4 Proven Supplements to Reduce High Cortisol Levels
By Ali Kuoppala | Last reviewed Tue 25 September 2018
Medical Review by Gerardo Sison, PharmD
Cortisol is a naturally occurring steroid hormone in the human body. Its release from the adrenal cortex is stimulated by a brain hormone called ACTH, and the release of ACTH, on the other hand, is stimulated by physical or mental stress, which is why cortisol is often called “the stress hormone”.
Because of the “scary stress hormone label”, many people think that cortisol levels should be kept as low as possible. That ain’t the full-truth though…
…Without cortisol, any kind of minor trauma would instantly bring you into full shock and kill you. Without cortisol, you wouldn’t be able to walk straight. Cortisol also wakes you up in the morning (levels peak in the morning and dip towards the evening), and it’s needed in the process of burning fat (fat mobilization to be precise).
In other words, cortisol is definitely not as evil as some ” fitness experts” claim…
That is, at least in people who have normal patterns of cortisol secretion and are not under any kind of chronic physical or mental stress, and who can eat and exercise in a way that supports healthy cortisol secretion rather than messes it up.
Sadly, that’s not the majority of people in this day and age.
The modern 8-5 jive of work was not how the human body was meant to operate, and I guess it’s safe to say that the vast majority of the working-class are constantly under some level of work-related stress.
When most people hit the gym they do hours of grueling endurance-type cardio (which is notorious for skyrocketing cortisol), and they follow-up with a high-volume daily resistance training programs that can easily put them into a state of overtraining, which furthermore boosts the chronic elevation of cortisol…
…In a worst-case scenario, that’s all topped off with a low-calorie low-carb diet, both of which are known for completely messing up your natural cortisol secretion (study, study).
Then there’s money-related stress, let’s not even start with that.
NOTE: Cortisol also has an inverse relationship with all the body’s anabolic hormones, including testosterone and growth hormone. When cortisol is high, testosterone levels will go down. Cortisol also promotes the release of a protein called Myostatin, which breaks down muscle tissue. Try building muscle in an atmosphere like that…
Ever heard of how some bankers drop dead in their 30’s? That’s what chronically elevated cortisol levels will do eventually…
…As your body is in a constant “stress-mode”, cortisol – with its catabolic nature – breaks down muscle mass, if you let the situation go on for years, this catabolism will eventually start happening in your internal organs.
Not to mention the fact that cortisol stimulates the synthesis of visceral fat, aka. the “deadly fat” that builds up in your abdominal cavity and surrounds your organs.
Then there’s also the fact that chronically high cortisol induces a state of chronic inflammation. Quick inflammatory responses related to exercise, for example, are nothing to worry about, but if the inflammation persists long-term due to chronically elevated cortisol levels, then that’s what exposes you to a myriad of diseases.
The above – in short – is what happens when someone suffers the tragic fate of “death by burnout”.
Now, here’s a quick list of completely free and natural ways to bring your cortisol back to healthy levels and rhythm:
- Minimize your stress, mental and physical.
- Keep yourself hydrated through the day, especially during exercise.
- Try to get 7-9 hours of restorative sleep every night (I know this might be a huge problem if you’re under stress).
- Get lean, certain enzymes in fat-mass are known for converting cortisol metabolites back into the active form.
- Eat enough carbohydrates, low-carb diets are notorious for skyrocketing cortisol levels
- Consume adequate amounts of calories, starvation diets can greatly increase cortisol levels.
- Keep your strength workouts short, and instead of overtraining yourself with daily workouts, consider training 3-4 times a week.
On top of the bullet points above, there are these four scientifically proven supplements that can help you too:
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a naturally occurring phospholipid complex that is present in nearly all the cells of the human body. It serves mainly as a signaling molecule between cell membranes, but can also have other effects, such as protecting the interior of cells from oxidative damage.
The human body stores roughly 60 grams of PS in various bodily pools located in testicles, lungs, kidneys, skeletal muscle, heart, liver, and blood plasma. Though the majority of PS is located in brain tissue, and half of that is known to be bound to neural tissue.
Because of this, claims of its “nootropic”, aka. brain-boosting effects have been made through the years. Interestingly enough, there’s a lot of research suggesting that PS supplementation can improve cognitive performance (study, study, study), so much so, that even the FDA has granted phosphatidylserine a qualified health claim to freely state that “consumption of phosphatidylserine may reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive dysfunction in the elderly”. That’s something not many supplements get to have.
