Produced by a portion of the endocrine (a.k.a. hormone) system called the adrenal glands, cortisol has a profound impact on many different systems throughout the body, says Dimitar Marinov M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Medical University in Varna, Bulgaria.

Read More: Why You Should Prioritize Adrenal Health During Times Of Stress

For starters, “cortisol plays a vital role in controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation, and assisting with memory formulation,” he says. It also supports energy levels by controlling your circadian rhythm, he adds. (The circadian rhythm, also known as the sleep/wake cycle, is the internal clock in the brain that regulates our alertness and tiredness throughout the day, in response to changes in light in our environment.)

The “Right” Amount of Cortisol 

Given the widespread belief that stress is bad, the hormone’s nickname has led to the perpetuation of the myth that cortisol in any amount is bad. But inadequate cortisol can lead to serious symptoms, including fatigue, muscle weakness, and severe abdominal pain, says Marinov. Given that cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, low cortisol levels can interfere with the body’s ability to fight inflammation and infection, leading to a greater incidence of sickness. 

Moreover, too little cortisol can be even life-threatening, according to Christofides. “If, for whatever reason, you suddenly lost your ability to produce cortisol, you would die within minutes,” she says. Conditions like Addison’s disease, which is marked by the adrenal glands producing insufficient cortisol, can be lethal if left untreated. 

That said, cortisol adheres to the Goldilocks principle and too much can also be an issue. Chronically high levels of cortisol—which typically result from excess stress—can lead to various health issues. “Excessive cortisol can cause anxiety, depression, heart problems, weight gain, trouble sleeping, and memory impairment,” says Marinov. “It can also decrease bone density, interfere with muscle tissue repair and growth, and affect digestive health.” 

What’s potentially confusing is that there isn’t a universal amount of cortisol that is considered optimal. That’s partially because cortisol levels are supposed to rise and fall throughout the day, following something known as the natural cortisol curve, which means that the amount considered healthy varies depending on the time of day.

The Natural Cortisol Curve, Explained 

The cortisol levels of individuals who are otherwise healthy naturally ebb and flow throughout the day in alignment with the natural cortisol curve. 

“Your cortisol levels naturally rise to their highest point just before you wake up so that you can be at your most alert and functional in the morning,” explains Christofides. Levels then gradually decline as the day goes on, bottoming out 15 to 17 hours after you wake up. At that point, you will feel the physiological sensations of needing or wanting to go to bed, such as decreased mental capacity, low energy levels, and drowsiness—if you haven’t already fallen asleep, that is. 

Unfortunately, this natural cortisol curve (and therefore overall cortisol levels), can get thrown out of whack. 

Stress: The Ultimate Cortisol Disruptor

The most common cause of higher-than-healthy cortisol levels is chronic stress. Whether caused by emotional stress from a break-up or family drama, work stress from impending projects or barrages of requests, or mental stress from calendar management, when you’re stressed your body pumps out more cortisol, says Christofides. 

Read More: 6 Physical Signs You’re Way Too Stressed

It’s all with good intentions: The body churns out cortisol in response to stressful situations to help you deal with that stress, Christofides explains. The hormone can help you feel energized and not fatigued, and suppresses the digestive system, all of which can be helpful during moments of acute stress.

While this is a normal response to acute high stress (it actually signals that the body is working effectively!), it can become an issue if you are experiencing repeated bouts of high stress, she says. Chronic stress leads the body to release cortisol at all hours of the day, which ultimately transforms the natural cortisol curve into a cortisol rollercoaster. At best, this can lead to energy and sleep issues—but the downsides don’t stop there. “If you are constantly pumping out more and more cortisol, your body starts to break down faster than it would with normal aging,” according to Christofides. “Your muscles break down, you lose strength, your hormones are disrupted, you lose reproductive function, your brain function suffers, you lose productivity, and more.” 

Since the entire endocrine system is interconnected, when the body starts to produce excess cortisol, an individual’s testosterone and estrogen levels can be affected, too, she explains. This, in turn, can lead to a range of additional symptoms, such as low libido, hair loss, increased body fat, and difficulty concentrating. 

6 Ways To Support Balanced Cortisol Production

Both too little and too much cortisol at the wrong times may interfere with your overall well-being, but the good news is that there are many edits you can make to your lifestyle to keep your levels healthy and stick to that natural cortisol curve. Here are six big ones.

1. Move first thing in the morning

Rather than spending the first part of your day snoozing your alarm, consider getting your sweat on. Whether it be in the form of 10 burpees, a ride on your stationary bike, or a walk with the dogs, “doing physical activity of any sort is the best way to promote a healthy start to your cortisol rhythm,” says Christofides. 

Read More: 7 Thing To Do At Night For A Solid Workout The Next Morning

Assuming it is of moderate or high intensity, exercise naturally leads to a slight elevation in cortisol. As a result, moving in the morning helps reinforce the natural cortisol curve because it bumps up cortisol production at a time in the day when cortisol levels are naturally supposed to be high(er), explains Marinov. 

Given that cortisol levels align with the circadian rhythm, which responds to changes in the light of the environment, exercising outside when you first wake up is really ideal. “Even just a few squats or burpees on the outdoor patio do the trick,” Marinov says.

2. Reevaluate evening exercise 

For optimal cortisol rhythm, Christofides says any strenuous high-intensity exercise should take place six (or more) hours before bed. The higher the intensity of the exercise routine, the greater the resulting cortisol dump in the body, she explains. High cortisol levels, which have been shown to interfere with sleep, take a while to come down, so doing some serious exercise too close to bed can interfere with your ability to hit the hay. 

In one 2024 study published in Frontiers in Physiology, researchers compared the sleep quality of those who did not exercise before bed to those who completed moderate-intensity exercises (both endurance and resistance) 30 minutes ahead of bedtime. They found that those who exercised had worse sleep quality and quantity than the individuals who didn’t exercise immediately before bed. 

