Mental health: Stress-busting techniques that really work

What exactly is the cortisol conundrum? And how can you find peace during a tough time? Read on to find out

By Geraldine Naidoo

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Published: Wed 12 Jun 2024, 1:57 PM

Last updated: Wed 12 Jun 2024, 1:58 PM

In the hustle of modern life, stress lurks around every corner, continuously casting its looming shadow over our well-being. With cortisol levels on the rise, the body's natural stress response system kicks into high gear, leaving us grappling with a myriad of ensuing physical and mental health concerns. As the toll of stress mounts, many find themselves seeking desperate solace in the offices of medical professionals.

But take a deep breath, all Is not lost.

Recent research sheds light on effective, non-invasive strategies that you can implement at home to tame this ubiquitous stress hormone and restore a healthy and harmonious balance for yourself.

The cortisol conundrum

Cortisol, often known as the "stress hormone," plays a crucial role in our body's response to stress. When faced with a threat, whether real or imagined, the body releases cortisol in order to prime the body for an appropriate stress response/reaction. This surge in cortisol triggers a cascade of physiological responses, including increased heart rate, heightened alertness, and mobilisation of energy stores.

However, in our modern-day world, where stressors abound and relaxation is often elusive, cortisol levels can remain chronically elevated, wreaking havoc on our health in the long term.

Signs of excess cortisol:

Weight Gain

Elevated cortisol levels have been linked to increased fat deposition, leading to weight gain.

•Visceral fat, which surrounds organs in the abdominal cavity, poses significant health risks as it is strongly associated with increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.

•Fat face: Facial fat accumulation, commonly known as a "fat face," due to the hormone's role in promoting fat storage. Recognising a cortisol-induced fat face involves observing changes in facial appearance characterised by an uncommon increased fullness, puffiness, and rounding, particularly in the cheeks and jawline.


High cortisol levels can impair the body's ability to efficiently use energy, leading to feelings of fatigue and lethargy. Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose into the bloodstream to provide a quick source of energy during times of stress. However, when cortisol levels remain elevated for extended periods, it can contribute to insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction, ultimately leading to decreased energy production and increased fatigue.

Sleep disturbances

Chronic stress can disrupt the body's natural sleep-wake cycle, resulting in insomnia, fragmented sleep, or difficulty falling asleep. In the morning, cortisol levels should rise naturally to promote wakefulness, and in the evening, it should decrease so that you can wind down and go to sleep. With chronic unresolved stress, cortisol levels remain high, making it near impossible to relax and go to sleep.

Anxiety and depression

Chronic stress and high cortisol levels can affect neurotransmitter levels in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, which play key roles in regulating mood and energy levels. Imbalances in these neurotransmitters can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety.

Digestive issues

Stress-induced cortisol spikes can impair digestive function, leading to symptoms such as bloating, indigestion, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Impaired intellectual function

High cortisol levels have been associated with logic impairment, including difficulties with memory, concentration, and decision-making.

How to lower cortisol levels

All this may feel overwhelming, but you can use certain techniques to lower cortisol levels naturally. Here’s how:

Address underlying stress factors

Hard fact: it is imperative to address the underlying factors contributing to your elevated cortisol levels. If you don’t fix the cause of your chronic stress, no amount of intervention will do. Professional help can go a long way to help reduce chronic stress.

Mindfulness is powerful

Learn to live in the moment. Present moment awareness holds transformative power, unlocking profound insights and fostering inner growth. Start by using your five senses to engage in your day, becoming more aware of sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, and regularly questioning your own motives and intentions.

Exercise regularly

The science is clear: regular physical activity, including walking, aerobic exercise, strength training, or yoga, releases feel good endorphins and lowers cortisol levels. It’s in your power, so take control.

Get adequate sleep

Prioritise restorative sleep by establishing a consistent sleep schedule, creating a conducive sleep environment, and practicing relaxation techniques before bedtime.

Eat well

Research suggests that certain foods may help naturally decrease cortisol levels in the body. For e.g. Studies have shown that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish like salmon, walnuts, and flax seeds, may have a calming effect on the body and help reduce cortisol levels. Similarly, consuming foods high in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, can help combat oxidative stress and lower cortisol levels. Additionally, incorporating complex carbohydrates like whole grains and legumes into your diet may help stabilise blood sugar levels and prevent cortisol spikes. Overall, a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods may play a role in regulating cortisol levels and promoting overall health and well-being.

Social support

Humans are wired for connection with other humans. Cultivate meaningful social connections with friends, family, and community members to provide emotional support and buffer against the effects of stress.

In the pursuit of optimal health and well-being, recognising the signs of excess cortisol, and implementing simple helpful strategies regularly can help us reclaim control over our health and well-being.

For mental health support

(Geraldine Naidoo (PhD) is a Dubai-based stress and anxiety specialist.)


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