Reader Note: Although this article discusses remedies for cortisol regulation, it is always important to discuss with your healthcare practitioner before starting any new herbal supplements or medications. This article is not meant to replace a detailed evaluation and treatment plan.
Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone,” is a steroid hormone released by the adrenal cortex, the outer layer of the adrenal gland, in response to internal or external stressors. When we're faced with a stressful situation, cortisol works to increase our blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate. It's released during the "fight-or-flight" response, triggering the release of glucose from the liver and muscle tissue to provide energy for the body to confront or flee from the source of danger.
Cortisol has many functions in the human body, such as mediating the stress response, regulating metabolism, the inflammatory response, and immune function. (Source)
While our body's response to stress is an important survival mechanism, an overproduction of cortisol can lead to problems. If your stress is ongoing, your body will release excess cortisol at regular intervals, causing your body and mind to feel constantly stressed — and potentially leading to serious health problems. Existing evidence suggests that chronically elevated levels of cortisol can suppress the immune system, decrease bone density, increase body fat, suppress the digestive system, and negatively impact the reproductive system.
Fortunately, there are many evidence-based natural remedies that support a resilient response to stress, thereby reducing cortisol levels. Many of the supplements and herbs listed below have been used for centuries and have only recently been deeply examined by researchers.
Read on to learn more about the 15 evidence-based herbs and supplements to lower your cortisol levels.
What Is Cortisol and Why Should I Care?
Popularly known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is a key player in the body's stress response system. Cortisol secretion is regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a major part of the neuroendocrine system, which is responsible for the release of other hormones in addition to cortisol. (Source)
When a person is under physical or psychological stress, the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls thirst, hunger, and fatigue, sends a message to the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then travels to the adrenal cortex, which triggers the release of cortisol. (Source)
The body produces cortisol in a diurnal pattern based on our circadian rhythm. Under normal conditions, cortisol is at its lowest level around midnight and is secreted at higher levels in the early morning, peaking within about an hour of waking. Cortisol levels peak each day at roughly the same time, and a disruption in this rhythm can have significant effects on the body, especially when it comes to the immune system, metabolism, and stress response.
What Herbs and Supplements Reduce Cortisol?
Note: many of the studies listed below have smaller sample sizes (< 50 participants), so more studies are needed with larger populations.
Chamomile has been used for over three thousand years as a natural remedy to reduce anxiety and encourage sleep, thanks to its powerful effects on the nervous and digestive systems. Chamomile is believed to help regulate release of cortisol and boost the immune system, making it a powerful tool in improving symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s also anti-inflammatory and interferes with the creation of proinflammatory cytokines that increase cortisol levels. (Source, Source)
Ashwagandha is a plant that has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine to lower stress levels and fight insomnia. It’s an adaptogenic herb, which means it helps your body adapt to stress. Studies have demonstrated its ability to decrease the effects of stress on the body’s nervous system and restore normal cortisol levels — in one study, participants had substantially reduced serum cortisol levels and increased feelings of well-being after treatment with a highly concentrated Ashwagandha extract. (Source)
Rhodiola, also known as arctic root or gold root, is a plant with medicinal properties that has been used as an adaptogen to lower cortisol and stress-induced catecholamines. Of the different rhodiola strains, researchers have found Rhodiola rosea to be the most effective in terms of health benefits. Its cortisol-reducing properties come from a compound, salidroside, which is a polyphenol believed to inhibit the breakdown of neurotransmitters including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. (Source, Source, Source)
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a member of the mint family and has been used for centuries in traditional medicine for stress. Lemon balm contains rosmarinic acid, which has been found to reduce cortisol levels in the blood. Additionally, lemon balm contains a number of antioxidants, including caffeic acid and quercetin. These antioxidants help to neutralize free radicals in the body and lower the oxidative stress that can lead to chronic diseases. (Source, Source, Source)
Prebiotics are indigestible nutrients that stimulate the growth and activity of probiotics, beneficial microorganisms in the gut microbiome. Results from studies examining their cortisol-reducing properties look promising, but additional studies are needed. Prebiotics, primarily simple carbohydrates, occur naturally in many foods including fruits, whole grains, onions, and artichokes and can also be found as dietary supplements. (Source, Source, Source)
Probiotics are live microorganisms that can help support your gut health, strengthen your immune system, and reduce inflammation. Studies have shown that probiotics may lower levels of cortisol and even reduce the symptoms of depression. In a randomized, double-blind controlled trial, researchers found that probiotic supplementation, specifically the Lactobacillus plantarum strain, decreased cortisol levels and increased the levels of lactobacilli in students preparing for an upcoming exam. (Source, Source)
