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Supplements for Lowering Cortisol: A Comprehensive Guide

Introduction

Cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, plays a crucial role in the stress response. However, chronic elevated cortisol levels can lead to serious health complications, such as anxiety, depression, weight gain, and heart disease (McCabe et al., 2017; Pickering et al., 2020). In recent years, the use of supplements for lowering cortisol has gained popularity as a natural approach to stress management.

While the body’s stress response is a normal and essential function, chronic stress can cause an overproduction of cortisol, leading to a wide range of health issues. Supplements for lowering cortisol aim to support the body’s natural stress response and promote a healthy balance of this hormone. By incorporating these supplements into a comprehensive stress management plan, individuals may experience improved mood, better sleep, and enhanced overall well-being.

This article will explore the various supplements for lowering cortisol, including adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha and Rhodiola rosea, omega-3 fatty acids, L-theanine, and probiotics. We will also discuss the importance of lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise, mindfulness practices, and maintaining a healthy diet, in managing cortisol levels and reducing stress. By understanding the role of supplements and lifestyle factors in cortisol management, readers can make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

Understanding Cortisol and Its Impact on Health

Cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, is a key player in the body’s stress response. When faced with a stressful situation, the brain triggers the release of cortisol, which then acts on nearly every organ system to prepare the body for action (McCabe et al., 2017). While this stress response is essential for survival, chronic elevated cortisol levels can have detrimental effects on health.

The Role of the Adrenal Glands in Cortisol Production

The adrenal glands, located atop the kidneys, are responsible for producing cortisol. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain regulate cortisol production through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (Pickering et al., 2020). When the brain perceives stress, it signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol into the bloodstream, initiating the stress response.

Chronic Elevated Cortisol Levels and Associated Health Complications

Prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can lead to a range of health problems, including:

Anxiety and Depression

Chronic stress and elevated cortisol have been linked to an increased risk of anxiety and depression (McCabe et al., 2017). Cortisol can alter brain chemistry, affecting neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which play a role in mood regulation (Pickering et al., 2020).

Weight Gain

Excess cortisol can lead to increased appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods, contributing to weight gain (Hewagalamulage et al., 2016). Additionally, cortisol promotes the storage of fat, particularly in the abdominal area, which is associated with a higher risk of metabolic disorders (Moyer et al., 1994).

Heart Disease

Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels can increase blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammation, all of which are risk factors for heart disease (Iob et al., 2020). Moreover, cortisol can contribute to the development of insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, which further increases the risk of cardiovascular problems (Joseph & Golden, 2017).

Supplements for Lowering Cortisol Levels

Several supplements have been studied for their potential to lower cortisol levels and support stress management. These include adaptogenic herbs, omega-3 fatty acids, amino acids, and probiotics.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha, a traditional Indian Ayurvedic herb, has gained popularity for its stress-reducing properties. Several studies have investigated the effects of ashwagandha on cortisol levels and stress management.

A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study by Salve et al. (2019) found that supplementation with ashwagandha root extract (300 mg twice daily) for 60 days significantly reduced cortisol levels and improved stress resistance in healthy adults. Similarly, a study by Gopukumar et al. (2021) demonstrated that ashwagandha root extract (250 mg twice daily) for 8 weeks led to a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved cognitive function in stressed, healthy adults.

The recommended dosage of ashwagandha for stress management ranges from 250-600 mg per day, typically divided into two doses (Salve et al., 2019; Gopukumar et al., 2021). Ashwagandha is generally well-tolerated, but some people may experience mild side effects such as digestive discomfort or drowsiness (Salve et al., 2019).

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, primarily found in fish oil supplements, have been studied for their potential to lower cortisol levels and reduce inflammation. These essential fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function and have been linked to improved mood and stress resilience (Madison et al., 2021).

A study by Madison et al. (2021) investigated the effects of omega-3 supplementation on stress reactivity in healthy adults. Participants received either 2.5 g of omega-3s (1.25 g EPA and 0.83 g DHA) or a placebo daily for 4 months. The omega-3 group exhibited lower cortisol levels and reduced inflammatory markers in response to a stress test compared to the placebo group.

Another study by Oravcova et al. (2022) examined the impact of long-term omega-3 supplementation on cortisol levels in adolescent children with depression. After 12 weeks of supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids (1000 mg EPA and 750 mg DHA daily), the participants experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels compared to baseline.

