Natural Ways to Reduce High Cortisol
Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenals that has many essential biological processes. It is meant to be released in a rhythmic cycle, called a diurnal pattern, every day. It is highest in the morning, giving you a natural surge of energy to help you wake up and get out of bed, then generally tapers down as the day progresses. At about midnight, it should be at its lowest point, allowing your body to enter a rest, repair, and detoxification phase while you sleep. Slowly, it begins to climb again until about 7-8am, when it reaches its peak and the cycle begins again.
In addition to the diurnal pattern, cortisol is an essential survival hormone. It regulates the metabolism of fats, carbs, and proteins, the responsiveness of your immune system to infection and inflammation, your hormonal balance, your sex drive, and reproduction, as well as your thyroid hormone production. Cortisol, then, provides a vital service to our bodies – regulating sleep, metabolism, immune function, and hormonal balance, to name just a few of its many functions.
When cortisol is created and released beyond its natural and biological levels, however, it can have incredibly detrimental effects on the body. Cortisol production ramps up under stress – especially chronic stress. In the short-term, this is a normal and natural stress response – providing us with the energy reserves necessary to either fight or flee – and when the stress is over, you return to normal. However, under a state of chronic stress, this stress response stays on and cortisol becomes chronically elevated, which often turn into chronic anxiety, insomnia, digestive problems, hormonal imbalance, fertility issues, and autoimmune disease.
Proper stress management and lowering cortisol can have wonderful effects on hormone balancing, controlling cravings, improved digestion and immune function, better sleep, and cognitive function.
Naturally Reducing Cortisol
Lifestyle modification and good nutrition are of primary importance to lower cortisol, manage stress, and balance hormones. While supplementation and herbal remedies can certainly support cortisol re-balancing, they will be ineffective without taking the necessary lifestyle steps in order to re-establish a healthy stress response.
Below are some suggestions to incorporate regular stress-relieving, cortisol-lowering activities into your routine. Ideally, you should aim for one of these activities each day, but starting with 3 times per week will have incredible benefits. The key is consistency!
Keep to a regular and early bedtime – ideally no later than 10-11pm – and awaken at the same time each morning – ideally between 6-7am – to regulate and normalize the diurnal and nocturnal patterns allowing your body to repair and detox, as well as improve your sleep.
Develop a bedtime routine that tells your brain to prepare for sleep. This could be as simple as reading a book, meditating, taking a warm bath or journaling – these activities will help to put you into a relaxed state while also getting your body used to a pattern of falling to sleep at the same time each night, allowing you to fall asleep more easily, sleep more soundly, and awake feeling refreshed.
Incorporate regular physical activity, in moderation, as it improves health, relaxes the mind, and helps to improve your diurnal cortisol distribution. Yoga, in particular, releases deep tension and sets tissue healing in motion, while calming the mind and helping you to be in the present – all of which invite the benefits of the relaxation response.
Try meditating, as it brings you into a relaxation response and helps to reverse chronic cortisol elevation.
Take Epsom salt baths with lavender essential oil as they’ll help you to feel replenished and relaxed.
Take up journaling – whether it’s a worry journal or gratitude journal – as it can reduce cortisol and alleviate anxiety.
Make sure you get an after-work reset – take 15 minutes after work to decompress by going for a gentle walk, stretching, doing breathwork, or a similar activity to help normalize evening cortisol levels.
Do a digital detox: unplug at least an hour before bedtime – the blue light that emanates from electronic devices keeps your cortisol elevated while also inhibiting melatonin production, interfering with sleep. Not only that, but social media often makes us feel as though we never know enough, do enough, or are happy enough – contributing to the stress response and elevated cortisol.
Get fresh air – nature heals the brain, reduces cortisol, lowers inflammation, and shifts you to a calm and happy mindset. Walking in nature or a park for 30 minutes a few times a week can make all the difference, or try standing outside in the sunshine, breathing consciously, and clearing your mind for a few minutes.
Play and laugh – these put you straight into the relaxation response; find a hobby that you love and allow yourself the time to enjoy it.
Have sex – sex improves sleep quality, reduces cortisol overdrive, and boosts mood.
