How to Fix High Cortisol Levels: A Comprehensive Guide to Lowering Cortisol

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In the regulation of our body’s functions, cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” plays a critical role. Produced by our adrenal glands, cortisol is pivotal in the regulation of a variety of processes throughout the body, including metabolism and the immune response. It’s intimately involved in the body’s response to stress – and is an essential mechanism for our survival as a species.

However, regardless of its many merits, maintaining an optimal cortisol balance is crucial, as high cortisol levels can become a problem, adversely affecting our health.

When cortisol levels remain elevated over time due to chronic stress, inadequate sleep, or health issues, it can lead to a wide array of symptoms. These might include persistent fatigue, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression, weight gain, and even problems with digestion. Moreover, high cortisol levels can also increase your risk for numerous metabolic health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and weakened immune function.

Addressing high cortisol levels is of paramount importance due to its significant impact on health and well-being. Leaving these levels unchecked may not only lead to physical ailments but can also trigger mental health issues, which is why it is crucial to address the problem at its root.

That brings us to the purpose of this blog: to provide a guide on managing high cortisol levels with supplemental interventions.

While lifestyle modifications like stress management, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet are foundational, supplements can also serve as powerful allies in this quest. In the following sections, we will delve into a deeper look at the best supplements for lowering cortisol levels, guiding you toward restoring your body’s delicate balance and enhancing your overall health.

Understanding the Importance of Cortisol Levels

What Does Cortisol Do to the Body?

Cortisol, often dubbed the “stress hormone,” is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands in your body. It plays a pivotal role in several crucial body functions. For instance, it aids in managing the body’s response to stress, controlling blood sugar levels, reducing inflammation, contributing to memory formulation, and overseeing the balance of salt and water in your body. It is cortisol’s duty to help your body respond effectively to stress. To do this, it prompts a surge in glucose in your bloodstream when stress arises, heightening your brain’s use of glucose and making tissue repair substances more readily available.

Causes of High Cortisol Levels

High cortisol levels can be a consequence of various factors, including the following:

  1. Chronic Stress: Chronic stress is perhaps the most common cause of prolonged high cortisol levels. When we’re stressed, the body responds by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol to help us cope with the situation. However, if the stress is continuous, the body may keep producing cortisol, leading to high levels of this hormone in the bloodstream.
  2. Cushing’s Syndrome: This is a relatively rare but serious disease caused by high levels of cortisol in the body. It can occur if your adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys, produce too much cortisol, or if you’re undergoing treatment with corticosteroid medications.
  3. Certain Medications: Some medications, particularly corticosteroids used to treat conditions such as asthma and arthritis, can increase cortisol levels. These medications are similar to the natural hormone cortisol, so their prolonged use can result in symptoms of high cortisol.
  4. Pituitary Adenomas: These are noncancerous tumors in the pituitary gland that can increase the production of Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), subsequently increasing cortisol levels. This condition, known as Cushing’s disease, is a specific form of Cushing’s syndrome.
  5. Adrenal Tumors: Rarely, a tumor can form in the adrenal glands and produce too much cortisol, leading to high cortisol levels. Adrenal tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous), but both types can lead to excessive cortisol production.

The Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of High Cortisol Levels

Elevated cortisol levels over the short term can have various noticeable effects on the body. These manifestations of acute stress response are typically transient and can include symptoms such as rapid weight gain, particularly in the face and upper body, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and mood changes like increased irritability or feelings of anxiety. High cortisol levels also contribute to a heightened state of alertness and can hinder sleep, leading to issues like insomnia. Furthermore, it can cause a temporary increase in appetite, leading to overeating and potential weight gain. The body is usually resilient enough to manage these short-term effects of cortisol, and levels typically return to normal once the stressful situation has passed.

However, when high cortisol levels persist over a long period, more significant health complications can arise. Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels, often due to chronic stress or medical conditions like Cushing’s syndrome, can lead to serious health issues such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. These are conditions that affect critical body systems like the cardiovascular, endocrine, and skeletal systems, respectively. Over time, persistently high cortisol can also result in a weakened immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and diseases. Moreover, increased cortisol levels have been linked to cognitive difficulties, including memory loss and difficulties with focus. This prolonged exposure can also exacerbate mental health conditions, potentially leading to disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Most Common Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

Recognizing the symptoms of high cortisol is an important step toward maintaining hormonal balance. While symptoms can vary from person to person, some of the most common ones include:

  • A rounded face
  • Pink or purple stretch marks on the skin
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Mood swings
  • Increased thirst and frequency of urination
  • Unexplained weight gain, especially around the abdomen
  • Women may experience changes in their menstrual cycle
  • Men may face erectile dysfunction

The Impact of High Cortisol on Mental Health

Apart from the obvious physical symptoms, high cortisol levels can also have a considerable impact on mental health. It can contribute to issues such as anxiety, depression, and problems with memory.

