Cortisol is a hormone released during the body’s “fight or flight” response to stress. Cortisol prepares the body for physical danger by releasing glucose into the bloodstream, improving the brain’s use of glucose, and increasing the availability of tissue repairing substances. Cortisol also curbs bodily functions that are not essential in emergency situations, such as the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems. Prolonged high cortisol can be detrimental to almost all of the body’s processes and can have serious consequences such as heart disease, obesity, depression, and interference with cognitive abilities such as memory and learning.
Severe cases of prolonged high cortisol, such as in major depression, can cause neurotoxicity and brain damage. The condition known as hyper-cortisolemia can destroy cells in the hippocampus, amygdala, and cerebellum. Prolonged untreated cases of stress and depression can lead to the onset of more serious conditions such as incurable depression and bipolar disorder. While anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications are treatments commonly recommended by medical doctors, here are some ways to attempt to lower cortisol levels naturally.
Identify Cortisol Triggers
The first step in reducing cortisol is identifying the particular stressors in your life that are triggering the release of cortisol so that you can eliminate them. Among some common triggers are lack of adequate sleep, over exercising, and dieting.
Consume Protein at Each Meal
The longer you go without food the more your glycogen reserves get depleted, and protein helps to build these reserves. Incorporate protein into each meal. Eat breakfast that contains protein, as your brain is particularly depleted of its glycogen reserves after sleeping. Also, inadequate protein intake can disturb sleep which can lead to a spike in cortisol.
Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can cause spikes in insulin production and evoke a stress response. Eat balanced meals consisting of protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats like olive oil and flax seed oil. Diets rich in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low carb diets. Don’t buy into fad diets and don’t let food and eating become a source of stress.
Cortisol levels begin to rise after 5 hours without food. Aim to eat 5 or 6 times daily. Do not diet or overly restrict calories or certain foods. Researchers at Yale University and the University of British Columbia found that women with high levels of “cognitive dietary restraint” (putting a lot of mental energy into restricting certain foods) had significantly higher cortisol levels, bigger appetites, increased consumption of sweets, more negative moods, and higher body-fat levels – even despite getting more exercise.
Dehydration can induce a stress response and spike cortisol levels. Drink water first thing in the morning, as you become dehydrated during sleep. Try not to drink water an hour before bedtime in order to prevent waking up to go to the bathroom which interrupts sleep.
Exercise helps build muscle mass and increase the brain’s output of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression. But minimize Prolonged Physical Activity. After an hour of exercise your body’s testosterone levels decline and cortisol begins to rise. Keep workouts to under an hour and do not train more than 2 days in a row.
Do not consume caffeine-containing coffee, tea, green tea, energy drinks, appetite suppressants, or medications such as Excedrin and Midol. Caffeine directly stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and interferes with sleep. Avoid herbal stimulants such as ma muang, guarana, synaphrine (zhi shi), yohimbe, quebracho, coleus, and of course ephedrine and amphetamines.
Improve Your Sleep
Ensure a regular sleep pattern: be in bed before 10:30pm and wake up at the same time every day. Avoid exposure to light for a two hour period before bedtime, particularly blue light emitted by electronics such as TVs, laptops, ipads, and blackberries. If evening electronics are necessary, use a blue light filter on the screen. If sleep aids are necessary, take natural forms such as chamomile tea and melatonin. Melatonin can help you sleep deeper and lengthen the sleep cycle. For assistance waking, try a light box that simulates the sun rise instead of a jarring alarm clock.
Stress Reducing Supplements Shown to Lower Cortisol
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in muscle cells and it preserves muscle by reducing cortisol levels. In addition, it offers other properties such as an increase in muscle cell volume, increased protein synthesis, enhanced immune function, and increased glycogen replenishment after a workout. Take 5 grams 3 times daily, including before and after working out.
It has been reported that vitamin C exerts a subtle cortisol-reducing effect on the human body. Vitamin C is water soluble so there is little risk in taking large doses. Take 1 gram (1000 mg), 3 times a day, preferably with breakfast, lunch and dinner (should be meals 1, 3, and 5).
The body’s hormonal stress response causes an outpouring of magnesium from cells into the blood. The higher the stress level, the greater the magnesium loss. The lower your magnesium level is initially, the more reactive you will be to stress (the higher your level of hormones adrenalin and cortisol in stressful situations), which causes greater loss of magnesium from cells. Soaking in a bath of Epsom salts may help. The best dietary supplements are the acid salts of magnesium like magnesium chloride, citrate, gluconate or glycinate. We like Natural Factors Calcium & Magnesium Citrate Plus D.
