The Cortisol Connection

For nursing caregivers, it pays to work on lowering the ‘stress hormone’

Working on the frontlines through the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on nurses. The emotional ups and downs that result from dealing with the pandemic professionally and personally can create the type of chronic stress that raises cortisol levels in the body for prolonged periods.

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A steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands, cortisol supports overall health by helping us wake up and giving us energy throughout the day. However, cortisol levels that stay elevated because of stress over weeks or months can lead to inflammation and a host of mental and physical health problems, from anxiety to weight gain to heart disease.

You may not be able to stop the pandemic or all the stress that comes with it, but you can take actions to try to lower cortisol levels in your body naturally.

Eat a balanced, plant-heavy diet

Cortisol interacts with neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that send signals in the brain and play an important role in mood.

“To make those neurotransmitters, you need all the raw ingredients: vitamins, minerals and other nutrients,” says Yufang Lin, MD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine.  

The best way to get them is with a balanced, plant-heavy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, she adds. “A healthy diet is the underpinning of stress management.”

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A balanced meal plan can ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs. “And talk to your doctor about taking a basic multivitamin. It’s a good insurance policy to make sure you’re not deficient in any vitamins,” Dr. Lin says.

Try herbal remedies

Some herbs and supplements may help reduce levels of cortisol as well. They include ashwagandha, rhodiola, lemon balm and chamomile.

“Teas like lemon balm and chamomile are quite safe. But if you’re thinking about trying herbs in supplement form, talk to a trained provider first,” Dr. Lin says.

Get active

Exercising has well-known benefits, but studies also show being physically active can bring down cortisol levels in the elderly and in people with major depressive disorder.

Spending time outdoors also is a great way to lower cortisol and calm your brain. The practice of “forest bathing” – spending time in the woods and breathing the air – can reduce cortisol levels and lower stress. It might be tough to spend sustained time outside during the harshest days of winter, but even a 10-minute walk in nature can lower stress.

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Make sleep a priority

Sleep deprivation may increase cortisol levels, which can impair memory, contribute to weight gain and even accelerate the aging process.

“When you’re not sleeping well, you tend to be more anxious, irritable and stressed,” Dr. Lin says.

Try mind-body practices

Yoga, tai chi, qi gong, mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises can be great ways to reduce stress. Research has found, for example, that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy can lower cortisol and feelings of stress. And yoga can bring down high cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure.

When to seek help

Symptoms of high cortisol levels include recent weight gain, fatty deposits between shoulder blades, the appearance of new stretch marks, and muscle weakness in arms and thighs. Over-the-counter cortisol level test kits allow you to provide a sample in your home and mail it into a lab for review. If you’re concerned that your cortisol levels are too high, talk to your provider, who might order lab tests. If chronic stress is an issue, you may consider seeking psychological help from a professional.