7 Steps to Keep Cortisol in Check

Stress hormones can impact everything from heart function to memory. Try these tips to keep them under control.

by NEA Member Benefits

With growing class sizes and an increasing emphasis on test scores, educators are being asked to do more than ever before. Couple those demands with the pressure of sticking to a rigid schedule, kids who have an uncanny ability to push hot buttons, and a lack of natural light, fresh air and movement—an uptick in the stress hormone cortisol is the body’s knee-jerk reaction.

“Cortisol, along with adrenaline, is one of the main stress hormones released by the body that prime you to either fight or flee,” says Kate Hanley, stress reduction coach and author of A Year of Daily Calm. And while a short burst of stress hormones can keep you safe from an acute threat (say, a charging dog), being in a constant state of stress can impact everything from heart function and memory to your ability to plan and make decisions.

Many people pride themselves in how well they deal with stress—to the point that if life calms down too much, they unwittingly draw themselves into another stressful situation. “The first step to breaking this cycle is simply to be aware of it. Ask yourself, what do you really get out of being stressed? Then allow yourself to connect the dots—does it impact your sleep? Do you tend to get sick? Are you prone to anxiety?,” says Hanley. “Sometimes the best way to motivate yourself to do things differently is to let yourself see and feel the negative impact of your habits.”

The good news: Keeping cortisol levels in check is often as simple as coaxing your body to release feel-good endorphins. Here, 7 activities that can help squash cortisol levels before they rise out of control:

1. Rent a comedy, play charades or watch a funny YouTube video. As early as the 1980s, scientists linked mirthful laughter to lower cortisol levels. More recently, researchers have discovered the biochemical effects of laughter extend beyond lower stress hormones to better memory, improved decision-making, even enhanced immunity.

2. Get more zzzs. Depriving yourself of sleep so you can tick more items off your to-do list will inevitably backfire. Over time, chronically elevated stress hormones deplete your system until it ultimately shuts down and you’re sentenced to bed for days at a time. “Cortisol deactivates your body’s natural repair mechanisms,” explains Florence Comite, M.D., endocrinologist and founder of ComiteMD in New York City. And that leaves you vulnerable to every classroom cootie you encounter. The best defense: Get adequate rest (aim for 7-9 hours each night), stick to a regular sleep/wake schedule, and ditch artificial light (including TVs, computers and smartphones), an hour or two before bed.

3. Get outside. The Japanese have a term for the restorative power of spending time in nature called shinrin roku or “tree bathing,” explains Hanley. A large body of Japanese and Korean research suggest that spending time in wooded areas—hiking, bird-watching, or simply parking yourself under a tree—not only reduces stress levels, it also promotes overall health and wellbeing.

4. Exercise. Running, cycling, swimming and skiing are great ways to burn up cortisol while also promoting fitness. The caveat: High impact activities can also stress your body, so limit cardio workouts to a 40-minute stretch. And choose something you enjoy, not just something that makes you sweat. You’ll get a burst of endorphins (and even lower cortisol) when you’re joyous, says Comite. Recovery-based exercises, including tai chi, yoga and qigong, also offer a hit of “Zen” to the system. The meditative quality inherent in these forms of exercise is a boon for folks who are highly stressed.

5. Connect. Spending time with friends and loved ones triggers the opposite biochemical response as fight or flight. “Feeling isolated is stressful,” says Hanley. Studies show that lonely people secrete more early morning cortisol than their less lonely counterparts, perhaps because they anticipate greater difficulties meeting the demands of the day. The silver lining: Cuddles, hugs and kisses—even if only from your dog, Fido—release mood-boosting chemicals including oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, all of which lower cortisol levels and boost the body’s natural repair mechanisms.

6. Eat well. Nothing is more stressful to the brain than the notion that it’s out of fuel. Fill up with snacks and meals comprised of healthy fat, fiber and protein—a piece of whole-grain toast with avocado, apple slices with peanut butter, or a handful of trailmix—rather than starchy carbohydrates and refined sugars. As a general rule, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein will better balance cortisol than processed, packaged and refined foods.

7. Get a rubdown. Studies consistently show massage helps relieve anxiety, depression and stress. “Touch triggers the release of feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin, that help mitigate the stress response,” explains Hanley. In fact, studies show massage lowers cortisol levels by up to 30 percent. Many massage centers offer a monthly membership that reduces the per-massage price and also provides some accountability for making sure you get them. But even rubbing your own feet with a good-smelling cream as you lie in bed before sleep counts, claims Hanley.