Cortisol, so beloved…or hated amongst many.
There are so much controversy about if you need to lower or increase it for optimal health, energy, fat loss, etc.
Cortisol is essential for our survival and optimal functionality. It’s naturally high in the morning and then drops off to very low levels at night. When this rhythm gets disrupted due to chronic stress, injury, gut issues, inflammation, etc, all hell breaks loose.
We often suffer from high and low cortisol at the same time. For instance, in the morning we struggle to get out of bed, need coffee to kickstart our day, and are groggy most of the morning. During the day we have mood disorders such as agitation, impatience, blunt mood, the blues, etc. We also often want to snack all the time. At night we struggle to unwind and to fall asleep, which is very frustrating. You had a low energy day and now you can’t sleep.
Here are a few additional symptoms of high cortisol:
- Inability to fall asleep, poor sleep, frequent awakening, not much deep sleep (feels like your hovering close to wakefulness), sleep-disordered breathing, etc (R)
- Weight gain around the midsection
- Muscle weakness
- Cognitive dysfunction – memory loss, struggling to focus, low creativity, etc.
- Inability to detox – liver dysfunction
- Tiredness after a meal
- Blurry vision and eye floaters
- Chronic inflammation. Although cortisol is anti-inflammatory in the short term, in the long term it promotes neurological inflammation and CRH (released by the hypothalamus) is also highly inflammatory.
- Cushing’s syndrome (extreme)
- Melancholic depression
- Frequent urination
- Suppressed immune system
- Muscle wasting or it’s very hard to put on muscle
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Diabetes mellitus
- Central obesity (metabolic syndrome)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
So let me fill you in on why that happens. With acute stress our bodies release a lot of cortisol and adrenaline. When the stress has passed, cortisol goes back to normal again and everything is good with the world.
But when we experience chronic stress, such as arguments, anticipation, under-eating, over-training, traffic, EMF, air pollution, toxic chemicals from products we use, plastics, worry, overthinking, regrets about the past, self-hatred, etc., we constantly experience an increase in the release of cortisol.
After a while of this chronic stress, more cortisol get bound up by its binding protein, corticosteroid binding globulin (CBG), and free cortisol drops. Additionally, the adrenal glands might become insensitive to ACTH, or the hypothalamus might become insensitive to cortisol itself and not down-regulate the HPA axis. There is actually quite a couple different things that can happen to your HPA axis when you’re under chronic stress.
Most often, when the HPA axis becomes dysfunctional, we experience more of a flat line in cortisol levels. Morning cortisol levels is reduced and then evening cortisol is elevated. For example, optimal morning cortisol is between 16-18mcg/dL and at or below 3 in the evening. With dysfunction cortisol levels, you might experience a cortisol levels of 8-10 during the whole day. So you lose that natural circadian rhythm of cortisol.
A few symptoms of low cortisol include:
- waking up tired in the mornings
- low blood sugar
- weak immune system
- light headed
- weight gain all over
So chronic high or low cortisol is very undesirable. The best way to check your cortisol levels is by doing a blood test in the morning. Then do a 24 hour salivary test and then finally, to get a pretty clear picture, do a DUTCH test (24 hour urine test).
Chronically elevated cortisol:
- Increases the aromatase and can lead to estrogen dominance.
- Degrades androgen receptors leading to androgen insensitivity.
- Inhibits steroidogenesis by lowering GnRH and LH and also reduces testicular function.
- Inhibits thyroid function by lowering TRH, TSH and also the conversion of T4 to T3.
- Increases the production of serotonin by inducing tryptophan hydroxylase. Chronically elevated serotonin is involved with a host of mental and physical side effects. Check out my article on serotonin here.
- Prevents proper digestion.
- Inhibits eNOS, which can promote hypertension, but increase iNOS, which promotes oxidative stress, DNA damage, inhibit mitochondrial function, etc. (R). More on lowering excess nitric oxide and restoring mitochondrial function here.
- Increases the production of brain toxic Aβ1-42 found in Alzheimer’s disease (R).
- Reduces brain volume (promotes brain shrinkage) and reduction of neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons) (R).
