Last modified on March 7th, 2023
Elevated cortisol levels may be wreaking havoc on your life and stem from chronic stress. Ongoing exposure to stress hormones can worsen mental health problems, increase your risk of chronic disease, and even impact your digestive system and gut health.
Reducing cortisol levels with certain supplements can improve your feelings and overall health.
Cortisol-reducing supplements can often help with general stress reduction and healthy mental alertness and might even help reduce things like high blood pressure and brain fog.
Our picks for the five best supplements to reduce cortisol are:
- Integrative Therapeutics Cortisol Manager
- Holy Basil
Below, we discuss what to know about cortisol, why your levels get high, and the effects of high cortisol on your physical and mental health.
We will also look at the supplements to reduce cortisol listed above in more detail and explore the idea of a natural cortisol blocker.
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid glucocorticoid hormone. Your adrenal glands produce and then release cortisol.
A hormone is a chemical coordinating functions in your body by carrying messages through your blood and to your skin, muscles, organs, and other tissues. Hormones signal to your body what to do and when to do it.
As a steroid hormone, glucocorticoids suppress tissue inflammation, control metabolism, and affect sleep-wake cycles.
Your adrenal glands, located on top of your kidneys, are part of the endocrine system. Cortisol is a hormone that plays a lot of essential roles, such as:
- Regulating your body’s response to stress
- Controlling the use of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, as well as your metabolism
- Inflammation suppression
- Regulation of blood sugar
- Regulating blood pressure
Your body works to keep your cortisol levels balanced because it can be harmful when they’re too low or high.
We sometimes hear cortisol referred to as the stress hormone, but it also has other roles. Some of the ways cortisol affects your body include:
- Regulating your body’s response to stress. When experiencing stress, your body releases cortisol after the adrenaline and other fight-or-flight hormones. Cortisol also triggers the release of sugar from your liver, giving you a fast energy source during stress.
- Cortisol regulates your metabolism and how you use food and nutrients for energy.
- Short bursts of cortisol can limit inflammation and boost your immune function. You might experience inflammation and a suppressed immune system if you regularly have high cortisol levels.
- Cortisol regulates blood pressure, so higher hormone levels can cause high blood pressure and vice versa.
- Cortisol, under normal circumstances, counterbalances insulin effects. Insulin is a hormone the pancreas makes to regulate blood sugar. Cortisol can raise blood sugar by releasing stored glucose, and insulin lowers blood sugar. If your cortisol levels are chronically elevated, you may have persistent high blood sugar, putting you at risk for type 2 diabetes.
- Normally, we have lower cortisol levels in the evening when going to sleep, then levels peak in the morning before waking up. Cortisol plays a role in your body’s circadian rhythm and wakefulness.
If you have high cortisol, it can cause symptoms including:
- Weight gain, especially around your upper back and midsection
- Weight gain on the face
- Rounding of the face
- Thin skin
- Easy bruising
- Muscle weakness
- High blood pressure
- Lack of sex drive
- Mood swings, including anxiety or depression
- Irregular periods
If someone has high cortisol, they could have Cushing syndrome. There are other factors outside of this condition that can lead to elevated cortisol levels:
- Stress: When you experience a lot of stress, there are signals from nerves and hormones. These signals lead your adrenal glands to release hormones, including cortisol. When you’re under constant stress, you stay stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Long-term exposure to stress hormones, including cortisol, can increase your risk for many health issues, including obesity, anxiety, depression, and heart disease.
- Pituitary gland issues: Your pituitary gland is a small organ at the brain’s base that controls certain hormones’ secretion. If you have issues with this gland, it may under or over-produce certain hormones. Pituitary conditions that can trigger high cortisol include hyperpituitarism, an overactive pituitary gland, benign pituitary tumors, and cancer tumors.
- Adrenal tumors: Adrenal gland tumors can be benign or cancerous, but both types can lead to high cortisol levels and other hormones.
- Medication side effects: Some medicines, such as oral contraceptives and corticosteroids, can increase cortisol levels.
- Estrogen: When you have circulating estrogen, it can increase your cortisol levels. High circulating estrogen concentrations are women’s most common cause of elevated cortisol.