But what does all this have to do with cortisol suppression?
Well first off, phosphatidylserine supplementation has been well-documented to improve athletic performance by reducing the oxidative stress of exercise (study, study, study). Secondly, there’s evidence that PS supplementation can blunt cortisol in a dose-dependent manner, while also increasing the exercise-induced rise in testosterone (study, study). The latter study concludes that phosphatidylserine supplementation creates a “desirable hormonal balance for athletes that might attenuate the physiological deterioration accompanied with overtraining”
Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is an Indian herb commonly referred to as “adaptogen” (a term coined by the Russian scientist to describe a compound that helps the body adapt to stress-related stimuli).
The claims of the “herbal experts” are often highly misleading – for instance, some claim that Ashwagandha, which loosely translates to “smell of a horse” – would give you the virility and power of a horse.
In reality, ashwagandha will not turn you into a powerful horse-man (fortunately), though there’s still some interesting scientific evidence on its effects on testosterone and cortisol levels.
For instance, a randomized double-blind study using 300mg/day of a standardized water extract of the ashwagandha roots called “KSM-66”, noted a significant 27% reduction in serum cortisol levels, along with the self-reported reduction of anxiety and mental stress.
Another study with KSM-66 extract showed a cortisol reduction of 14%, while one study using 5g/day of the pure root powder saw reductions of 32%.
The benefits of ashwagandha are not limited to reduced stress levels. Several studies have also found out that on infertile subjects, ashwagandha is very effective at restoring poor sperm quality, while also boosting lagging testosterone production (study, study, study). One particularly interesting study that came out at the end of 2015, had 57 young and perfectly healthy men as test subjects. The guys consumed 300mg’s of KSM-66 ashwagandha on a daily basis for 8 weeks, and on average their T-levels increased from 630 ng/dL to 726 ng/dL.
NOTE: When supplementing with ashwagandha, I highly recommend the standardized KSM-66 form of the herb (affiliate link).
Micronutrient deficiencies are extremely prevalent, even in “developed” countries.
Now how would this affect your cortisol levels? Greatly. It’s known that nearly all processes of the human body use vitamins and minerals as cofactors. You need micronutrients for proper heart rhythm, you need them for nutrient transportation, oxygenation, enzyme reactions, metabolism, muscle contraction, vision, etc.
Vitamin C is perhaps one of the most well known of the micronutrients that can balance high cortisol levels. It’s also seen in animal studies that even subclinical deficiency in vitamin C, will quickly increase cortisol levels. Zinc has been associated with reduced cortisol release, magnesium too, vitamin D & calcium, B-vitamins, etc.
Depletion of pretty much any micronutrient from the body eventually leads to increased bodily stress, which leads to increased cortisol response.
The question is, how depleted are you? And do you even need a micronutrient supplement in the first place? If you’re from the US, and eating a “standard American diet”, it’s highly likely that you’re deficient in multiple vitamins and minerals. According to a study conducted by The Washington Council of Responsible Nutrition:
To counter this, we obviously recommend a wholesome nutrition plan, and also high-quality micronutrient supplement (affiliate link).
4. Antioxidant Blends
During the times of high cortisol, your body will likely be in a state of chronic oxidative damage as a result.
To combat the oxidative & free radical damage, your body uses antioxidant compounds and enzymes. Vitamin C, for example, is an antioxidant, so is glutathione, superoxidase dismutase (SOD), vitamin E, etc.
It’s also known that many diseases, chronic stress, and high cortisol can deplete the bodily pool of vitamin C and other antioxidant enzymes, indicating that the body uses them to “repair the damage”.
It has been researched – for the most part in athletes – that supplementation with antioxidant supplements leads to fairly significant reductions in cortisol and various other stress parameters (study, study, study, study).
This is somewhat common sense, why wouldn’t antioxidants combat the oxidative damage? And heck, it doesn’t have to be an antioxidant supplement that does this, if you have a freezer full of berries and a blender, just whip up a smoothie! Blueberries, for example, are chock-full of antioxidants.
NOTE: Part of keeping your body’s own antioxidant pool “in good health” is to make sure that you’re getting an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals from your diet – and possibly from supplementation – which ties back to the ramblings above in #3 subheading of this article.