It’s believed that prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can alter the functioning of the brain, affecting mood and leading to mental health disorders. Therefore, it’s not just about maintaining physical health; controlling cortisol levels is equally crucial for mental well-being.

The Connection Between High Cortisol and Adrenal Fatigue

A term often associated with high cortisol levels is “adrenal fatigue.” It’s important to clarify that adrenal fatigue is not widely recognized or defined in the scientific community as a distinct medical diagnosis.

The term is often anecdotally used to describe a collection of non-specific symptoms such as body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep disturbances and poor sleep quality, and digestive problems, supposedly attributed to the adrenal glands’ inability to keep pace with the demands of perpetual fight-or-flight arousal. However, it’s more accurate to associate these symptoms with high cortisol levels, rather than a fatigued state of the adrenal glands.

Understanding the Nervous System’s Role in Managing High Cortisol Levels

The Nervous System: A Brief Overview

The nervous system, consisting of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves, acts as the body’s control center, regulating and coordinating all bodily functions. It plays a critical role in managing cortisol levels, directly influencing how the body responds to stress.

How the Nervous System Regulates Cortisol

The hypothalamus, part of the brain, signals the adrenal glands to produce cortisol in response to stress. This is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. Under normal circumstances, the parasympathetic nervous system helps the body return to a relaxed state, reducing cortisol levels once the stressful situation has passed.

Dysregulation of the Nervous System

Dysregulation occurs when there is an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. This imbalance can lead to chronic stress and sustained high cortisol levels, contributing to a myriad of health problems, both physical and mental.

Chronic high cortisol levels can further dysregulate the nervous system, creating a vicious cycle that can be challenging to break. Symptoms may include chronic pain, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, sleep disturbances, and more.

The Importance of Reversing Dysregulation

Reversing dysregulation of the nervous system is crucial in managing high cortisol levels naturally. By resetting your body’s stress response and restoring the nervous system, the body can return to a natural rhythm, where cortisol production is regulated, anxiety and stress are reduced, and overall health is optimized.

Healing the nervous system and reversing dysregulation is not just about managing high cortisol levels. It’s a comprehensive approach that aims to restore harmony within the body, promoting overall well-being, vitality, and resilience.

If you are ready to begin your nervous system regulation journey, you don’t have to walk this path alone. With our world-class program The Nervous System Solution, we provide the necessary structure, tools, and resources to guide you through this transformative journey, ensuring that you achieve lasting results.

Lifestyle and Diet Strategies to Lower Cortisol

Mindful Eating and Anti-inflammatory Diet

A balanced diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods can be a cornerstone in supporting adrenal function and lowering cortisol levels. Practicing mindful eating, paying close attention to the body’s hunger and fullness cues, can improve digestion and reduce stress, promoting overall well-being.

Hydration and Its Impact on Cortisol Levels

Proper hydration is not just about quenching thirst; it plays an essential role in stabilizing hormone levels. Drinking enough water aids the body’s metabolic functions, including the crucial task of regulating cortisol.

Exercise and Cortisol Balance

Exercise doesn’t have to be extreme to be effective. Gentle activities like walking, swimming, or light jogging can help reduce cortisol without overstimulating the system. Finding enjoyment and consistency in these activities is key to their success.

Alcohol and Cortisol Levels

Moderation is crucial when it comes to alcohol, as excessive consumption can raise cortisol levels, leading to stress and imbalances within the body. Being mindful of alcohol intake helps prevent unnecessary spikes in cortisol.

Natural Stress Reduction Techniques to Lower Cortisol

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation offer powerful tools to calm the mind and reduce stress naturally. Whether it’s through guided meditations or personal mindfulness practices, these techniques can significantly lower cortisol levels.

Yoga and Tai Chi

Yoga and Tai Chi are more than mere exercises; they are practices that promote balance and relaxation, aiding in hormonal equilibrium. Their consistent practice can be a valuable addition to your stress management routine.

Breathing Exercises and Techniques

Something as simple as deep breathing can have profound effects on stress reduction. Regular practice of mindful breathing exercises can promote relaxation and reduce cortisol levels.

Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork

From traditional massages to specialized body treatments, therapeutic touch can ease physical tension and mental stress, supporting the balance of cortisol and promoting overall wellness.

Sleep and Cortisol Management

The Importance of Sleep Hygiene

Quality sleep is a cornerstone of health, and creating a calming bedtime routine and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can have positive impacts on cortisol levels and overall health. But good sleep is not just about the routines we perform before bed; it’s deeply rooted in our daily rhythms. Understanding and managing these rhythms is essential for achieving restorative sleep.

Optimizing Your Circadian Rhythm

As noted above, achieving good sleep extends beyond bedtime routines. Our brain and body require specific cues, such as light, temperature, and food intake, to establish whether it’s time to be awake or sleep. These cues have a profound impact on our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Unfortunately, modern lifestyles often disrupt this rhythm, leading to sleep issues such as insomnia or sleep deprivation. Please click here for a simplified guide on resetting your circadian rhythm.

Natural Sleep Aids and Techniques

Natural sleep aids like chamomile tea and calming scents like fresh lavender can promote restful sleep. These practices, combined with good sleep hygiene, can support overall hormonal balance.

Environment and Social Factors

Creating a Low-Stress Environment

A calming home and work environment filled with soothing colors, plants, and uncluttered spaces can help you manage stress and cortisol levels more effectively.

Building Supportive Relationships

Positive relationships and social connections are not just enjoyable; they are essential. By fostering supportive relationships, you nurture emotional well-being, playing a vital role in managing stress and cortisol levels.

Monitoring and Professional Support

Working with Your Doctor

Collaborating with your doctor is essential for proper diagnosis, monitoring, and managing high cortisol levels. Their expertise ensures targeted and effective care.

Holistic Practices and Integrative Medicine

Holistic and integrative practitioners, such as naturopaths and acupuncturists, offer specialized insights and treatments to manage cortisol levels naturally.

Understanding Individual Differences

Each person’s body reacts uniquely, and a personalized approach will enhance success in managing cortisol levels. Personalized care can provide targeted strategies for each individual.

Can Supplements Lower Cortisol Levels?

Supplements can play a significant role in managing cortisol levels, particularly for individuals dealing with chronic stress or hormonal imbalances. Some of these supplements are believed to help the body adapt to stress and balance cortisol levels, while others play crucial roles in helping to support the overall functioning of the adrenal glands and the synthesis of cortisol.

It goes without saying that using these supplements effectively and safely is of utmost importance. First, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen. They can provide guidance on safe dosages and possible interactions with other medications or health conditions. Furthermore, maintaining a balanced diet and active lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with supplementation. Supplements should not and simply cannot replace a healthy diet but should instead be used as an adjunct to it.

Lastly, it’s crucial to remember that while supplements can support stress management and cortisol balance, they are not a substitute for stress-reduction techniques and proper self-care. They should be part of a comprehensive plan to manage stress and high cortisol levels.

Top Supplements for Lowering Cortisol:

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha, scientifically known as Withania somnifera, is a renowned herb in Ayurvedic medicine that has been used for thousands of years to combat stress and anxiety. It’s classified as an adaptogen, meaning it has the unique ability to help the body manage and adapt to stress, working to maintain physiological balance.

The primary way Ashwagandha helps in managing cortisol and stress lies in its ability to regulate chemical signaling in the nervous system. Chronic stress can lead to persistently high levels of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. Ashwagandha has been found to significantly reduce cortisol levels. In one study, individuals with chronic stress experienced a 30% reduction in cortisol levels after taking Ashwagandha.

In addition to its cortisol-lowering effects, Ashwagandha also supports the health of the adrenal glands, which are responsible for cortisol production. Over time, chronic stress can exhaust these glands, disrupting their function and contributing to various health issues. By promoting adrenal health, Ashwagandha can help ensure a healthy, balanced response to stress.

Moreover, Ashwagandha has been found to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety [1]. 

Fish Oil

Fish oil, abundant in Omega-3 fatty acids, is renowned for its broad spectrum of health benefits, including its role in managing stress and regulating cortisol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), are essential for maintaining healthy brain function. 

Research suggests that these fatty acids can influence the production of neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin), which are crucial for mood regulation and stress response. When your body is under stress, it releases cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels over a prolonged period can lead to numerous health problems, including anxiety, depression, heart disease, and memory impairment. 

