The “stress hormone” cortisol plays a key role in our stress response, also known as “fight or flight” mechanism. This is an important process within the body—but was more so many years ago when it would get triggered by actual life or death situations.
When our bodies are chronically exposed to high stress, cortisol floods the body constantly. Blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar are all affected also.
Chronically high cortisol puts you at risk for several health problems:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain & weight loss resistance
So let’s find out some holistic ways to both manage cortisol levels and keep stress at bay.
The term “adaptogen” describes a category of plants that improve the body’s stress response and have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. (Source)
These adaptogenic herbs work with the HPA axis and might affect hormone production and physiological responses to stress. (Source)
- Korean ginseng:
This botanical regulates the immune response and the hormonal changes due to stress by directly impacting the adrenals and the HPA axis. (Source) One study performed on rats suggested that it improves the sensitivity of the HPA axis to cortisol.
- Ciwujia (previously known as Siberian ginseng):
It is immune-regulating, and regulates physiological responses to stress (Source). For example, one study showed a group of women had a 60% reduction in systolic blood pressure in response to a stressor. Both the men and women involved in the study had a 40% reduction in heart rate response.
This herb’s stress-relieving effects may occur via its moderating effect on the HPA axis. (Source) One study concluded that full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract improves an individual’s resistance towards stress. Researchers believe ashwagandha may lessen levels of cortisol.
- Rhodiola rosea
This adaptogen actually acts as a mild stressor, and by doing so it induces increased stress resistance. (Source) In a study on subjects who performed intense, short exercise, anxiety and salivary cortisol were reduced immediately pre- and post-stress for those who took rhodiola rosea.
Some adaptogens can be added to a meal and taken directly, but most can be taken as supplements, tinctures or teas. One of my favorite supplements for reducing cortisol, belly fat and helping to balance stress is called Cortisol Manager Allergen Free from Integrative Therapeutics.
The stress and cortisol reducing ingredients include ashwaganda, L-theanine, magnolia bark and phosphatidylserine. Check it out in my Fullscript Dispensary and also enjoy a 15% discount on professional grade supplements too.
Cortisol modulators decrease or regulate cortisol activity when taken. There are two supplements that act as cortisol modulators that I want to highlight because of their safety and lack of side effects.
- Fish Oil
We’ve known about the anti-inflammatory and heart healthy benefits of fish oil for a while, but several studies are showing it may also lower cortisol levels. A study concluded that fish oils inhibit the adrenal activation in response to mental stress, namely cortisol production.
- Plant Sterols and Sterolins
Plant sterols and sterolins (fats present in all plants, including fruits and vegetables) have been shown to restore balance to the immune system in situations of stress-induced immune suppression, among others. (Source) A particular combination of two specific plant sterols showed promise in balancing DHEA:cortisol ratios.
These two modulators are easily found in supplement form. As always, do your research when shopping for supplements! Not all supplements are made equal.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
There’s a huge benefit to just having someone objective to talk things through with. The emotional and mental benefits of therapy are well known. And, now there are scientific studies that show objective measures of stress are affected after therapy.
In one study on older adults with generalized anxiety disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy as an addition to SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) treatment showed a reduced peak cortisol levels. (Source)
Another study examined those going through treatment for advanced stage cervical cancer. It compared one group without CBT and one group with CBT. They found a significantly lower serum cortisol levels and pain scores for those who had chemotherapy with CBT.
Trained counselors will be able to teach you many helpful and practical ways to deal with life’s stressors, while also helping you uncover the source of stress.
Lifestyle Stress Management
Sleep, nutrition and daily practices like moderate exercise and meditation all play a huge role in managing stress and therefore cortisol levels. While it is less exciting than being able to pop a pill and experience immediate effects, lifestyle changes truly are what will make the biggest difference in health overall.
Here are some resources I’ve put together on different lifestyle changes that can help you manage your stress:
- Meditation: Benefits of Guided Meditation
- Nutrition: How to Improve Your Mental Health With Food
- More Ways to Reduce Stress: How Stress Can Harm Your Immune System
- 3 Common Causes of Chronic Stress: Top 5 Reasons You Are Feeling Foggy, Fat & Fatigued: Stress
Happy reading! I hope these resources are helpful to you.