The recommended dosage of omega-3 fatty acids for stress management and cortisol reduction varies, but most studies use doses ranging from 1-3 g per day, with a higher proportion of EPA to DHA (Madison et al., 2021; Oravcova et al., 2022). Fish oil supplements are generally safe, but some individuals may experience digestive discomfort or fishy burps. It is essential to choose high-quality, purified fish oil supplements to minimise the risk of contaminants.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola rosea, an adaptogenic herb also known as arctic root or rose root, has been traditionally used in herbal medicine to enhance stress resilience and reduce fatigue. Several studies have investigated the effects of Rhodiola rosea on cortisol levels and stress management.

A review by Anghelescu et al. (2018) examined the stress-reducing properties of Rhodiola rosea. The authors concluded that Rhodiola rosea extract could significantly lower cortisol levels and improve stress resilience, with doses ranging from 100-400 mg per day.

Similarly, a study by Edwards et al. (2012) investigated the effects of Rhodiola rosea extract (WS® 1375, 200 mg twice daily) on stress-related symptoms in individuals with life-stress symptoms. After 4 weeks of supplementation, the participants experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved stress coping ability compared to baseline.

The recommended dosage of Rhodiola rosea for stress management ranges from 100-400 mg per day, typically divided into two doses (Anghelescu et al., 2018; Edwards et al., 2012). Rhodiola rosea is generally well-tolerated, but some individuals may experience mild side effects such as headache, insomnia, or digestive discomfort (Anghelescu et al., 2018).

L-Theanine

L-theanine, an amino acid found primarily in green tea, has been studied for its relaxation-promoting and stress-reducing properties. Several studies have investigated the effects of L-theanine on cortisol levels and stress management.

A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study by Hidese et al. (2019) examined the effects of L-theanine supplementation on stress-related symptoms and cognitive function in healthy adults. Participants received either 200 mg of L-theanine or a placebo daily for 4 weeks. The L-theanine group experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved sleep quality compared to the placebo group.

The recommended dosage of L-theanine for stress management ranges from 200-400 mg per day (Hidese et al., 2019). L-theanine is often combined with caffeine to enhance cognitive performance and reduce caffeine-induced jitters (Hidese et al., 2019). L-theanine is generally well-tolerated, with few reported side effects.

Phosphatidylserine

Phosphatidylserine, a phospholipid found in cell membranes, has been studied for its potential to reduce cortisol levels and improve cognitive function under stress. Several studies have investigated the effects of phosphatidylserine supplementation on stress management.

A study by Benton et al. (2001) examined the effects of phosphatidylserine supplementation on cortisol levels and cognitive performance in healthy adults. Participants received either 300 mg of phosphatidylserine or a placebo daily for 30 days. The phosphatidylserine group exhibited a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved cognitive performance under stress compared to the placebo group.

Similarly, a study by Hellhammer et al. (2004) investigated the effects of a phosphatidylserine-containing lecithin supplement on cortisol levels and stress reactivity in healthy adults. Participants received either 400 mg of the supplement or a placebo daily for 3 weeks. The phosphatidylserine group experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved stress resilience compared to the placebo group.

The recommended dosage of phosphatidylserine for stress management ranges from 300-800 mg per day (Benton et al., 2001; Hellhammer et al., 2004). Phosphatidylserine is generally well-tolerated, but some individuals may experience mild side effects such as digestive discomfort or headache (Benton et al., 2001).

Bacopa Monnieri

Bacopa monnieri, a traditional Ayurvedic herb, has been studied for its potential to lower cortisol levels and improve mood. Several studies have investigated the effects of Bacopa monnieri on stress management and cognitive function.

A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study by Calabrese et al. (2008) examined the effects of a standardised Bacopa monnieri extract (300 mg daily) on cognitive performance, anxiety, and depression in healthy older adults. After 12 weeks of supplementation, the Bacopa monnieri group experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved mood compared to the placebo group.

Similarly, a study by Benson et al. (2014) investigated the effects of Bacopa monnieri extract (CDRI 08) on stress reactivity and mood in healthy adults. Participants received either 320 mg or 640 mg of the extract or a placebo daily for 1 week. Both Bacopa monnieri groups exhibited a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved mood compared to the placebo group.