- Reduces emotional resilience especially if DHEA and DHEA-S are low.
- Promotes lipid peroxidation and oxidative stress and also damages RNA and new DNA formation (R).
- Promote neurological and brain degeneration (R).
- Increases the production of glucose, which could lead to hyperglycemia. Cortisol also produces insulin resistance, so more insulin is initially secreted to compensate for the insulin resistance thus leading to hyperinsulinemia.
- Damage the pancreas thus over time reducing insulin production and secretion.
- Impairs proper glucose oxidation and mitochondrial function, which leads to elevated blood sugar, triglycerides and free fatty acids.
- Promotes lipolysis which mobilized fat from fat stores, but increases the storage of fat around the midsection, leading to thin arms and legs and a big midsection.
Alright, let’s get into the good stuff. First I want to discuss with you a couple of the most potent cortisol lowering strategies and then I’ll go into the most effect supplements for controlling cortisol. Lastly, I’ll give you an AM and PM stack that you can use to modulate cortisol correctly.
#1 Balance blood sugar
Cortisol is involved in blood sugar regulation and if blood sugar drops too low, cortisol is released to pick it back up and prevent low blood sugar. But it’s actually the high cortisol that causes insulin resistance in the first place which causes blood sugar roller coasters. It’s not sugar or glucose, its cortisol dysregulation that’s causing it.
So the first thing you can do to fix cortisol is to prevent blood sugar roller coasters. One way to do this is to snack every hour, but this is not feasible or desired for most.
A few simple tricks is to:
- Avoid insulinogenic foods in the morning. A low protein, low GI, high fat breakfast would work prefect here. Nuts, fruit and gelatin can work perfect for this. A simple smoothie recipe include 1-2 cups of coconut milk, 1 tbsp cocoa powder, 1 tbsp raw honey (or monk fruit sweetner), 2 tbsp hydrolyzed gelatin, a handful of berries and a small mango.
- A moderate protein and carb lunch.
- A moderate protein and high carb dinner.
The reason for this is that most people with cortisol dysregulation are most insulin resistant in the morning and insulin sensitivity improve later in the day. Doing a training session before dinner is also a great way to improve insulin sensitivity before the high carb meal.
I’m not pro-low carb at all, but I’m all about finding foods and following a routine that don’t take you on a blood sugar roller coaster. Very low carb intake will further increase cortisol to pick blood sugar up again, so you do need carbs. About 100-200 grams daily while recovering is a good start.
Additional problems with carbs include digestive issues and reduced liver function, which reduces glycogen storage.
#2 Don’t obsess with being very low bodyfat
Being too low body fat is stressful in of itself. The amount of body fat you can tolerate without becoming too stressed is different for everyone. One guy might become too stressed if he dips under 15% BF whereas another might do fine on 9% but becomes too stressed if he’s under 8%.
Maintaining low body fat most often also comes with exercising too much and eating too little, both of which are great stressors and will suppress the metabolism and increase cortisol.
#3 Get your posture right
How you hold yourself has a great impact on your hormones and mood. Hunching over and maintaining low power poses lowers testosterone and increases cortisol, whereas keeping your spine straight and shoulders back increases testosterone and lowers cortisol.
You’ll also notice that when you’re upright with shoulder back, your breathing is deep and easy, which has a great anti-stress effect. Hunching over results in short and shallow breaths which reduces tissue oxygenation and leads to a host of negatives.
#4 Listen to music
There is almost nothing as stress-reducing as putting on a good jam. Music therapy has been shown to increase feelings of well-being and reduce cortisol (R). Although not all music has this effect, as ‘hard’ music can actually increase feelings of aggression and higher cortisol levels (R). But above all types of music, the ‘music’ of nature has the most soothing effect on the human mind. Just go to the forest or ocean or just somewhere nice and quiet without the noise of the city, and just listen to the birds and bugs and the wind blowing through the trees, and it will have a very calming effect on you.