The researchers hypothesize that evening exercise interferes with sleep because it causes physiological and cortical excitement. In other words, it gets your brain and body buzzing. As such, if your schedule demands that you exercise in the evening, Marinov suggests incorporating a relaxing post-workout, pre-bed activity like meditating, bathing, or reading to help your body settle down.  

3. Fine Tune your sleep hygiene 

Poor sleep and cortisol have a complicated connection. Insufficient and irregular sleep can lead to greater cortisol production in the body, which in turn creates physiologic arousal, which exacerbates sleep issues, explains Marinov. 

Treating any underlying sleep disorders, as well as dialing in overall sleep hygiene, can help stop this vicious cycle in its tracks so that you can get a sound night’s sleep and help your cortisol levels re-regulate, according to research published in the journal Sleep Science.

Honing your sleep hygiene means outfitting your sleeping space with blackout curtains, keeping your room cool, and eliminating any light sources from the room, says Christofides. “It also means getting rid of distractions and sleep disturbances from your bedroom, like your phone or your pet,” she adds. (Sorry, animal lovers, research has found that letting your pet in your bed majorly interferes with sleep.)

4. Play With Your Carb Intake

Cortisol levels rise more significantly after an individual consumes carbohydrates than after they consume protein or fat, according to Christofides. The reason: The body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (sugar), which in turn increases blood glucose levels. “These sharp spikes and drops in blood glucose levels result in the body making more cortisol,” Marinov says. As such, it can be helpful for individuals with dysregulated cortisol levels to be mindful of their carbohydrate intake.  

One simple strategy is to aim to eat a higher percentage of protein and fats compared to carbohydrates each day, says Christofides. You can track this information through a food tracker like MyFitnessPal. Another option is to try carb-cycling. Carb-cycling, an eating strategy that involves alternating between high and low carbohydrate intake days based on physical activity levels, can be an effective strategy to help regulate cortisol levels, according to Marinov. 

With carb-cycling, you eat low-carb on days that you have less physical activity, Marinov explains. On these days, the body can use fat (rather than the glucose from carbohydrates) as energy, which helps to maintain steady blood glucose levels and reduce stress on the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Then, on days when you have more physical activity, you boost your carbohydrate intake. Your body will use up the extra glucose as energy for your workout, which keeps blood sugar levels more steady, thereby preventing the sharp spikes and dips that can trigger cortisol release, he says. 

Ultimately, the best eating plan for you depends on a range of factors (think health conditions, current fitness level, age, and more) beyond your current cortisol situation. To figure out what eating plan works best for your cortisol levels as well as overall well-being, consider working with a holistic nutritionist or hormone specialist. 

5. Prioritize magnesium and omega-3s 

While a balanced diet is the best way to support your overall health (including healthy cortisol production!), you may want to hone in on certain mood-supporting nutrients, such as magnesium and omega-3s, if you’re concerned about your cortisol output. 

Magnesium status is highly correlated with stress levels, according to Marinov. In fact, research shows that proper magnesium levels are essential for the well-being of the nervous system and balanced cortisol production. One 2021 study published in the journal Clinical Endocrinology, for example, compared the cortisol levels of individuals who took magnesium supplements for 24 weeks to those of people who supplemented with a placebo. The people who supplemented had significantly lower levels.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium is 320 milligrams per day for adult women and 420 milligrams per day for adult men. Most individuals can meet this with foods rich in magnesium such as leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, says Marinov. However, those who do not eat these foods should talk to their provider about supplementation. (Magnesium glycinate is a popular option for supporting sleep and stress management; use these tips to get started with it.)

Meanwhile, “omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce cortisol levels,” says Marinov. Indeed, one study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry compared the cortisol levels of three different groups: Those who supplemented with 2.5 grams of omega-3s per day for four months, those who supplemented with 1.25 grams daily, and those who took a placebo. The group who supplemented with 2.5 grams had 33 percent lower stress levels on average compared to the placebo group—and 19 percent lower stress levels compared to the group who supplemented with 1.25 grams per day. The researchers hypothesized that this is because the nutrients improved repair mechanisms and provided antioxidant support, which both work to reduce overall stress and therefore cortisol levels.

“You can increase your omega-3 intake by eating cold water fatty fishes, like salmon, or by taking daily fish oil supplements,” says Marinov. (Here are a few ways to up your omega-3 intake if you don’t like fish, plus five signs that you need more of these healthy fats.) 

6. Dabble with adaptogens

Given that adaptogens are herbs that support the adrenal glands (which produce cortisol), it should come as no surprise that supplementing with certain adaptogens can support overall cortisol balance. 

“Supplementing with ashwagandha and holy basil, in particular, may help the body adapt to stress and thus moderate the cortisol response,” says Marinov. One 2019 study published in Pharmaceuticals found that ashwagandha has a protective effect on the part of the body that controls cortisol production, and thus supplementation can help you cope with life stressors. Meanwhile, holy basil has been shown to improve an individual’s overall sense of calm. Actually, one review published in Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine went as far as to call the herb “liquid yoga.” 

Generally, 200 milligrams is the recommended daily dose of each of the herbs, according to Marinov. However, “It’s essential for everyone to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new adaptogenic supplement to avoid interactions with other medications or conditions,” he notes.

The Bottom Line

Despite its less-than-stellar image, cortisol isn’t evil. At the right times in the right amounts, the hormone can help you feel alert and focused, power through exercise, and maneuver stressful situations. However, excess stress can throw off cortisol’s natural daily rhythm, affecting sleep and mood in the short-term and a whole host of body processes over time. These tips can help you maintain cortisol’s precious balance for better fitness and overall health.

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