The recommended dosage of Bacopa monnieri for stress management ranges from 300-600 mg per day of a standardised extract (Calabrese et al., 2008; Benson et al., 2014). Bacopa monnieri is generally well-tolerated, but some individuals may experience mild side effects such as digestive discomfort or fatigue (Calabrese et al., 2008).

Probiotics and Prebiotics

Probiotics and prebiotics have gained attention for their potential to support gut health and the gut-brain axis, which may play a role in regulating cortisol levels and managing stress. Several studies have investigated the effects of probiotics and prebiotics on stress management.

A study by Allen et al. (2016) examined the effects of a probiotic strain, Bifidobacterium longum 1714, on stress, cognitive function, and brain activity in healthy adults. Participants received either the probiotic (1 billion CFU daily) or a placebo for 4 weeks. The probiotic group experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved stress resilience compared to the placebo group.

Similarly, a study by Kato-Kataoka et al. (2016) investigated the effects of a fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota on stress-related symptoms and gut microbiota in healthy medical students during academic stress. Participants consumed either the fermented milk (100 mL daily) or a placebo for 8 weeks. The probiotic group experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels and improved stress coping ability compared to the placebo group.

Prebiotics, which are non-digestible food components that promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, have also been studied for their potential to reduce stress and cortisol levels. A review by Burokas et al. (2017) concluded that prebiotic supplementation could modulate the gut microbiota and improve stress resilience, potentially through the regulation of cortisol levels.

The recommended dosage of probiotics and prebiotics for stress management varies depending on the specific strain and formulation used. It is essential to choose high-quality, well-researched probiotic and prebiotic supplements and to consult with a healthcare professional before starting supplementation.

Other Supplements and Lifestyle Changes for Cortisol Management

In addition to the supplements discussed above, several other natural compounds and lifestyle factors may help manage cortisol levels and support stress resilience.

Additional Supplements

  • Ginkgo biloba: A study by Jezova et al. (2002) found that Ginkgo biloba extract (EGb 761, 120 mg daily) significantly reduced cortisol levels and improved stress resilience in healthy adults.
  • Maca: A study by López-Fando et al. (2004) demonstrated that Lepidium peruvianum (maca) extract (1.5 g daily) reduced cortisol levels and improved stress coping ability in rats exposed to restraint stress.
  • Cordyceps sinensis: A review by Yao et al. (2021) concluded that Cordyceps sinensis, a traditional Chinese medicine herb, could modulate the HPA axis and reduce cortisol levels, potentially supporting stress management.
  • Ginseng: A study by Yoo et al. (2018) found that ginseng extract (200 mg/kg daily) attenuated stress-induced changes in cortisol levels and improved stress resilience in aged mice.
  • Magnesium: A review by Pickering et al. (2020) suggested that magnesium supplementation could help regulate cortisol levels and support stress management, as magnesium deficiency has been linked to increased stress reactivity.
  • Chamomile: A study by Keefe et al. (2016) demonstrated that chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla L.) extract (1500 mg daily) reduced cortisol levels and improved stress coping ability in adults with generalised anxiety disorder.

Lifestyle Changes

  • Regular exercise: A systematic review and meta-analysis by Pascoe et al. (2017) concluded that regular exercise could significantly reduce cortisol levels and improve stress resilience, with a combination of aerobic and resistance training showing the most promising results.
  • Mindfulness practices and meditation: A review by Pascoe et al. (2017) found that mindfulness-based practices, such as meditation and yoga, could significantly reduce cortisol levels and improve stress management.
  • Deep breathing exercises: A study by Ma et al. (2017) demonstrated that diaphragmatic breathing exercises could reduce cortisol levels and improve stress coping ability in healthy adults.
  • Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet: A diet rich in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, may help support stress resilience and regulate cortisol levels (Hewagalamulage et al., 2016).
  • Importance of adequate sleep and stress management: Sufficient sleep and effective stress management techniques, such as time management, social support, and relaxation practices, can help regulate cortisol levels and improve overall well-being (Hirotsu et al., 2015).

Safety Considerations and Precautions

While supplements for lowering cortisol can be a valuable addition to a stress management plan, it is essential to consider safety and potential interactions with medications or pre-existing health conditions.