#5 Forest bathing
It’s not just the sounds of nature that lower stress and cortisol, but actually also seeing and smelling nature. Another major benefit of being in nature is the ability to do grounding. It’s like a triple wammy. Combine that with some form of movement, like yoga, Tai Chi, or simply walking with someone whose company you enjoy and you got a quintuple wammy. Combine that with getting sunlight, getting away from EMF and bringing your pet along, you get an octuple wammy. Get my drift. ;D
Although getting in nature is the best, sniffing essential oils, having a ground mat, growing indoor plants and listing to nature sounds from a soundtrack could simulate a lot of the benefits you get from going into nature.
Mediation can be a great tool to lower stress and it’s been shown to work. There are so many different types of meditation, so finding the right one for you can help you lower stress in leaps and bounds.
Prayer is a surprisingly effective way of lowering stress and activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Have you ever found yourself praying and then starting to yawn not soon after? Yep, potent activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Massage therapy can lower cortisol up to an averaging decrease of 31% (R). And other than that, a massage is very calming and increases dopamine. Dopamine is the feel-good hormone which will give you energy, mental focus, courage, etc.
A massage can also help you to recover from an injury faster, or loosen up a tight and tense muscle that might be pinching.
Laughter is always good medicine. Laughter is a positive sensation, and seems to be a useful and healthy way to overcome stress. People who laugh more tend to have lower cortisol, higher dopamine, stronger immunity and have a better sense of well-being (R).
“A merry heart does good, like medicine, But a broken spirit dries the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22
“…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…” – Mathew 18:3. It doesn’t mean to become childish (in an immature way), but rather to become like children by laughing more, being humble, forgive easily, live in the now and trust God etc…
When you are in a deep hole, at first, it might seem impossible to laugh. But once you make an effort to look for the funny things it almost becomes a habit and it becomes to much easier.
#10 Lose fat
Fat (adipose tissue) is bad for just about every aspect of your life. It lowers testosterone, DHT, it reduces the quality of sleep and even increases cortisol, just to name a few of the detrimental side effects.
An enzyme’s activity, called 11β-Hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 (11β-HSD1), is increased as adipose tissue increases (R). This enzyme converts cortisone (weaker metabolite of cortisol) to cortisol, thus increasing cortisol levels in the blood.
But starting an aggressive diet and training program is the opposite of what you want to do if you’re already stressed out.
#11 Optimize sleep
Sleeping is the time when the body recovers, repairs and prepares for the following day. Sleep deprivation increases cortisol and many other unwanted side effects such as irritability, anger, anxiety, brain fog, headaches, aching body etc. Getting adequate sleep is very important if you want your body to function optimally, have optimal energy, brainpower and if you want to build muscle or perform better at a sport etc. Good, sufficient sleep increases testosterone and decreases cortisol. Just be sure you have enough liver glycogen to make it through the night without disruptive sleep. If you eat as discussed above to optimize blood sugar, you will be fine. Eat another piece of fruit and protein (poultry, fish, dairy) about 30 min to 1 hour before bed and this will help to keep blood sugar levels constant during the night. A drop in blood sugar will cause a rise in cortisol which will wake you.
#12 Change your perspective
#13 Optimize thyroid function
Elevated TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) is positively associated with cortisol (R). Hypothyroidism is associated with elevated TSH and low T3 hormone, but normal T4 hormone levels. Because thyroid hormones are low and cannot keep up with the body’s metabolic demands, cortisol steps in to provide energy. Cortisol then further suppresses the thyroid.
#14 Optimize your androgens
Pregnenolone, progesterone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), testosterone and DHT all exert anti-cortisol effects. High cortisol is not necessarily the greatest evil, but when cortisol is unopposed by your androgens, then all hell breaks loose.
Read more here to:
#15 Fix gut health and lower endotoxins
Endotoxins, or lipopolysaccharides, are created from gram negative bacteria in the gut. Endotoxins, when it enters the general circulation due to leaky gut, wreaks havoc; it promotes inflammation, is involved in the destruction of almost every organ in the body, including joints. The immune system mounts an attack against these endotoxins and then you get auto-immune symptoms.
As Hippocrates said: “all disease starts in the gut.”
So we want to focus on lowering excess gut bacteria and fixing leaky gut.