Cortisol and Weight Gain: What’s the Connection?
Cortisol is typically released in relation to your circadian rhythm. Around 50 to 60% of your cortisol is released within 30 to 40 minutes of waking up. Then, as your day progresses, your cortisol levels should naturally decline.
When you’re experiencing increased stress, your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline. The release of these hormones raises your energy level and your heart rate.
Regarding your body weight, hormone regulation is one of the important factors influencing your body weight. Your endocrine system typically balances your hormones, but there are situations where they can be low or high.
When you have high cortisol levels, one of the ways it can contribute to weight gain is by prompting you to overeat. A study of 59 women found an association between elevated cortisol levels and increased appetite, contributing to weight gain.
Another study found a link between higher cortisol response and more belly fat in a group of men and women. Sometimes, this is called the stress belly.
High long-term cortisol levels are highly associated with abdominal obesity.
Other reasons that high cortisol is linked to weight gain and abdominal obesity include:
- Insulin resistance and chronic inflammation: When you have belly fat, it leads to chronic inflammation. Additionally, belly fat can release compounds that signal to your brain that it should release more cortisol. This cycle leads to more and more fat buildup in the abdominal area.
- Sleep problems: Sleep is important to overall health and wellness and helps you maintain a healthy weight. When you have high cortisol, your sleep patterns are disrupted. If you can’t sleep, your body isn’t able to release growth hormones. Growth hormone helps you go into a deep sleep. Because of a lack of sleep, your body then loses insulin sensitivity. When you’re tired and stressed, your body is not functioning as it should, and you’re less likely to make good eating choices.
- Lower metabolic rate: Cortisol levels affect your thyroid hormones, estrogen, and testosterone. These hormones can reduce your metabolic rate, so your body burns fewer calories.
What Causes High Cortisol Levels?
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to high cortisol levels. Some of the things that contribute to abnormally high levels of cortisol include:
- Not getting enough sleep– especially deep sleep naturally suppresses cortisol synthesis. One of the main reasons behind the excess cortisol secretion is sleep insufficiency.
- Stress—high stress levels affect cortisol synthesis. Your stress response system gets stuck in constant fight-or-flight mode if you regularly experience high stress levels. When there’s sufficient cortisol in your body, it begins a negative feedback loop. This loop tells your HPA axis to turn off cortisol production. If you have a life with chronic stress exposure, your body is consistently flooded with high cortisol levels, damaging your negative feedback loop. Your body maintains high cortisol levels even if the stressor goes away.
- Circadian problems—any time there’s a disturbance to your internal clock, it can affect your cortisol rhythm. Shift work and jet lag are reasons your internal clock might be off concerning your cortisol.
- Medical causes—there are different reasons high cortisol levels can become consistent, which we discussed above.
- Exercise can lower cortisol, but remember that high-intensity workouts raise cortisol. You want to give yourself plenty of recovery time after workouts to avoid this.
People often wonder if there’s a natural supplement that acts as a cortisol blocker. Cortisol blocker is a bit of a misnomer because you need some of the hormones, but there are supplements to reduce cortisol and create more of a sense of balance.
Below, we highlight some of the best supplements to reduce your cortisol levels naturally and get them back to normal. Cortisol reduction can make you feel better than you ever thought.
- What Is it? Ashwagandha is one of the essential herbs in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years to improve concentration, relieve stress, and raise energy levels.
- The Benefits: Ashwagandha is a potent reducer of cortisol. It’s an adaptogen with natural substances to help your body deal with stress and maintain a sense of homeostasis.
- How much should you take? You can take daily doses of 125 mg of up to 5 grams to lower cortisol, stress, and anxiety. 500 to 600 mg daily may reduce anxiety and cortisol for most people.
