How to Reduce Cortisol: Best Supplements for Lowering Cortisol Levels

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Cortisol is a crucial hormone that plays a vital role in a myriad of bodily functions, including regulation of blood sugar levels, metabolism, reduction of inflammation, memory formulation, and controlling the body’s salt and water balance. 

Cortisol is also critically important in assisting the body to respond to stress. Under stressful circumstances, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy helps the body to fight off the perceived threat or flee from it – a response known as ‘fight or flight’.

However, persistently high levels of cortisol can be detrimental to health. Chronic stress, and thus, consistently high levels of cortisol, can lead to numerous health problems such as anxiety, deteriorated cognitive function, depression, headaches, heart disease, weight gain, and sleep disturbances to name a few. 

It is therefore essential to utilize methods to reduce or control excessive cortisol levels, to avoid its possible adverse effects on health.

Understanding Cortisol and Its Effects

Cortisol, often dubbed the “stress hormone,” is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, located at the top of your kidneys. It’s primarily released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration. 

This hormone plays an integral role in the body’s stress response system, also known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is a complex set of interactions between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands, which regulate many aspects of health.

In a typical stress response, the hypothalamus, a small region of the brain, sends a signal to the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone, in turn, prompts the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol and other stress hormones into the bloodstream. 

Once released, cortisol functions to increase glucose availability, providing a quick energy source for large muscles. It enhances the body’s ability to repair tissues and suppresses non-emergency bodily functions like the immune response and digestion, prioritizing the parts necessary for the body to respond to a stressor effectively (that is, to fight or flee).

Long-term elevation of cortisol levels, often resulting from chronic stress states, can have a profoundly negative effect on various aspects of health. One significant impact is on the immune system. 

High cortisol levels can suppress the immune response to pathogens, leaving you more vulnerable to infections and diseases. Additionally, cortisol can lead to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen, as it promotes fat storage for future energy use. This accumulation of abdominal fat is associated with more significant health risks than fat deposited in other areas of the body.

High cortisol levels can also affect mental health, contributing to conditions such as anxiety and depression. Excess cortisol can impair the function of the hippocampus, a region of the brain important for memory and learning. Prolonged exposure to high cortisol can lead to cognitive issues, including trouble focusing, memory loss, and difficulty forming new memories.

Elevated cortisol levels have also been linked to cardiovascular or heart disease, as they can raise blood pressure and influence other risk factors. They can even lead to osteoporosis over time by decreasing bone formation and impairing the body’s ability to absorb calcium for proper mineralization.

Signs and Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

High cortisol levels often manifest through a variety of signs and symptoms. These can be quite diverse, as cortisol affects a wide range of body functions. However, five of the most common symptoms include:

  • Weight gain and changes in body composition: Rapid, unexplained weight gain, particularly around the abdomen and upper back (visceral fat), is a common sign of elevated cortisol levels. While the limbs may remain relatively thin, fat deposits around the face can cause it to appear round, a phenomenon referred to as the moon face.
  • Skin changes: High cortisol levels can lead to thinning skin and an increased chance of bruising. Slow healing of cuts, insect bites, and infections are also commonly observed.
  • Mood disorders: Due to its role in the stress response, prolonged high levels of cortisol can contribute to psychological changes. This could include increased anxiety, depression, irritability, or difficulties with concentration and memory.
  • Fatigue: Chronic fatigue or difficulty in getting restful sleep is often reported. This is linked to cortisol’s role in regulating the body’s circadian rhythm. High levels of cortisol can disrupt this rhythm, leading to insomnia or other sleep disorders.
  • Physical changes in women: Women may notice changes such as irregular menstrual cycles or increased facial hair growth. This is due to cortisol affecting the balance of other hormones in the body.

How to Reduce Cortisol Levels Naturally

Regulating cortisol levels naturally requires a multifaceted approach involving nutrition, hydration, physical activity, sleep,  and mindful regulation of the nervous system. All these factors can play significant roles in managing your body’s stress response and, consequently, your cortisol levels.