Next to lifestyle, what you eat, as well as how and when, is of critical importance. Most often, chronically elevated cortisol is associated with hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. It is vital to manage blood sugar levels during recovery to allow for full restoration and reduced internal stress. Try the following tips to improve your nutritional game.
Eat regular meals at regular times and have a small snack every 3-4 hours to regulate your blood sugar. Just as your body relies on the circadian rhythm for sleep, so too does it respond brilliantly to a regular eating pattern. Eating at the same time each day will provide your body with predictability in energy intake, which reduces stress.
Include plenty of fresh veggies, some fresh fruits, organic animal products and eggs, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, healthy oils and fats (avocado, coconut, olive oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, olives, flax seeds, and hemp seeds) as well as fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and tempeh.
Protein and fats are blood sugar’s best friends: protein helps you feel satisfied and provides sustainable energy for about two hours after you eat, while fats provide energy for up to four hours. Both keep blood sugar steady and prevent insulin and leptin resistance. Do not fear fat! Healthy fats will provide your adrenals with the love they need. Include nut and seed butters, avocado, coconut oil, grass-fed butter or ghee, organic extra virgin olive oil, nuts, and seeds into your daily diet.
Avoid food triggers, refined sugar, excess caffeine, and white/refined carbohydrates especially! Other triggers include dairy products, gluten and cross-reactive grains, artificial colors and flavors, food additives (including colorings and dyes), preservatives, processed foods, and food allergies and intolerances.
Supportive Herbs & Supplements
While herbs and supplements can certainly help support reducing cortisol, as mentioned above they will be ineffective without first implementing the lifestyle and nutritional recommendations discussed above.
Licorice root – mimics cortisol to reduce the pressure on the adrenal glands to make it. Licorice is the best adrenal tonic for restoring a normal stress response.
Try taking it as a decoction or in capsule form – 1 tsp of root in 1 cup of water, bring to a boil, then simmer covered for 20 minutes. Enjoy 3x/day.
Magnolia bark – suppresses unhealthful levels of cortisol and helps to lower stress, anxiety and depression. Magnolia bark can also act as a sedative, directly helping to facilitate sleep by lowering levels of the alertness-producing hormone adrenaline, making it an effective natural sleep aid for people who tend to be wired & tired. Take in tincture form, 3x per day.
Holy Basil – improves energy and relieves fatigue, elevates mood, and provides relief from anxiety. Also improves mental clarity which may help motivation to make healthy lifestyle and mindset changes.
Try as a tea, infusion or tincture 1-3x/day.
Ashwagandha – helps with the feeling of being “tired but wired” or being tired but unable to fall asleep due to anxiety or running thoughts. Also helps with nervousness and anxiety in general. Excellent for deep exhaustion. Try 5 ml of tincture up to 3x/day.
Passionflower – promotes sleep and improves sleep quality, while also helping you to awake more rested.
Try 40-60 drops of tincture or drink as a tea before bed.
Magnesium – promotes relaxation and relieves anxiety and depression.
Try 200-400 mg/day before bed.
Vitamin B6 – take before bed specifically to relieve night waking by reducing nocturnal cortisol spikes.
Try 50-100 mg/day before bed.
Vitamin B12 – plays an especially important role in allowing your body to reset its circadian rhythm, possibly due to its effects on melatonin production. Improves quality of sleep, leading to feeling refreshed when you wake up.
Try 1,000 mcg taken sublingually (under the tongue) before noon.
Vitamin C – found in abundance in the adrenal cortex (where cortisol is made), essential to the adrenal hormone synthesis cascade, and is depleted rapidly by stress. Supplementing will help to normalize cortisol levels and support the adrenal glands.
Try 3-5 g/day in divided doses. Splitting doses is important because vitamin C is used up and the excess excreted in the urine within 4 hours of taking it.
Normalizing cortisol is imperative for hormone balancing, controlling cravings, improved digestion and immune function, better sleep, and optimal cognitive function. Taking steps through lifestyle to improve your stress response along with proper nutrition is key to reducing your cortisol production and reducing chronic stress.