Omega-3s have been shown to help moderate cortisol levels [2]. They can reduce the production of molecules and substances linked to inflammation, such as inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines, which are released in response to stress. Omega-3 fatty acids also support healthy brain cell function and promote neuronal growth, enhancing the brain’s resilience to stress. 

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea is a powerful adaptogenic herb native to the Arctic regions of Europe and Asia. It has a long history of use in traditional medicine, particularly in Russia and Scandinavia, where it has been used to combat fatigue and stress, enhance mental performance, and improve physical endurance. 

Modern research supports these traditional uses, highlighting Rhodiola Rosea’s role in managing cortisol, a stress hormone. It functions by influencing the release of stress hormones while enhancing your body’s stress resistance capabilities. Essentially, Rhodiola Rosea helps maintain a balanced response to stress by preventing excessive cortisol production [3], thus reducing the negative effects of chronic stress on your body. 

Curcumin

Curcumin, the active compound found in the bright yellow spice turmeric, has been revered for its numerous health benefits, among which are its potential effects on cortisol levels and stress. Emerging research suggests that curcumin may have adaptogenic properties – the ability to help the body maintain balance and resist stressors. It’s thought that curcumin can help the body modulate its stress response, which includes controlling the production and release of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. 

What’s more, curcumin is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. High cortisol levels and chronic stress often go hand-in-hand with inflammation, and by helping to reduce this inflammation, curcumin may also help to counteract some of the negative effects of high cortisol and stress on the body [4]. Some studies have suggested that curcumin can decrease cortisol levels and reduce the symptoms of stress-related mood disorders, making it a promising natural aid for stress management. 

Tongkat Ali

Tongkat Ali, known scientifically as Eurycoma longifolia, is a traditional medicinal plant native to Southeast Asia. Historically, it has been used to enhance energy levels and reduce stress, and contemporary research supports these traditional uses.

One of the primary ways that Tongkat Ali may help with stress and cortisol levels is through its role as an adaptogen. Adaptogens are substances that increase the body’s ability to adapt to stress and change. In essence, they help normalize the body’s physiological responses to stressful situations, helping to keep cortisol levels in check.

It also shows particular efficacy when used by men, as its testosterone-boosting property is well-noted.

Several studies on Tongkat Ali have shown promising results in terms of stress and cortisol management. For instance, one study found that individuals who took a daily Tongkat Ali supplement experienced significant reductions in cortisol exposure and improvements in mood state. Other research suggests that it can help improve stress hormone profiles, which includes modulating cortisol [5].

In effect, Tongkat Ali can help your body better manage its cortisol output during times of stress, potentially reducing the harmful effects of chronic stress and high cortisol levels on fertility and overall health. 

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo Biloba has been utilized in traditional medicine for centuries due to its wide array of health benefits. It’s particularly known for its potential to enhance memory and cognitive function, but it’s also gaining recognition for its potential to help manage stress and reduce cortisol levels naturally [6].

Ginkgo Biloba is rich in flavonoids and terpenoids, powerful antioxidants that combat the detrimental effects of oxidative stress in the body, a condition that can be exacerbated by chronic stress and elevated cortisol. Additionally, Ginkgo is known for its anti-inflammatory properties, which can help counteract the inflammation that high cortisol levels can cause.

Preliminary research suggests that Ginkgo Biloba may exert a calming effect on the body, potentially leading to reduced stress and anxiety levels. This calming effect could contribute to the regulation of cortisol, as the body’s stress response triggers cortisol production. 

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is a potent antioxidant and a crucial nutrient that plays an essential role in maintaining the health of your skin, blood vessels, and immune system. It is also involved in the production of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, which influence mood and are necessary for the normal function of the brain. 

Beyond these fundamental roles, Vitamin C has been shown to have a modest impact on stress levels and symptoms of depression [7]. During high-stress situations, your body rapidly uses Vitamin C, leading to a decrease in the level of this nutrient. 

Vitamin C acts as a buffer against the harmful effects of stress, aiding not just as it relates to physical health but also to mental well-being, particularly during times of high stress or illness.

Phosphatidylserine

Phosphatidylserine is a naturally occurring phospholipid that is primarily present in our brain tissue. It plays a critical role in maintaining cell structure and function, especially in the brain. Research suggests that Phosphatidylserine is not only essential for cognitive function but also beneficial in managing cortisol levels and stress.

Cortisol, known as the ‘stress hormone’, is produced in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration. While cortisol is vital for survival, chronically elevated levels can lead to various health issues. This is where Phosphatidylserine comes in. It has been found to blunt the rise in cortisol following physical and mental stress, reducing the physiological response to stress.

