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 you're faced with a stressful situation, cortisol works to increase your 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 to confront or flee from the source of danger. (Source)
While your 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. (Source, Source, Source, Source)
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 more closely examined by researchers.
Read on to learn more about the 15 evidence-based herbs and supplements to lower your cortisol levels.
What Is Cortisol?
Often 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 communication system that connects the brain with the body and is responsible for the release of other hormones in addition to cortisol. (Source)
When you’re 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), which then travels to the adrenal cortex and triggers the release of cortisol. (Source)
Your body produces cortisol in a daily pattern based on your 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 your body, especially when it comes to your immune system, metabolism, and stress response.
What Herbs and Supplements Reduce Cortisol?
Chamomile has been used for over 3,000 years as a natural remedy to reduce anxiety and encourage sleep, thanks to its effects on the nervous and digestive systems. Chamomile is believed to help regulate release of cortisol and boost the immune system. It’s also anti-inflammatory and interferes with the creation of pro-inflammatory signaling proteins called cytokines that increase cortisol levels. Chamomile is often made into tea but can also be taken as capsules or tinctures. If you are prone to hay fever, it’s important to know that there have been case reports of people with pollen sensitivities having severe allergic reactions to chamomile. (Source, 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 known as an adaptogen, or a substance thought to help your body adapt to stress. Studies have demonstrated its ability to lower cortisol levels, and more recent research suggests ashwagandha may also have anti-inflammatory effects and may help prevent stress-inducing chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. (Source, 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 (hormones such as epinephrine, also known as adrenaline). 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 that has been used in traditional medicine for centuries to combat 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 with the Lactobacillus plantarum strain, decreased cortisol levels and increased the levels of lactobacilli in students preparing for an upcoming exam. (Source, Source)