How To: Lower Your Cortisol Levels and Reduce Stress

By Roy Krebs

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Cortisol-Stress

Cortisol has a bad reputation as the body's "stress hormone."

We get stressed out and cortisol levels skyrocket, activating the body's primal fight or flight response.

But cortisol isn't all bad.

It also regulates a host of other hormones in the body like estrogen, testosterone, dopamine, and melatonin.

Cortisol becomes problematic only when your levels are too high and they fail to return to their normal daily rhythm.

Just ask Dr Axe:

Although most think of cortisol as a bad thing... there is actually a lot more to cortisol levels than just our stress response and its unwanted symptoms. We need it to live.” [X]

Cortisol is not a bad thing, but too much of it can lead to a full-system meltdown.

Analogy: Imagine your car overheats in the middle of a blaring-hot summer afternoon. The machine malfunctions from the weight of the stress, and there's nothing left to do but wait for it to cool down so you can get back on the road.

When cortisol levels are too high for too long, you’re at an elevated risk of “overheating.”

So if you’re experiencing things like:

  • Disturbed sleeping patterns
  • Unexplained muscle pain and stiffness
  • Low energy and motivation
  • Biting stress that won't get off your back

then taking these steps to naturally lower your cortisol levels can have a major impact on your health and everyday well being.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone released by the adrenal glands - small triangular glands seated on top of the kidneys.

Cortisol release is mainly regulated by chemicals in your brain.

These chemicals regulate the release of sugar and fats for energy and have a strong impact on blood pressure.

Cortisol is also released to help the body respond to stress. This is why it is regularly called “the stress hormone”. 

Normal vs Irregular Cortisol Function

Normal cortisol levels during the day follow a curve pattern.

The hormone starts being released a few hours before you normally wake up to stop melatonin production, and start dopamine production. 

Hours later, dopamine peaks in the late morning and continues to tapers off to its lowest level in the evening – preparing you for sleep. [1]

Cortisol is also released as part of the fight-and-flight response whenever your brain senses danger.

It's your body's primal response to prepare you for dangerous situations.

Since we don't have to run for our lives from predators or fight to kill anymore (I hope), the response is turned off once the danger has passed and cortisol levels return to normal.

When the stress from daily life adds up:

  • Too much work
  • Tight deadlines to meet
  • Screwed up scheduling
  • Sickness
  • Financial hardship
  • High-pressure situations like applying for jobs or preparing for an athletic event

Unchecked, all this stress can leave you with chronically-elevated cortisol, which is what I'm about to cover next.

Cortisol

Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

Almost every system that's influenced by this hormone can become imbalanced, leading to:

  • Lowered immune systemyou become more prone of infections like the flu
  • increased inflammation - swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches and pains
  • Digestive problemsweight gain, constipation or diarrhea
  • Sleep disordersyou struggle to go to sleep or wake up after a few hours
  • Hypertensionblood pressure remains at the higher levels
  • Type II diabetes - normal sugar metabolism is disrupted
  • Heart diseaseas a result of hypertension, also possible irregular heartbeats.
  • Adrenal fatiguethe adrenal glands have been overworked and cortisol production declines
  • Fibromyalgiathis condition has most of the above symptoms and has been associated with the an inability of the body to turn off the cortisol switch.
  • And more

The best way to lower cortisol levels is to be proactive and reduce them naturally.

Here are the six natural supplements to help keep cortisol at a healthy balance.

Related7 proven ways to keep burnout syndrome from ruining your life.

Use These Supplements to Lower Cortisol Levels

#1 Rhodiola rosea

Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve the body’s overall balance and resistance to stress. Rhodiola is an excellent tonic to combat the effects of chronic, stress-induced fatigue because it can help jumpstart your body's ability to make energy. [2]

If you're prone to insomnia, it's recommended to take it earlier in the day.

In a large, placebo controlled study researchers found that Rhodiola reduced burn-out and increased mental performance in subjects who were treated with the supplement.  They also had measurably lower cortisol levels in the morning on awakening. [3]

The recommended daily dosage of Rhodiola is 100 – 300 mg.

#2 Ashwagandha

Ashwangandha, or Withania Somnifera, is another effective traditional Ayurvedic adaptogen.

A study on subjects suffering from chronic stress found that those who were given 300mg Ashwagandha root extract daily scored significantly lower on a stress-assessment scale and their cortisol levels were reduced. [5]

This supplement has a calming effect and so you can opt for Ashwagandha if you are anxious, tense and prone to insomnia.  

The recommended dosage is 400-500 mg twice a day.

#3 Panax ginseng

Ginseng is a well-known adaptogenic supplement for treating stress, fatigue and insomnia.  

Few human studies on the effect of Ginseng on cortisol levels have been conducted, but it has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in a number of animal studies. [6]  

You should avoid taking too much Ginseng, as an excess can cause ginseng-abuse syndrome, This is characterized by raised blood pressure, water retention and insomnia.

The recommended dosage is two 400-500 mg capsules two to three times daily.

#4 Omega 3 fatty acids

A number of studies have demonstrated that this essential nutrient is also a useful supplement to lower cortisol levels.  

In a small placebo controlled study participants were subjected to before and after mental stress tests.  After the test subjects had received fish oil supplements daily for three weeks their cortisol spike after the test was significantly reduced. [7]

There is no standard recommendation on how much omega 3 fatty acids one should consume. Health organisations generally recommend a daily dose of 250 – 500 mg.

You should also be aware of the differences in various types of omega 3 supplements.

You can get more information about this here: 5 Reasons Why Krill Oil Is The #1 Omega-3 Supplement For Brain Health

#5 gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA)

GABA is a neurotransmitter which slows down the activity of nerve cells in the brain – acting like a brake when neurons become overstimulated as in high stress situations.

A small study found that GABA from natural sources led to relaxation. This was measured in terms of various physiological responses, including lower cortisol levels in saliva. [8]

Related: How To Take GABA Supplements For Better Sleep

#6 The B-vitamins

I recommend supplementing B Vitamins for their positive effect on the brain and nervous system, as well as their ability to lower cortisol.

These vitamins have various functions in the manufacture of neurotransmitters, protecting the adrenal glands and decreasing or normalizing the cortisol response. [8]

Final Thoughts on Cortisol Levels

Relax

Stress is an almost constant feature of our modern fast-paced and high performance lifestyle. This is increasingly being recognised as a major factor in the rise of chronic medical conditions.

You can protect your health and well-being by taking the necessary steps to lower your levels of cortisol through relaxation as well as taking supplements to reduce cortisol.

What activities or supplements have helped you to reduce the effects of stress?

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