An amino acid derivative commonly found almost exclusively in green tea, theanine is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and induce relaxation without causing drowsiness. Theanine has psychoactive properties and has been shown to reduce mental and physical stress. We like Jarrow Formulas Theanine 200. It is made enzymatically from amino acids and is identical to the theanine found in green tea.
B vitamins have been shown to directly affect neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. Evidence suggests that B-vitamins are important in the balance and metabolism of neuro-toxic chemicals that have been linked to anxiety and depression related conditions. B vitamins maintains the adrenal glands and get used up during the “fight or flight” response and when converting food into energy for the body. We like Natural Factors Hi Potency B Complex Capsules.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3′s have a calming effect on the central nervous system and have been proven effective at reducing cortisol levels. Researchers in France investigated the effects of fish oil, which contains the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, on mental stress in men and found that fish oil significantly reduce cortisol levels after undergoing a mental stress test that measured blood levels of epinephrine and cortisol (among others). We like Nordic Naturals DHA in the Strawberry flavor.
PS is a cortisol blocker that drives nutrients into and remove toxins from your cells. It may be useful in preventing short-term memory loss, age-related dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Stress Reducing Lifestyle Choices
Change Your Stress Response
The mind can exert a direct influence on the immune system. “The brain has the capacity to modulate peripheral physiology,” says Dr. Richard J. Davidson, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, “and it modulates it in ways that may be consequential for health.” Research has shown that humans can “think” themselves in or out of stress and therefore, their state of health.
Examine circumstances in your daily life that elevate heart rate, blood pressure and tension and try to be conscious that these physical responses are unnecessary to alleviate the circumstance at hand. Practice patience, deep breathing, and an outlook of acceptance and surrender. Relinquish the need to control other people and circumstances. View adversity as an opportunity for learning and growth. Books such as Stillness Speaks and the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle discuss new methods of thinking that can de-clutter the mind and encourage stillness, peace and what he calls “the joy of Being.”
Change Your Outlook
Try allocating 10 minutes each day to either think, discuss, or write down the things and people in your life you are grateful for. Give compliments. Radiate positivity in order to attract positive and supportive people in your life.
Seek Emotional Support
Emotional pain can induce chronic daily stress – the most damaging form. Do not repress or bury emotions, unresolved emotions can resurface as nightmare or manifest into physical illness. Talk therapy with a counselor or psychotherapist, as well as maintaining close personal relationships is important. End stressful relationships and don’t engage in gossip or other negative conversations.
Recently, the antidepressant effect of high-density negative air ions has been observed in patients with chronic depression. Patients can promote their exposure by spending more time where negative air ions are found naturally – in humid, vegetated environments and at the seashore. Negative air ions are lower in urban environments and heated or air conditioned interiors. Studies have reported that access to green space within a kilometre of one’s residence is associated with improved mental health. Large population studies show that those with the least green space within one kilometre of home have a 25% greater risk of depression and a 30% higher risk of an anxiety disorder.
Manage time by carefully scheduling each task, chore, meeting, and appointment. De-clutter your office and home environment. Do not procrastinate!
Schedule Time For Relaxation
Incorporate activities such as meditation, massage, and yoga into your daily routine to encourage a regular pattern of de-cluttering the mind. If you have problems keeping commitments to leisure activities, it may take formally scheduling them into your workday, signing up with a friend, or paying for classes in advance.
Reduce your morning commute
Studies show higher cortisol levels in people with longer morning commutes. Using public transportation instead of driving can reduce stress induced by traffic jams. Other habits that may help make your commute more fun include carpooling, music, and choosing a slightly longer but less congested route.
Stress hypnosis can be very effective at inducing a state of relaxation and can also be used as a natural way to induce sleep. Once you have practiced hypnosis you can learn the various calming phrases and repeat them to yourself to clear your mind and induce yourself into relaxation and possibly sleep. In a study of medical students under exam-time stress, investigators found that those who received “hypnotic-relaxation training” did not show the same reduction in key immune system components that their untrained counterparts did.
Advanced Hypnosis Center of New York City
Rob Hadley, Vancouver, Canada
See our article on stress reduction for more ways to learn how to react to stress in a more healthy manner.