Nutrition

Nutrition plays a fundamental role in reducing cortisol levels. Certain foods can have a calming effect on the body and help reduce cortisol. These include foods rich in vitamin C, like citrus fruits, bell peppers, and strawberries. 

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like fatty fish, walnuts, and chia seeds, also help keep cortisol levels in check by reducing inflammation. Magnesium-rich foods such as leafy green vegetables, avocados, and bananas may help lower your cortisol levels as well. 

Additionally, dark chocolate, green tea, and probiotics in fermented foods have all been associated with reduced cortisol levels. On the other hand, it is crucial to limit the consumption of foods high in refined sugars and unhealthy fats, which can spike cortisol. 

It’s equally important to maintain proper hydration as dehydration can cause undue stress on the body, potentially leading to increased cortisol. Therefore, a balanced diet with ample hydration is crucial for cortisol regulation.

Physical Activity and Exercise

Exercise and physical activity of all sorts are powerful tools for managing cortisol. While intense exercise can temporarily increase cortisol, regular physical activity overall helps to mitigate cortisol levels. 

Additionally, physical activity promotes better sleep and increases the production of endorphins, the body’s natural mood boosters. It’s essential to choose an exercise routine that you enjoy, whether it’s yoga, jogging, swimming, or strength training, to ensure consistency even when you don’t feel like it.

Sleep

Our sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, is closely related to our cortisol levels. Normally, cortisol levels dip at bedtime and peak upon waking up. However, stress and poor sleep can disrupt this balance, leading to elevated cortisol all day long. Therefore, prioritizing quality sleep, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine can help optimize cortisol levels.

Outdoor Time

Did you know that spending time outside, especially in green spaces, can help lower cortisol levels? A study found that spending 20-30 minutes a day outside lowered cortisol levels by almost 10% for people living in cities [1]. This effect, often referred to as ‘forest bathing’ or ‘nature therapy,’ illustrates the soothing influence nature can have on our stress levels and overall well-being.

Nervous System Regulation

Understanding and regulating your nervous system is vital in managing cortisol. Our nervous system, particularly the autonomic nervous system (ANS), plays a crucial role in our stress response. 

The ANS consists of the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response (and thus cortisol release), and the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as ‘rest and digest,’ which promotes relaxation. By learning techniques to stimulate the parasympathetic system we can counteract the effects of stress and help reduce cortisol levels. Here at HYNS, we teach you exactly how to regulate your nervous system to pull the reins in on runaway cortisol levels.

Best Supplements for Cortisol Regulation

Using supplements to assist in the natural regulation of cortisol is a strategy that can be very effective if utilized properly. Dietary supplements can offer concentrated sources of essential nutrients or beneficial compounds that may help with the management of cortisol levels. However, it’s important to remember that supplements are not a substitute for a balanced diet, good sleep, regular exercise, and other healthy lifestyle habits. 

Additionally, it is important to remember that supplements can vary widely in quality, so it’s crucial to choose products from reputable manufacturers. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen to ensure safety and suitability for your individual health needs.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s known for its stress-reducing effects, with studies showing that it can significantly lower cortisol levels in chronically stressed individuals [2].

DHEA

DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands, which also produces cortisol. DHEA works to counterbalance cortisol and can help reduce stress levels, albeit modestly [3]. As we age, DHEA production decreases, making supplementation an option worth considering.

Fish Oil

Fish Oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, has been shown to reduce cortisol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory effects and according to research shared on FoundMyFitness, a daily dose of omega-3 supplementation significantly decreased cortisol levels in highly stressed individuals [4].

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea, another adaptogenic herb, can help the body adapt to and resist physical, chemical, and environmental stress. It’s been shown to reduce the release of cortisol during stressful situations, promoting mental clarity and overall well-being.

Curcumin

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to reduce cortisol levels [5] and improve mood in some studies. It may also enhance DHEA production, further supporting a healthy cortisol balance.

Tongkat Ali

Tongkat Ali, often referred to as “Malaysian ginseng,” can help to help reduce cortisol exposure and improve the hormonal profile in stressed adults.

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo Biloba is an antioxidant-rich herb often used to enhance cognitive function. While it’s best known for its ability to improve memory and concentration, some research suggests that Ginkgo Biloba may also help lower cortisol levels and reduce the body’s response to stress [6].

