Like all hormones, cortisol is a chemical messenger. Produced by your adrenal glands, which are located on top of your kidneys, cortisol is produced during times of stress. Being stress hormones, many people want to know how to lower cortisol levels. But cortisol is often labelled purely as being bad however this is an oversimplification. You see, we need cortisol but high cortisol levels can be problematic. Can stress kill you?
What Does Cortisol Do?
What is cortisol? Cortisol is a catabolic hormone which means it breaks things down. In times of stress, this results in elevated blood glucose levels which provide instant energy for the so-called fight or flight response.
This is useful if you are confronted by an occasional physical stress that places your life in danger. For example, if you were crossing a road and an out-of-control car suddenly appeared and you had to leap out of the way to safety, your body would increase cortisol to deal with the situation. The act of leaping will get you into safety away from danger, and next lower your cortisol levels so that your hormonal system can return to its normal, balanced state – called homeostasis.
However, in modern times, most stress tends to be less lethal but more prolonged. This causes cortisol levels to rise and remain elevated for long periods of time. This is where the trouble starts!
The Dangers of Elevated Cortisol
Where the occasional burst of cortisol is nothing to be concerned about, high cortisol levels can be extremely detrimental to your health. Many of the problems associated with both stress and cortisol are the direct result of elevated blood glucose levels.
Blood, as it circulates all around your body, effects each and every structure with which it comes into contact. Thick, sticky blood that is full of glucose does not circulate freely, is prone to clotting, and causes systemic (throughout the system) inflammation.
Prolonged and elevated levels of blood glucose also increase your risk of developing diabetes, a metabolic condition that carries with it a host of other risk factors including kidney, eye, and nerve damage. Bottom line: too much stress can kill you.
There is also a strong link between excess cortisol and weight gain – especially in the abdominal area. If you are finding it hard to lose weight or have gained weight around your waist lately, it could very well be stress that is the cause of the problem.
Other symptoms of high cortisol include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Low energy
- Frequent illness
- Sugar cravings
- No sex drive
- Loss of productivity
- Difficulty concentrating
Elevated Cortisol and Lowered Testosterone: Is There a Link?
There is a statistical relationship between elevated cortisol and lowered testosterone levels. In studies, lowered testosterone levels are often accompanied by above-normal cortisol levels. It’s commonly accepted that stress can lower libido but whether that is due to lowered testosterone or another mechanism is unclear.
While some studies certainly suggest that cortisol lowers testosterone, others suggest any relationship between these two hormones is associative and not causative. Too much stress does, however, drive testosterone levels down while pushing cortisol levels up.
Given that elevated cortisol levels are inherently unhealthy; it is not a big leap to conclude that lowered testosterone could be caused by elevated cortisol levels. Needless to say, it would be useful to know how to lower cortisol levels…
How to Reduce Cortisol Levels
There are several ways you can lower your cortisol levels including lifestyle modifications and through the use of food and nutritional supplements:
Get More Sleep
Easier said than done when you are stressed, but sleeping more will help you deal with stress more effectively. Try to get six to nine hours per night to ensure you have the energy to deal with the stresses of your day more effectively.
Learn How to Prevent Stress
Reducing stress means reducing cortisol levels by default. Develop your delegation skills, avoid perfectionism, practice better time management, and learn how to be more assertive to remove some cortisol and stress from your life.
Junk food, because it causes peaks and valleys in your blood glucose and energy levels, makes you more susceptible to stress. You’ll cope with stress for more easily and be less prone to the problems caused by elevated cortisol if you eat less sugar and processed food in general and build your diet around nutritious, natural food.
Meditation has been shown to lower stress and cortisol. Meditation comes in several varieties, some of which can take time to learn and require instruction. One simple form of meditation you can do right now is to combine breathing and counting.
Simply sit or lie in a quiet room and, with your eyes shut, inhale for a slow count of three and out for a slow count of three. Try to keep your mind clear of all other thoughts except the numbers you are reciting and the sound of your breathing.
Acknowledge any stray thoughts than enter your mind but then dismiss them and continue breathing and counting.
Use Beneficial Adaptogens, Supplements and Foods
Adaptogens are natural substances that help balance hormones. Normally extracted from plants, stress-fighting adaptogens include:
- American Ginseng
- Asian Ginseng
- Dang Shen root
- Eleuthero root, stem or bark
- Guduchi root and stem
- Holy Basil
- Licorice root
- Rhaponticum root
- Rhodiola root
- Schisandra fruit and seed
These exotic-sounding substances are frequently used in Asian and Indian medicine for the treatment of stress, anxiety, and insomnia.