  • Consulting with a healthcare professional before starting supplements: It is crucial to consult with a qualified healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition or are taking medications.
  • Potential interactions with medications and pre-existing conditions: Some supplements may interact with certain medications or exacerbate pre-existing health conditions. For example, ashwagandha may interact with thyroid medications (Salve et al., 2019), and omega-3 fatty acids may increase the risk of bleeding in individuals taking blood thinners (Madison et al., 2021).
  • Importance of choosing high-quality supplements from reputable sources: To ensure safety and efficacy, it is essential to choose supplements from reputable manufacturers that adhere to strict quality control standards and provide transparent information about their products.
  • Awareness of potential side effects and contraindications: While most supplements for lowering cortisol are generally well-tolerated, some individuals may experience side effects or have contraindications. It is essential to be aware of these potential issues and to discontinue use if any adverse reactions occur.

The Bottom Line

The research on supplements for lowering cortisol levels shows promise in supporting stress management and promoting overall well-being. Adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, Rhodiola rosea, and Bacopa monnieri have demonstrated significant reductions in cortisol levels and improved stress resilience in several studies. Omega-3 fatty acids, L-theanine, phosphatidylserine, and probiotics have also shown potential in regulating cortisol and supporting the body’s stress response.

However, it is crucial to approach cortisol management from a holistic perspective, incorporating both evidence-based supplements and lifestyle modifications. Regular exercise, mindfulness practices, deep breathing exercises, and maintaining a healthy, balanced diet are all essential components of a comprehensive stress management plan. Prioritising adequate sleep and developing effective stress coping strategies can further support cortisol regulation and overall well-being.

When considering supplements for lowering cortisol, it is essential to consult with a qualified healthcare professional to ensure safety and appropriateness for individual needs. Choosing high-quality supplements from reputable sources and being aware of potential interactions and side effects is crucial for optimal results and minimising risks. By combining targeted supplementation with healthy lifestyle choices, individuals can work towards better stress resilience, improved mood, and enhanced overall health and well-being.

Key Highlights and Actionable Tips

  • Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands. While it serves important functions, chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to health problems.
  • Supplements that may help manage cortisol levels include ashwagandha, probiotics, prebiotics, fish oil, bacopa, L-theanine, ginkgo biloba, rhodiola, maca, cordyceps sinensis, phosphatidylserine, ginseng, magnesium, and chamomile.
  • In addition to supplements, lifestyle strategies like relaxation techniques, listening to music, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet can also help reduce cortisol levels.

What are some signs that cortisol levels may be too high?

Symptoms of high cortisol levels can include weight gain (especially around the midsection), fatigue, muscle weakness, irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating. Other signs may be high blood pressure, bone loss, skin changes, and irregular menstrual cycles in women. If you suspect your cortisol levels are imbalanced, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional for proper testing and guidance.

How quickly can supplements and lifestyle changes impact cortisol levels?

The time it takes to see changes in cortisol levels can vary depending on the individual and the specific interventions used. Some people may notice improvements in stress levels and overall well-being within a few weeks of implementing dietary and lifestyle changes or starting supplements. However, for long-term balance and more significant changes, it may take several months of consistent effort. Working with a healthcare provider can help you monitor progress and adjust your plan as needed.

Are there any potential side effects or interactions to be aware of with cortisol-managing supplements?

While many supplements for cortisol management are generally well-tolerated, it’s important to be aware of possible side effects and interactions. For example, ashwagandha may cause digestive upset or drowsiness in some people, and it can interact with certain medications like immunosuppressants and sedatives. Rhodiola may cause dizziness or dry mouth, and it should be used cautiously in people with bipolar disorder. It’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen, especially if you have existing health conditions or take medications.

Can managing cortisol levels help with weight loss?

Yes, balancing cortisol levels may support weight loss efforts. Chronically elevated cortisol can contribute to increased appetite, cravings for high-calorie foods, and fat storage, particularly around the abdominal area. By implementing strategies to manage stress and regulate cortisol, you may find it easier to maintain a healthy weight. However, it’s important to remember that sustainable weight loss also requires a balanced diet, regular physical activity, and other lifestyle factors.

How do I know if my cortisol levels are within a healthy range?

The most accurate way to assess cortisol levels is through laboratory testing, typically done with a blood, urine, or saliva sample. Your healthcare provider can order these tests and interpret the results based on your individual health status and symptoms. Keep in mind that cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, so timing of testing is important for accurate assessment. If you suspect your cortisol levels are imbalanced, it’s best to work with a qualified healthcare professional for proper evaluation and personalised recommendations.

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