We may not be running from saber-toothed tigers these days, but stress definitely remains an integral part of the human experience. Arguably, we’re more strung out than ever before, even without Ice Age-era predators to worry about. According to an American Psychological Association (APA) poll, 27 percent of American adults report that their daily stress impacts their ability to function.
Obviously, that’s a problem—and not just because feeling stressed stinks. Stress is a bodily reaction that affects our short- and long-term health and well-being in significant ways.
What Happens In Our Body When We’re Stressed?
When we perceive a threat (whether it’s a giant vicious cat or an email from our boss), the endocrine system begins to release the stress hormone cortisol by way of our adrenal glands. Maintaining adequate levels of cortisol is crucial, as the hormone plays a role in helping regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, as well as supporting the body’s anti-inflammatory response and immune function, explains functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. It also plays a role in our natural circadian rhythm, peaking in the morning upon waking and gradually decreasing throughout the day, adds naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist David Friedman, N.D., D.C. However, too much cortisol—which often occurs as a result of chronic stress—can spell trouble. In fact, it can contribute to a myriad of health issues, including anxiety, depression, digestive disorders, respiratory disorders, heart disease, and even cancer, per the National Centers for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Needless to say, keeping cortisol in check is a worthy cause for most of us these days. But it’s also easier said than done. Thankfully, there are a number of science-backed methods for getting this stress hormone under control. Here are six to try out for yourself.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P., is a functional nutritional therapy practitioner. David Friedman, N.D., D.C., is a naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist.
1. Make quality sleep a serious priority
How many times have you heard that sleep is foundational for health? Well, add another reminder to the already long list. Failing to log the recommended seven to nine hours per night could be contributing to your stress. Research has found that individuals with chronic sleep issues, including sleep apnea, shift work, and insomnia, have higher cortisol levels. The theory is that, in order to function optimally on insufficient rest, your body produces extra cortisol to essentially power you through, explains Friedman.
Read More: 6 Ways Stress Affects Your Long-Term Health
Establishing a regular sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at consistent times is an important first step to getting enough sleep to support normal cortisol activity. “Create a sleep-friendly environment by keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, avoid stimulating activities and electronics before bed, and practice relaxation techniques to promote better sleep,” Friedman adds.
2. Break A Sweat
There’s a reason so many people lace up their sneakers when the going gets rough. Consistent exercise (the American Heart Association recommends adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week) is effective at lowering cortisol levels, as it helps reduce stress by promoting the release of natural mood-boosting chemicals in the brain called endorphins, explains Friedman.
He recommends aiming for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week to meet the recommended daily amount. “Finding activities you enjoy—whether it’s walking, dancing, or playing a sport—makes it easier to incorporate exercise into your routine,” he adds. Obviously, hitting the weight room counts, too—and you’ll get bonus points for taking your sweat outside, since outdoor exercise has been proven particularly powerful for zapping cortisol.
3. Practice mindfulness
In our fast-paced way of living, stopping to sit in silence can feel strange, if not downright uncomfortable. However, mindfulness practices like meditation and deep breathing exercises, which help connect us to our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings, have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. “These techniques activate the body’s relaxation response, decreasing stress and cortisol release,” says Friedman.
If you’re totally new to these practices or think you need to sit cross-legged for an hour to reap the benefits, hear us out: Even taking 30 seconds to a minute of a pause between tasks for some intentional deep breathing can make a difference, suggests Rodgers. And if you don’t know how to start with meditation, check out an app like Headspace or read this article. Meditation can be particularly handy before, during, or after stressful situations you may find yourself in, whether it’s a family matter or a work meeting, she adds.
4. Find your people
Did you know that cultivating and maintaining social connections and healthy relationships can actually help lower cortisol levels? After analyzing the stress levels of nurses, doctors, and radiological technologists, one study published in the journal PLoS ONE found that those who had long-term friendships with their colleagues experienced less stress.
Read More: The Best Foods And Supplements For Longevity
“Nurture your relationships, join social groups or clubs, and prioritize quality time with friends and family,” says Friedman. “Building a strong support network can provide a sense of belonging and emotional well-being.” It’s no wonder that two of the hallmarks of the Blue Zones—parts of the world with some of the healthiest, longest-living populations—are strong family ties and a tight-knit community.
5. Try acupuncture
This ancient Chinese practice, which dates back at least 3,000 years, is still popular for holistic healing in a wide variety of areas, including stress relief. “Acupuncture involves the use of needles on the meridian points on the body to help promote deeper healing throughout the body,” explains Rodgers. “It has been shown to regulate and modify the autonomic nervous system to lower the release of cortisol during times of chronic stress.”
If you’re interested in a new approach to getting a handle on your stress, consider seeking out an acupuncture practitioner (look for a licensed acupuncturist, specifically) near you. You can expect to see an acupuncturist once or twice per week for stress management, Rodgers notes.
6. Take an adaptogen
Adaptogens—a variety of botanicals such as herbs and mushrooms that help our body respond, adapt to, and manage stress—are having a (very long) moment. One study published in the journal Pharmaceuticals discovered that these adaptogens actually help our bodies maintain homeostasis, or a state of balance, which lessens the impact of stress on our hormones and immune system.
There are a number of different adaptogens you might consider based on your individual needs and circumstances. That said, one that’s especially buzzy right now for its ability to help people cope with stress is ashwagandha. The science backs it up: One small randomized controlled trial showed that adults who took 240 milligrams of ashwagandha for 60 days experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels. Friedman recommends starting with 300 milligrams per day, which can be split into two doses of 150 milligrams.
Another adaptogen worth checking out is rhodiola, an herb that grows in cold areas like the Arctic and the mountains of Europe, North America, and Central Asia, suggests Friedman. “Rhodiola can help balance cortisol secretion during difficult situations as well as increase energy, stamina, strength, and mental capacity,” he notes. That’s good news for anyone who needs a little extra boost while navigating significant stress. Friedman recommends 200 milligrams twice a day.