Vitamin C

Vitamin C has been shown to reduce both the physical and psychological effects of stress on people, as was evidenced by a study conducted on ultramarathon athletes administered 1500mg post-race [7]. People who have high levels of vitamin C do not show the expected mental and physical signs of stress when subjected to acute psychological challenges. Vitamin C is also known to help reduce blood pressure, boost the immune system, and improve mood.

Frequently Asked Questions for How to Reduce Cortisol

Can You Test Cortisol Levels At Home?

Yes, you can test cortisol levels at home. Several home salivary testing kits available on the market measure cortisol levels using a saliva sample. These tests usually involve collecting saliva samples at different times throughout the day. 

After collection, the samples are mailed to a lab for analysis, and results are typically returned within a few weeks. However, for a more accurate understanding of your cortisol levels and proper interpretation of the results, it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider.

What Time Of Day Are Cortisol Levels Highest?

Cortisol levels follow a diurnal rhythm—meaning they rise and fall throughout the day. They are typically highest in the morning, within the first hour of waking. This increase helps to jump-start your body and mind, preparing you for the day ahead. Throughout the rest of the day, cortisol levels gradually decline, reaching their lowest point late in the evening, readying you for sleep. This rhythm may vary among individuals and can be influenced by factors such as shift work, sleep patterns, and stress levels.

Can Stress Increase Cortisol Levels?

Stress is one of the primary triggers for increased cortisol production. In response to stress, your body activates the “fight or flight” response, part of which includes the secretion of cortisol. However, prolonged stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, which can have detrimental effects on your health.

How Long Does It Take To Reduce Cortisol Levels?

The time it takes to reduce cortisol levels can vary greatly and depends on numerous factors including the degree of cortisol elevation, the underlying cause, individual lifestyle factors, and the measures being taken to reduce it. 

Acute elevations of cortisol in response to immediate stressors usually resolve quickly, often within hours, once the stressor is removed. However, for individuals with chronically elevated cortisol due to prolonged stress or health conditions, it may take weeks or even months to see significant reductions. 

Conclusion 

While it’s crucial in our body’s response to stress, maintaining balanced cortisol levels is essential for overall health and well-being. Addressing high cortisol levels requires a comprehensive approach which includes consuming a nutritious diet rich in foods known to reduce cortisol levels, engaging in regular physical activity, ensuring sufficient sleep, and practicing mindful regulation of the nervous system. 

Additionally, certain supplements such as Ashwagandha, DHEA, Fish Oil, Rhodiola Rosea, Curcumin, Tongkat Ali, Ginkgo Biloba, and Vitamin C can support the natural regulation of cortisol levels- especially after you have implemented a change in your lifestyle.

Lastly, they should always be used responsibly, and it’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen to ensure they are safe and suitable for your individual needs.

References:

[1] Hunter, M. R., Gillespie, B. W., & Chen, S. Y. (2019). Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 413490. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722

[2] 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

[3] Genazzani, A. D., Stomati, M., Bernardi, F., Pieri, M., Rovati, L., & Genazzani, A. R. (2003). Long-term low-dose dehydroepiandrosterone oral supplementation in early and late postmenopausal women modulates endocrine parameters and synthesis of neuroactive steroids. Fertility and sterility, 80(6), 1495–1501. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fertnstert.2003.06.005

[4] 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

[5] Cicero, A. F. G., Sahebkar, A., Fogacci, F., Bove, M., Giovannini, M., & Borghi, C. (2020). Effects of phytosomal curcumin on anthropometric parameters, insulin resistance, cortisolemia and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease indices: a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. European journal of nutrition, 59(2), 477–483. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-019-01916-7

[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] David C. Nieman, Edith M. Peters, Dru A. Henson, Elena I. Nevines, and Milla M. Thompson. Influence of Vitamin C Supplementation on Cytokine Changes Following an Ultramarathon. Journal of Interferon & Cytokine Research. Nov 2000.1029-1035.http://doi.org/10.1089/10799900050198480

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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.