5 Science-Backed Ways to Relax and Cope with Stress

By Molly Knudsen, MS, RDN, August 15, 2022

Best ways to relax

Relaxation of the mind and body is essential for combatting daily stressors. But sometimes relaxing is easier said than done. There are targeted, science-based solutions that can increase your resilience to physical and mental stress and calm you from the inside out. 

Let’s dive into the science behind relaxation and stress. 

The risks of not relaxing and managing stress levels

A range of variables can trigger the body’s stress response. This includes everything from internal stressors (high expectations, perceived lack of control, fear of change, etc) to external stressors (major life changes, illness or injury, financial difficulties, and work pressures). 

The hormone cortisol is one of the main drivers of the body’s stress response. Cortisol helps regulate metabolism as well as the sleep-wake cycles of your circadian rhythm. [1] During times of stress, cortisol levels increase, which increases alertness and energy production. During times of acute, physical stress, say being chased by a bear, this is a desirable response. And when that stressor is no longer a threat, cortisol levels balance out. However, high-stress levels for prolonged periods—often referred to as chronic stress—is associated with negative health outcomes including mood and cognitive disorders, inflammation, impaired immune function, heart conditions, and altered digestive function. [2] Chronic stress can also lead to muscular tension, pain, and even muscle breakdown.  

So it’s important to find coping strategies to help the body efficiently return to that balanced state—or homeostasis—after a stressful situation. Here are 5 science-backed ways to destress and relax. 


1. Try meditating 

The term meditation now encompasses a range of techniques that address the senses, emotions, and mind in the present moment while eliminating distracting thoughts. Integrative meditation may include mental imagery, relaxing music, guided verbal cues, or mindfulness-based therapy. Meditation helps lower cortisol and feelings of general stress and anxiety. In addition, some meditation practices can improve cognitive function and support sleep, which also influence cortisol levels and how you perceive potentially stressful situations. 

Beginning a meditation practice may feel daunting. Luckily it’s becoming more accessible, especially through mobile apps. Apps like Headspace offer a variety of meditation tactics at your fingertips at various lengths. See what suits you.   


2. Optimize magnesium levels 

Magnesium is often referred to as the anti-stress mineral, as it helps calm the nerves, relaxes the muscles, and improves sleep. Having optimal levels of magnesium is associated with decreased cortisol levels, whereas insufficient magnesium levels are linked to elevated cortisol and stress levels. [4]

Magnesium levels can be measured through a blood test, and are strongly impacted by dietary intake of magnesium. Many people don’t meet the daily recommended amount of magnesium—which ranges from 310-420 milligrams per day depending on age and biological sex. To help maintain optimal magnesium levels, make sure to include magnesium-rich foods in your meals. Foods high in magnesium include:

People with low levels of magnesium may benefit from a magnesium supplement, which quickly and reliably increases blood magnesium levels. And, research indicates that people who reported high feelings of stress felt that pressure faded while supplementing with magnesium. [5]  

Getting a blood test through your doctor or plans like InsideTracker is the best way to determine whether you would benefit from a magnesium supplement in addition to eating more magnesium-rich foods.



3. Wind down before bedtime for more restful sleep 

Getting enough quality sleep helps to regulate cortisol levels. Cortisol naturally fluctuates throughout the day—following your circadian rhythm. Cortisol peaks in the morning, giving you a boost of energy to get you out of bed, and then starts to decline in the evening. [6] As cortisol declines, the production of the hormone melatonin increases—making you feel sleepy. 

The goal of relaxing before bed is to support this natural shift in hormones. Engaging in potentially stress-provoking activities (like watching a scary movie or paying bills) may disrupt this cycle and your sleep. 

Instead, set a bedtime routine to help you wind down for the night. Those who follow a set routine at night tend to report getting more quality sleep. [7] Establish a routine that includes minimizing sounds, and lights (including blue light from screens), lowering the thermostat, and possibly taking a warm shower.  


4. Practice yoga

Yoga incorporates both meditation and relaxation techniques through physical postures and breathwork. Multiple studies have linked consistent yoga practices to reductions in serum cortisol. In addition, yoga may also alleviate subjective or perceived feelings of stress or anxiousness. [8,9]

There are many styles of yoga to choose from including Vinyasa, Iyengar, Astanga, and restorative. A good general goal is to aim for two or three hour-long yoga sessions a week to improve both cortisol levels and feelings of stress. 


5. Consider an ashwagandha supplement

Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, is an adaptogenic herb commonly available in supplements. An adaptogen is a substance that supports how the body adapts to and rebalances from the physical manifestations of stress. And taking ashwagandha supplements is associated with improved cortisol levels in people with already elevated cortisol or high perceived levels of anxiousness. [10,11]  

Even if a blood test confirms you have elevated cortisol and that ashwagandha supplementation may benefit you, consult with a healthcare practitioner before starting it to make sure there are no contraindications. 


Take an objective approach to relaxation

Stress is often first identified through symptoms like feeling anxious, exhaustion, trouble sleeping, a racing heart, or even muscle tension and jaw clenching. But these symptoms aren’t always present. One way to take a proactive approach to monitoring stress—whether you're experiencing symptoms or not— is through a blood test. 

Not only can blood tests directly measure the stress hormone cortisol, but they can also measure other markers related to stress like magnesium. InsideTracker offers this blood analysis as well as analysis of other stress related markers like sleep and heart rate to provide personalized recommendations on how you can best combat stress through lifestyle—diving even deeper into some of the suggestions outlined in this article.

 While food, exercise, and supplements are all effective ways to help you relax, they do not take the place of counseling and therapy that address overwhelming feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression with a licensed practitioner.  

Molly Knudsen1Molly Knudsen, MS, RDN
Molly is a Content Writer and Team Nutritionist at InsideTracker. As a Registered Dietitian, Molly enjoys connecting people to the food they eat and how it influences their biomarkers. When she’s not writing about the latest nutrition science, she’s likely in the middle of a yoga flow or at the beach with a good book.



[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/ 

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/ 

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35162267/ 

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507250/ 

[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33210604/ 

[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28165421/ 

[7] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12638693/ 

[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22342535/ 

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6971819/ 

[10] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31517876/

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573577/ 


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