- Are there side effects? For most people, ashwagandha is considered a safe herb. Most human studies don’t show side effects or adverse events, but you shouldn’t take it if you’re pregnant. If you have hormone-sensitive cancer, you might avoid taking ashwagandha. Potential side effects that have been recorded include gastrointestinal discomfort and drowsiness. Ashwagandha may affect the thyroid, so if you have a thyroid condition, speak to your healthcare provider before trying ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha is one of those amazingly beneficial supplements that consistently ranks high on any list of the best herbal remedies. Ashwagandha has a long history in traditional medicine, especially Ayurveda. For thousands of years, ashwagandha has been used, and it’s also known as Withania somnifera, Indian ginseng, and winter cherry.
As far as being one of the best supplements to reduce cortisol, it works in multiple ways.
First, ashwagandha helps reduce anxiety and stress. It’s an adaptogen, so it helps the body deal with the effects of stress in a healthy way. Ashwagandha controls stress mediators, including cortisol, reducing the HPA axis’s activity. The HPA axis is a bodily system that regulates the stress response.
In one study using cortisol to measure the results of taking ashwagandha versus a placebo, the ashwagandha group significantly reduced cortisol levels compared to the placebo group. Participants took 250 or 600 mg of ashwagandha for eight weeks in this study.
The ability to reduce cortisol is just one of ashwagandha’s many benefits.
Other benefits of ashwagandha include improving athletic performance, reducing mental conditions like depression symptoms, and boosting testosterone and fertility in males.
Ashwagandha may reduce blood sugar levels, and it can also combat inflammation in the body.
- What Is it? L-theanine is an amino acid that naturally occurs in black and green tea and some mushrooms and is also available as a supplement.
- The Benefits: Along with being one of the best supplements to reduce cortisol, l-theanine, in general, can help with stress, anxiety, and insomnia. Some people use it with caffeine to improve attention and focus.
- How much should you take? A good dose of l-theanine to reduce cortisol and stress is around 200 to 400 mg.
- Are there side effects? L-theanine is considered very safe as a supplement, and the only side effects we could find were rarely some people experience nausea or stomach upset when taking it.
L-theanine is an excellent supplement to reduce cortisol. After taking this amino acid, in about 20 minutes, it can lower your cortisol levels.
L-theanine can help with stress and anxiety, and it’s been shown effective by a number of studies.
When pairing it with caffeine, some people use L-theanine as a nootropic to improve focus and concentration.
L-theanine may help improve the function of your immune system, and it can reduce inflammation, especially in the intestinal tract. In some research, l-theanine has been found to help improve chemotherapy’s ability to combat cancer. In a study in China, women with ovarian cancer who had at least one cup of green tea a day lived longer than those who didn’t, and green tea is known for having a high amount of l-theanine.
If you have high blood pressure, especially in stressful situations, l-theanine can help you sleep better.
There aren’t any confirmed, direct side effects we could find for l-theanine, but the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements, so you need to read product details carefully.
3. Cortisol Manager
- What Is it? Integrative Therapeutics Cortisol Manager is a combination supplement that includes l-theanine and ashwagandha. Other ingredients include magnolia, epimedium, and phosphatidylserine.
- The Benefits: Cortisol Manager is a combination product that helps support relaxation, stabilize cortisol, promote a healthy stress response, and help users get restful sleep.
- How much should you take? According to the instructions, you should take one to two Cortisol Manager capsules close to when you plan to go to bed.
- Are there side effects? After researching Cortisol Manager, we found a copy of self-reported side effects associated with the supplement to reduce cortisol. These include mild symptoms like flushing or sweating. Some people reported that it makes them groggy, but most users don’t say they experienced any side effects.
I’m usually not a fan of combination products because I think you get more effectiveness and value when you buy ingredients individually. One of my few exceptions is Cortisol Manager from Integrative Therapeutics—one of my favorite supplements.
The entire objective of this supplement is to reduce cortisol, and it can also promote relaxation and restful sleep.
Cortisol Manager includes Sensoril brand ashwagandha, which has significantly reduced serum cortisol levels in clinical trials. L-theanine is included in the supplement for relaxation and promotes alpha-brain wave activity.
Magnolia bark extract is included in the formulation, which has been shown to help with various brain disorders and mental health disorders, including stress, mood disorders, anxiety, and depression.