Another adaptogen, ashwagandha has been studied extensively and revealed to be an effective stress management supplement. Shown to reduce stress and anxiety in adults, ashwagandha is available in both powder and capsule form. See our article covering Ashwagandha in detail here.
Studies reveal that phosphatidylserine is effective for reducing both stress and cortisol levels in hard-exercising athletes. Since your body doesn’t differentiate between physical and psychological stress, this means using supplemental phosphatidylserine should work equally well for stressed-out desk warriors and hard-training athletes alike. This one is soy free and best for men.
Essential for optimal immune system function, vitamin C is readily available in supplement form and something that most of us need more of because processed foods are invariably low in this vital nutrient. Vitamin C has also been shown to lower physical and psychological stress and, therefore, also cortisol. Liposome encapsulated Vitamin C bioavailability is almost on the same level as intravenous Vitamin C and superior to regular forms. For maximum benefits we highly recommend Liposomal Vitamin C, it will change everything you thought you knew about Vitamin C.
Tested as part of a weight control trial, magnolia extract was revealed to be an effective way to lower cortisol levels. This helped lead to weight loss by reducing the tendency to stress eat and reducing cortisol which is strongly linked to fat storage around the abdomen. We like this one from Liftmode which provides a lot of value for your money.
Low levels of dietary magnesium are linked to elevated stress and cortisol levels. For this reason, magnesium supplementation is often recommended as a gentle remedy for stress and also as a sleep aid. Readily available, studies reveal that magnesium supplementation is a safe and effective way to reduce both stress and cortisol.
L-Theanine an amino acid, can help reduce psychological and physiological stress responses. In studies, supplemental L-Theanine resulted in lowered heart rate and blood pressure and lowered salivary immunoglobulin A, a chemical marker that indicates elevated cortisol levels.
Fats often get a bad rap but some fats are so important to your health and wellbeing that they are deemed essential. One such fat is omega 3. The term omega 3 simply means it’s last chemical double bond is three from the end of the fatty acid chain – omega being the last letter of the Greek alphabet. The position of the double bond makes omega 3 fats high reactive and very beneficial.
Omega 3s are favorable linked to stress and lowering cortisol by reducing adrenal gland activity. Omega 3s are available in supplemental form and are also abundant in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna, and trout.
It’s not very often you’ll read about the benefits of sweets in a health article but dark chocolate has been shown to reduce stress and cortisol. In fact, in the first and second World War, chocolate frequently featured in first aid kits for treating battle-traumatized and injured soldiers. Choose low sugar chocolate containing 70% or more cocoa solids for best results.
Packed with anti-oxidants, berries – especially those that are dark in color – are also revered for their stress and cortisol lowering ability. Eat a handful of raw blackberries, acai berries, or blueberries to stave off stress.
Eaten as a supplement or simply added to your meals, garlic increases testosterone and lowers cortisol. It’s also an effective booster of the immune system. If you are worried about the pungent smell of garlic, seek out odorless varieties.
A staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, olive oil is also strongly linked to increased testosterone and lowered cortisol levels. Maybe that is why men living in the Mediterranean region not only live longer but are also fathering children well into their later years!
Old fashioned oatmeal, rather than quick-cook oats, is high in slow-digesting carbohydrates which help to stabilize your blood glucose levels. They also increase serotonin levels in your brain which helps to reduce cortisol.
While oats do not contain gluten, they do contain a gluten-like substance so some people may find they feel bloated after eating them. If this happens to you, avoid oats and seek alternative cortisol lowering foods instead. In general a healthy diet should contain minimum grains, but if you had to pick two to include sporadically the best ones would be oats and white rice.
If you are suffering from any high cortisol symptoms, it makes sense to take steps to try to avoid and manage stress better and reduce your cortisol levels using the nutritional supplements listed within this article.
With so many to choose from, you may be wondering where to start in your quest to lower cortisol. Of all the strategies mentioned, we believe that Ashwagandha, Phosphatidylserine and L-Theanine are the most effective in reducing cortisol and are what we recommend.
Unbridled stress and elevated cortisol levels can literally take years off your life. Achieving normal cortisol levels will significantly reduce your risk of suffering many otherwise avoidable medical problems.