Phosphatidylserine acts as a regulator, helping to restore balance in the body’s stress response system. As a result, it may be a valuable supplement for individuals looking to manage stress and cortisol levels, improve mood, and support overall brain health. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Test Cortisol Levels At Home?

Yes! You can test cortisol levels at home using a home saliva test kit, which usually involves taking multiple saliva samples at different times of the day. This is because cortisol levels vary throughout the day, peaking in the morning and declining as the day goes on. The samples are then sent to a lab for analysis. However, these tests should not replace a consultation with a healthcare provider if you are experiencing symptoms of high cortisol.

How Quickly Can You Lower Cortisol Levels?

The timeframe to lower cortisol levels varies depending on the individual and the cause of the high cortisol. Implementing lifestyle changes like regular exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep hygiene, and stress management techniques can start to lower cortisol levels within a few weeks. However, if high cortisol levels are due to a medical condition like Cushing’s syndrome, treatment might involve medications or surgery and take a longer time.

Does Coffee Increase Cortisol Levels?

Yes, caffeine intake can stimulate your adrenals to release more cortisol. While this is not an issue for occasional coffee drinkers, frequent consumption may keep cortisol levels consistently high, contributing to chronic stress.

Can High Cortisol Levels Cause Weight Gain?

Yes, chronic high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain. Cortisol affects appetite and can stimulate cravings for sugary or fatty foods. It can also cause your body to hold onto fat, particularly in the abdominal area.

Can High Cortisol Levels Cause Hair Loss?

Prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol can cause various health issues, including thinning hair or hair loss. This is because excess cortisol can disrupt the hair growth cycle, leading to a higher percentage of hair follicles entering the shedding phase.

Can High Cortisol Levels Cause Insomnia?

Yes, high cortisol levels can disrupt sleep patterns and contribute to insomnia. Cortisol follows a diurnal pattern, with levels decreasing in the evening to promote restful sleep and increasing in the morning to promote wakefulness. High cortisol levels can disrupt this rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Conclusion

Managing high cortisol levels is a complex but vital aspect of maintaining overall well-being. This guide has explored the many facets of cortisol, from its effects on the body to lifestyle and diet strategies that can bring it under control. Recognizing the connection between cortisol, the nervous system, mental health, and more enables a multi-dimensional approach to lowering these levels. With a combination of mindful practices, professional support, natural supplements, and attention to individual needs, it is possible to lower cortisol levels and promote overall health.

References

[1] Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(3), 255–262. https://doi.org/10.4103/0253-7176.106022

[2] Michaeli, B., Berger, M. M., Revelly, J. P., Tappy, L., & Chioléro, R. (2007). Effects of fish oil on the neuro-endocrine responses to an endotoxin challenge in healthy volunteers. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland), 26(1), 70–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2006.06.001

[3] Olsson, E. M., von Schéele, B., & Panossian, A. G. (2009). A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study of the standardised extract shr-5 of the roots of Rhodiola rosea in the treatment of subjects with stress-related fatigue. Planta medica, 75(2), 105–112. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0028-1088346

[4] Esmaily, H., Sahebkar, A., Iranshahi, M., Ganjali, S., Mohammadi, A., Ferns, G., & Ghayour-Mobarhan, M. (2015). An investigation of the effects of curcumin on anxiety and depression in obese individuals: A randomized controlled trial. Chinese journal of integrative medicine, 21(5), 332–338. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11655-015-2160-z

[5] Chinnappan, S. M., George, A., Pandey, P., Narke, G., & Choudhary, Y. K. (2021). Effect of Eurycoma longifolia standardised aqueous root extract-Physta® on testosterone levels and quality of life in ageing male subjects: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled multicentre study. Food & nutrition research, 65, 10.29219/fnr.v65.5647. https://doi.org/10.29219/fnr.v65.5647

[6] Jezova, D., Duncko, R., Lassanova, M., Kriska, M., & Moncek, F. (2002). Reduction of rise in blood pressure and cortisol release during stress by Ginkgo biloba extract (EGb 761) in healthy volunteers. Journal of physiology and pharmacology : an official journal of the Polish Physiological Society, 53(3), 337–348.

[7] Brody S. (2002). High-dose ascorbic acid increases intercourse frequency and improves mood: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Biological psychiatry, 52(4), 371–374. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0006-3223(02)01329-x

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Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.