In a study of magnolia bark in 56 adults, it appeared that taking the extract daily led to significantly lower levels of cortisol and improved moods.
This supplement to reduce cortisol contains phosphatidylserine as well. This is a phospholipid that helps with the transmission of messages between nerve cells in your brain. When taken as a supplement, phosphatidylserine may help with stress, anxiety, ADHD, depression, and multiple sclerosis. People use the supplement to improve their mood, boost their exercise performance, and get healthier sleep.
4. Holy Basil
- What Is it? Also known as tulsi, holy basil is a medical herb for stress and other conditions. Holy basil is considered a sacred plant in Hinduism, and it’s called the “Mother Medicine of Nature.”
- The Benefits: Along with being a supplement to reduce cortisol, holy basil can help combat the adverse effects of stress, stabilize blood sugar and promote longevity.
- How much should you take? You can take around 500 mg of holy basil daily to reduce cortisol, stress, and anxiety.
- Are there side effects? Holy basil has a long history of use, and no adverse side effects have been reported in human trials.
Holy basil is a powerhouse of adaptogenic herbs to help you manage stress and lower cortisol levels.
Holy basil is a green leafy plant that grows natively in Southeast Asia.
All parts of the plant are an adaptogen, so they’re natural substances that promote mental balance and help your body adapt to stress. Holy basil is unique because it can help you deal with emotional but also physical and chemical stress.
The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine reports that holy basil has anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties comparable to prescription antidepressants and diazepam.
Holy basil can help your body detox, is high in antioxidants, and can prevent cancer by reducing the growth of cancer cells.
Taking holy basil can help lower your blood sugar and prevent symptoms of diabetes, and it targets metabolic stress, so it can help reduce cholesterol levels and promote weight loss.
If you suffer from adrenal fatigue, holy basil is an excellent natural supplement to add to your routine. There are a number of studies that show holy basil can protect from elevated cortisol.
- What Is it? Phosphatidylserine, or PS, is a fat-soluble amino acid. High amounts are found in the brain, which plays a role in cognitive functioning.
- The Benefits: Phosphatidylserine reduces cortisol and may improve cognitive functioning and memory.
- How much should you take? A common dose of this supplement to reduce cortisol is 100 mg, taken three times a day. In animal studies, doses that are equal to up to 550 mg have been used safely.
- Are there side effects? Phosphatidylserine is considered generally safe. At more than 300 mg, it could cause mild side effects like stomach upset and insomnia.
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid, so it’s made of amino acids and fatty acids. It’s found in almost every cell of our bodies and plays an important role in supporting our brain cell membranes, allowing them to communicate.
As we age, phosphatidylserine helps protect our memory, and it also can help promote focus, improve mood, and boost our resilience to stress.
Phosphatidylserine can reduce cortisol levels, whether high because of physiological stress, like intense exercise or emotional stress. Since phosphatidylserine is one of the best supplements to reduce cortisol, it also helps with insomnia and sleep disturbances and gives you a restful night’s sleep.
As a supplement, this nutrient can help with your memory, and it’s been shown to improve symptoms of depression, including treatment-resistant depression.
The supplement’s benefits on mental health tend to be most noticeable when combined with EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids.
Most people consider phosphatidylserine well-tolerated since it’s a naturally-occurring substance with which your body is already familiar. You should always let your doctor know about any supplements you’re trying or regularly taking, even so.
Final Thoughts—The Best Supplements To Lower Cortisol Levels
When you have high cortisol levels, it’s often because of chronic stress.
Cortisol is the stress hormone, and when your levels are out of balance, it can wreak havoc on your health.
Symptoms of high cortisol include weight gain in the face, around the midsection, and in the upper back. Acne, thinning skin, muscle weakness, fatigue, headaches, high blood pressure, and problems concentrating are signs of high cortisol.
However, there are ways to bring your cortisol levels back into balance with the supplements listed above.
Each of the best supplements to reduce cortisol featured in the above guide is backed by evidence and research and can help your body more effectively deal with stress while lowering your cortisol levels so you look and feel your best.
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Whenever possible, we review and rank products that we actually use to provide a better understanding of what you can expect.