7 Habits That Are Secretly Messing With Your Cortisol

There’s lots of talk about cortisol (which is commonly referred to as your body’s stress hormone) on social media, such as how to lower it, how to regulate it and signs that it’s too high.

But those posts can confuse folks about the role of cortisol, too. Cortisol is a necessary hormone that is involved in lots of aspects of your day-to-day functioning, including your immune system, your sleep-wake cycle, blood sugar regulation, and your body’s stress response, said Saru Bala, a naturopathic doctor based in Arizona.

“I want to make it clear that cortisol itself is not evil, and we do need it,” Bala told HuffPost. But “as with anything in our body, when it’s too high for too long or too low for too long, it becomes a problem.”

Chronic high cortisol levels can lead to health issues like high blood pressure and irregular heart rhythms, “and certainly when those get extensive over time, they can lead to increased risk of heart attack and stroke,” said Dr. Yufang Lin, the director of education, wellness and preventive medicine at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

Increased risk of anxiety, depression and insomnia also go hand in hand with high levels of cortisol, Lin noted. “When you put this all together, those are significant. Those are actually the common chronic diseases most Americans are facing.”

All in all, doing what you can to understand cortisol and to lower high levels of unnecessary cortisol is important. Experts say there are many mindless habits that are throwing off your cortisol levels, whether raising them unnecessarily or interrupting cortisol’s main tasks. Here’s what those habits are:

Consistently not getting enough sleep.

According to Lin, if you’re regularly not getting enough sleep, you’re harming your cortisol levels.

“I would say that’s number one — chronic sleep deprivation,” she said. “Then, your body’s really functioning under somewhat of a stressful state.”

What’s more, if you push yourself to stay up late every night, you’re confusing your body’s circadian rhythm, Bala said, which will only make it harder for your body to understand when you do actually need to go to sleep.

Waking up at different times every day.

It’s important that our cortisol is actually high in the mornings, according to Bala. “Because we have what’s called this cortisol awakening response and this is part of our natural circadian rhythm. What happens in response to morning sunlight ― around 6 to 8 a.m. ― there are cells in our eyes that are telling our brainstem and our brain that it’s morning and it’s time to secrete cortisol,” she explained.

“So, we want a big rise in our cortisol to help us get up in the morning to help us feel alert, to help us feel awake, to help us have energy, to help us get out of bed, and a lot of us aren’t getting that,” Bala said.

According to Bala, waking up at a different time every day is one way that you take away from that cortisol awakening response.

“Your brain has no idea that Tuesdays are your early morning meeting days, it’s not going to be like ‘let me hold off on that cortisol for Wednesday through Monday until your Tuesday morning early meeting’ … it is going to have that cortisol rise when it naturally wakes up,” she said.

Meaning, if your body knows you wake up at 7 a.m. daily, it’ll naturally know when to start the cortisol rise, but if you’re waking up at different times every day, your body won’t know when to start that wake-up cortisol response.

Watching stressful shows on TV or scrolling through bothersome updates on social media.

Bad news: If you’re someone who tends to watch triggering TV shows (looking at you, “Baby Reindeer”) or constantly doomscrolls troubling news, you’re unknowingly elevating your cortisol level.

“When you’re watching things that are constantly stimulating, it is going to increase your cortisol state,” Lin said.

“Stress can be internal or external. … When you’re watching and listening or hearing things that are triggering, your body doesn’t know any different, you’re feeling that experience at that time,” Lin continued. “It creates stress, it increases your cortisol level at that time.”

While feeling stressed isn’t great at any time of day, it can be particularly damaging before bed as it can disrupt your sleep schedule. Lin said it’s a good idea to cut off any triggering shows, movies or social media updates two to three hours before bed.

One thing that's disrupting your cortisol levels? Watching triggering shows and movies before bed.

Milko via Getty Images

One thing that’s disrupting your cortisol levels? Watching triggering shows and movies before bed.

Drinking too much alcohol.

“Excess alcohol also contributes to cortisol level,” Lin said. “So, we think alcohol relaxes us — and it does, it sedates us — but studies show alcohol actually increases your cortisol level.”

There is not one definition of excess alcohol, but Lin said the official guidelines say women should have no more than one drink each day and men should have no more than two.

“But I would even say for some people, if you’re someone who tends to be very sensitive to medicines, or to drug[s] or alcohol, your body’s metabolism might be a little bit sluggish, one or two servings may be too much for you,” Lin said.

And too much caffeine.

You may want to rethink that extra cup of coffee. According to Lin, excessive amounts of coffee cause higher levels of cortisol, too.

Additionally, needing coffee to get started each day could also be a sign that your cortisol awakening response isn’t what it should be, Bala said.

Not getting sunlight in the morning.

Bala noted that morning sunlight is another important way to keep your sleep-wake cycle, and, thus, cortisol levels, in check.

Bala said it’s important to get five to 10 minutes of morning light within an hour of waking up, if possible. “Just going outside getting sunlight, getting it as bright as possible in your house,” she said.

This could mean taking your dog for a walk, eating your breakfast outside or walking to work instead of hopping on the bus.

“Getting some sunlight in your eyes from outdoors is going to be helpful — even on a cloudy day you’re still getting the benefit,” Bala explained.

When your eyes sense that daylight, your body’s production of cortisol increases, helping you feel more awake and ready for the day.

“When our eyes are exposed to sunlight,” Bala said, “it sends signals to our brain to secrete cortisol and suppress melatonin,” a hormone involved in sleep.

Not understanding how to manage your stress.

“A lot of people, when they think about cortisol, they’re afraid of cortisol, they want to reduce cortisol, and I started the conversation saying cortisol is actually a normal response in our body,” said Lin.

The aim isn’t to get rid of cortisol entirely, but to be aware that it is a natural response to stress and to, eventually, have better responses to stress, she said.

“Just being human, we all have stress that [is] specific to our age and our seasons of life, so our goal is to limit the cortisol impact in our body by lowering the cortisol level as quickly as possible after it’s been raised,” Lin said.

Having a healthy lifestyle — eating nutritious food, drinking enough water, exercising — is step one, and learning how to cope with stress when it happens is step two, she said. Stress coping techniques can include deep breathing exercises, drinking botanical teas, forest bathing (spending 30 or so minutes in nature) or doing something you find fun, Lin explained.

This way, you “reduce your cortisol level as quickly as possible after it’s been raised … you reduce the burden on the body,” Lin said.

Bala added that while stress relievers like spa days and vacations are nice, it’s important to think more about the stress relievers that you lean on every day.

“How often are you going to the spa? It’s not every day, it’s not going to be helping that cortisol on a regular basis,” Bala said. “But every single night most of us are going to sleep, most of us are waking up, so what are you doing around those two times of the day that are going to make the biggest difference for your cortisol?”

In other words, it’s the little things like getting seven to nine hours of sleep, going to bed at the same time every night and having a good wind-down routine, she said.

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