Ten Science-Backed Ways To Lower Cortisol

High cortisol in the body is often an adaptive response. Anxiety from sleep deprivation, hunger, and social stress are often part of the high cortisol environment. Unburdening the body, by meeting nutritional requirements, removing inflammatory foods, and solving chronic mental stress are three key factors to lowering cortisol. Addressing those three factors paired with adjunct therapies like bio-identical hormone replacement therapy and targeted treatments can be very effective in minimizing overall stress and achieving healthy cortisol levels.
Cortisol impacts our sex hormones including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone as well as insulin and thyroid. Cortisol should be highest upon waking and then lowest at nighttime. It is inversely related to melatonin levels. High cortisol can contribute to excess estrogen. Excess estrogen is stored in our fat cells and can result in insulin resistance.
When we are stressed, our brain will activate our hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) and will down-regulate FSH and LH, which can cause lower progesterone levels and can impact sleep and mood. Elevated cortisol can also suppress thyroid levels since it will create the inactive form of thyroid hormone and can cause symptoms of fatigue, weight gain, constipation, mood changes, hair loss, and decrease metabolism.
Here are ten known solutions to solve cortisol issues.
Nutrient-Dense Foods
A nutrient-dense diet is the first step in maintaining healthy cortisol levels. Cortisol and insulin are strongly positively correlated. High cortisol strongly predicts high serum insulin and/or blood glucose. Therefore, eating foods that are known to lower insulin is key to lowering cortisol. Avoiding vegetable oils, starchy processed carbs, and refined sugar and focusing on foods that are nutrient-dense may help.
Eat Enough Food
Eating enough calories is another way to keep cortisol levels healthy. In one study, during the first two days of fasting, cortisol levels increased three-fold (JCI Insight, 2018). If one is concerned about elevated cortisol, fasting may want to be avoided.
Sleep Enough
A healthy sleep schedule is imperative to achieving normal cortisol levels. In one study, “sleep deprivation stimulated cortisol, resulting in high insulin levels and insulin resistance” (Endocrinol Metab Clin 2013).
Tips on how to fix your sleep:
  • Design a bedroom for sleep ONLY.
  • Stop thinking about hours of sleep and focus on quality instead. What’s quality? Asleep in 5-10 min, no wake-ups in the middle of the night, wake up on your own at whichever time you decide without an alarm clock.
  • Focus on nasal breathing rather than mouth breathing.
  • Getting sunlight. Adequate sun exposure can help regulate your circadian rhythm.
Magnesium has been shown to reduce cortisol. When there is an increase in adrenal hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) there tends to be an increase in magnesium demand. Therefore, magnesium may help to recover the body from stress. In one study, magnesium supplementation, at 500 mg/d, lowered cortisol during match play in rugby players (J Med Biochem, 2016). Multiple routes of administration and forms of magnesium can be used. Magnesium glycinate is a popular and effective form.
Healthy Sunlight Exposure
Healthy sunlight exposure can help regulate cortisol and achieve balanced hormones in general. A lack of sunlight can create cortisol and melatonin imbalance, resulting in high cortisol at night. “When young sailors spent 6 months in the continuous polar night of Antarctica, they developed the same signs of nocturnal stress that are common in old people during the night” (From PMS to Menopause, 1997). Adrenal stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol tend to rise during darkness. “These stress chemicals suppress metabolism, lower immunity, decrease blood flow to the intestines, and contribute to storage of belly and back fat. Light deprivation induces a progesterone deficiency allowing cortisol, aldosterone, estrogen, and prolactin to act unopposed creating PMS symptoms, other women’s issues, fatigue, mood change, and weight gain. The darkness causes chronic rises in melatonin and adrenaline as well” (Functional Performance Systems, 2011).
Pregnenolone is a naturally occurring hormone that starts to diminish during the aging process. Replenishing pregnenolone with bioidentical pregnenolone may help with achieving healthy cortisol levels. Pregnenolone protects the brain from the damage of cortisol and in one study, allopregnanolone reduced levels of cortisol in humans. “…Further, allopregnanolone attenuates stress-induced increases in adrenocorticotrophic hormone and corticosterone (Patchev et al., 1996). In humans, stress induces increases in progesterone and allopregnanolone (Childs & de Wit, 2009; Droogleever Fortuyn et al., 2004)” (Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2010).
Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a cortisol inhibitor, and in one study, German researchers subjected 120 people to a known stressor, public speaking, combined with math problems. Half of the group were given 1,000 mg of vitamin C. “Such signs of stress as elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol and high blood pressure were significantly greater in those who did not get the vitamin supplement. Those who got vitamin C reported that they felt less stressed when they got the vitamin…In the animal studies, vitamin C fed to rats undergoing stress not only prevented the expected increase in cortisol levels, it prevented the animals from exhibiting the known signs of physical and emotional stress, including loss of body weight. Animals that did not receive vitamin C had three times the level of stress hormones” (Psychology Today).
Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola Rosea is a herb that grows in the cold, mountainous regions of Europe, Russia, and Scandinavia, Interestingly enough, the herb has been used for centuries to cope with the cold environments of Russia and Scandinavia. Rhodiola Rosea has been studied in the context of binge eating (BE). “BE for highly palatable food (HPF) was evoked in female rats by three 8-day cycles of food restriction/re-feeding (for 4 days 66% of the usual chow intake; for 4days food ad libitum) and acute stress on the test day (day 25). R. rosea dry extract (3% rosavin, 3.12% salidroside) or its active principles were given by gavage 1h before access to HPF…R. rosea extract 10mg/kg significantly reduced and 20mg/kg abolished the BE episode. R. rosea extract 20mg/kg abolished also stress-induced increase in serum corticosterone levels. The R. rosea active principle salidroside, but not rosavin, at doses present in the extract, dose-dependently reduced or abolished BE for the period in which it was elicited. In conclusion, results indicate that R. rosea extracts may have therapeutic properties in bingeing-related eating disorders and that salidroside is the active principle responsible for this effect” (Journal of Obesity, 2012).
Phosphatidylserine is a nootropic often used to support the brain, memory, and focus. In one study, “treatment with 400 mg PAS resulted in a pronounced blunting of both serum ACTH and cortisol, and salivary cortisol responses to the TSST, but did not affect heart rate” (Stress, 2004).
Vitamin A
Vitamin A, also known as retinol is a fat-soluble vitamin key to the health of the body. In one study, vitamin A led to lower cortisol in the brain and improved age-related memory loss, showing it may be an effective cortisol antagonist. “The present study provides breakthrough evidence that RA treatment can decrease and delay the stress-induced intrahippocampal CORT rise in middle-aged mice” (Front. Aging Neurosci., 2014).
Steinhauser Matthew, et al. The circulating metabolome of human starvation. JCI Insight. 2018.
Sourced from: https://insight.jci.org/articles/view/121434/figure/7
Mesarwi O, et al. Sleep disorders and the development of insulin resistance and obesity. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2013 Sep; 42(3): 617–634.
Dmitrasinovic Grodana, et al. ACTH, Cortisol and IL-6 Levels in Athletes following Magnesium Supplementation. J Med Biochem. 2016 Oct; 35(4): 375–384.
Peat Ray. From PMS to Menopause: Female Hormones in Context. 1997.
Functional Performance Systems. Light is Right.
Sourced from: https://www.functionalps.com/blog/2011/09/30/light-is-right/
Childs Emma, et al. Effects of acute progesterone administration upon responses to acute psychosocial stress in men. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2010 Feb; 18(1): 78–86.
PT Staff. Vitamin C: Stress Buster
A study finds in addition to benefits related to the common cold and cancer, vitamin C helps reduce both the physical and psychological effects of stress on people. Psychology Today. 2003.
Sourced from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200304/vitamin-c-stress-buster
Hellhammer J, et al. Effects of soy lecithin phosphatidic acid and phosphatidylserine complex (PAS) on the endocrine and psychological responses to mental stress. Stress. 2004 Jun;7(2):119-26.
Bonhomme D, et al. Retinoic acid modulates intrahippocampal levels of corticosterone in middle-aged mice: consequences on hippocampal plasticity and contextual memory. Front. Aging Neurosci., 07 February 2014.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.