Maca is derived from the root of Lepidium meyenii, a member of the cabbage family that grows in the Andes Mountains and is widely used in South America. It has been used by the indigenous Peruvians for thousands of years to boost energy, stamina, and libido. A study published in the International Journal of Biomedical Science found that maca may exert antidepressant effects on rats, reducing their cortisol and ACTH levels simultaneously. Although maca’s mechanism of action is not entirely understood yet, researchers hypothesize this effect may be due to its plant sterols—naturally occurring compounds found in plant cell membranes—that support the functioning of many glands (including adrenals, thyroid, and pineal) via the pituitary gland. (Source, Source, Source)
Passionflower is an herb with calming effects that has been used for medicinal purposes since the 16th century. The Passiflora genus comprises hundreds of species, some of which may be helpful in treating chronic inflammatory conditions. Animal studies have suggested passionflower extract has a sedative effect, helping to increase the amount of slow-wave sleep, but more research is needed in humans. Passionflower can be found in teas, capsules, tinctures, and tablets. (Source, Source, Source)
Whey protein is a complete form of protein that contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s one of the most bioavailable forms of protein available and has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, while also helping to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Whey is also considered one of the best sources of cysteine, a non-essential amino acid that helps protect cells from oxidative stress and improve the immune system. In one study, consuming whey protein increased cognitive performance, reduced cortisol levels, and improved mood in stress-prone participants. Researchers believe this may be due to increased activity of serotonin and tryptophan in the brain. (Source, Source, Source)
St. John’s wort
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been used for centuries to treat a variety of mental and emotional disorders, ranging from stress and anxiety to insomnia. The herb is believed to work similar to serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) by increasing the uptake of serotonin and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters that help regulate our mood. Studies have suggested St. John’s wort is more effective than placebo for people with mild to moderate depression, and it may be as effective as antidepressant medications in certain cases. The leaves of the shrubby plant are prepared and sold in different forms, including capsules, tablets, tinctures, and teas. (Source, Source, Source)
Note: St. John’s wort has been shown to interact with a number of conventional medications and may have serious side effects if taken along with SSRIs or other drugs, so medical consultation is needed before trying it as a treatment for depression.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is a plant that grows in marshy areas and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It’s perhaps best known in the Western world for its use in improving memory, but it’s also been used to treat anxiety, depression, and stress. Although larger trials are needed, in one study of healthy participants who participated in a multitasking activity, bacopa reduced cortisol levels and improved mood. (Source, Source)
Fish oil is another nutrient that can help reduce cortisol levels. It contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties that can regulate the HPA axis and counteract the inflammatory effects of cortisol. In a randomized controlled trial, fish oil supplementation reduced cortisol secretion in abstinent alcoholics, who are thought to experience HPA axis dysfunction. (Source, Source, Source)
While it's best known for its ability to boost stamina and endurance, ginseng also has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-stress properties. Studies have found that ginseng supplementation lowers cortisol levels in healthy subjects by blocking release of the adrenocorticotropic hormone, and in this way may have an anti-stress effect. It can be taken as a tea, tincture, or capsule. (Source, Source, Source)
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid, meaning it’s a major component of cell membranes and essential for keeping the membranes of cells flexible and fluid. It helps protect brain cells from damage and is thought to help improve memory and learning. Numerous studies have examined the effects of phosphatidylserine in athletic endeavors (even in Olympians!), and have found it improved athletic performance and decreased recovery time, while also reducing cortisol levels. (Source, Source)
L-theanine, an amino acid found primarily in green tea, has been shown to lower cortisol levels in the brain. It’s a compound that promotes mental alertness and clarity by encouraging alpha brain waves. Alpha waves typically occur when we’re daydreaming or relaxed, and are associated with feelings of creativity, intuition, and alert relaxation. In one study, participants who consumed a drink containing 200 mg of l-theanine reported feelings of relaxation afterward, in addition to experiencing reduced cortisol levels. (Source)
Trying to manage your stress can often feel like an overwhelming task. It's no secret there are often many factors at play when it comes to stress and cortisol may be one of them. More evidence is showing how certain supplements can help regulate cortisol levels and in turn help manage your stress levels. By working with your healthcare practitioner, you can come up with a plan to safely implement supplements to balance stress and improve your quality of life.
The Bottom Line on Cortisol-Reducing Supplements
Trying to manage your stress can often feel like an overwhelming task. It's no secret there are often many factors at play when it comes to stress, and cortisol may be one of them. More evidence is showing how certain supplements can help regulate cortisol levels and in turn help manage your stress levels. By working with your healthcare practitioner and a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, you can get a personalized lifestyle plan that safely implements supplements and foods to balance stress and improve your quality of life.