To lower excess gut bacteria, we must:
- Lower our intake of fermentable fibers
- Eat easy digested foods. Undigested foods, such as meat, starch, raw veggies, etc., all travel to the colon (or even in the small intestine) where these critters hang out, and provide them with food.
- Improve digestion. Optimal thyroid function will ensure optimal digestion. Alternatively, use digestive enzymes.
- Secrete bile. Bile is potent anti-bacterial and will help to keep these bacterial in check.
- Use anti-bacterial substances such as cinnamon oil, oregano oil (must be high in carvacrol and thymol), nystatin, bitter melon, garlic oil, echinacea, goldenseal, etc.
To heal a leaky gut, you can use:
- Bone broth / hydrolyzed gelatin
- Slippery elm
- Aloe vera
- Zinc carnosine
Weight training has tons of benefits and every person should do at least some kind of physical activity. Weight training is good for blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, brain function (by increasing brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)), hormones, detoxification, muscle coordination & balance, mood & well-being, cardiovascular health, etc… Weight training is also potent anti-anxiety and decreases resting cortisol in men (R, R). It also increases beta-endorphins (natural pain killers which are great against depression) and dopamine, which increases mental clarity, ambition, enthusiasm, drive, focus, etc…
#17 Bright light
Bright light, such as sunlight, significantly lowers cortisol, whereas dim light, such as candlelight, had no effect on cortisol (R). Sunlight is also known to increase dopamine, feelings of well-being, elevate brain fog and just refresh the mind. Sunlight is also a powerful anti-bacterial and anti-viral.
Getting sunlight on your eyeballs first thing when you wake up is the best way to help entrain your circadian rhythm so that you wake up with more energy and actually go to bed tired.
#18 Lower inflammation
Cortisol is secreted to deal with inflammation, but it also suppresses the immune system. A suppressed immune system can lead to a whole lot of other issues which we do not want. DHEA, on the other hand, is also anti-inflammatory by stimulating the immune system and would be a much greater option for lowering inflammation than boosting cortisol.
Other anti-inflammatory substances like aspirin can also help to lower cortisol and increase DHEA and testosterone.
#19 Eat carbs
This is probably the most important thing you can do to prevent stress or lower stress. In a stress response, glucose is utilized very rapidly by catecholamines. Once used up, cortisol kicks in. Having adequate glycogen stores will help to keep cortisol low for longer, but eating some carb will further boost that effect. Fast digesting carbs might be best, like sugar, fruit juice, dried fruits and whole fruits. Milk with sugar can also have a synergistic anti-stress effect.
#20 Eat saturated fat
Coconut oil and MCT oil also have potent anti-stress and cortisol lowering effects (R).
#21 Intranasal insulin
Intranasal insulin very effectively lowers the responsiveness of the adrenal to ACTH, thus lowering the total amount of cortisol produced. If you are about to go into a stressful meeting or something like that, take a squirt or two of intranasal insulin and you’d be good to go.
#22 Eat cocoa
Cocoa contains some potent anti-stress and anti-inflammatory properties. Oxidative stress extinguishes the anti-inflammatory effect of cortisol, leading to cortisol resistance, whereas the cocoa flavanol (-)-epicatechin reduces intracellular oxidative stress as well as the development of cortisol resistance (R). Remember, cortisol resistance increases CRH and cortisol levels due to the inability to downregulate its own production.
Not only is it anti-inflammatory, but it also reduces the amount of cortisol produced and prevents the negative effect of cortisol on the metabolism and gut (R). Just 40g of dark chocolate (yielding 15-30mg of epicatechin) daily is enough for this benefit. Cocoa also helps to lower cortisol after a stressful task (R). Now you know why people crave chocolate when they’re stressed.
Alrighty, now that we have discussed easy and simple methods of lowering cortisol, let’s jump into the supplements.
I’m not going to discuss each individually unless it’s really interesting, but I’ll indicate appropriate doses. If you want to get to the stack, scroll to the bottom for that.
- Ashwagandha – 300-500mg twice daily (KSM-66 extract). – (Amazon, iHerb, NeuroActive (use the link to get 10% off))
- Rhodiola Rosea – it restore proper ATP production under stress (R). Use 500mg once or twice daily – (Amazon, iHerb, NeuroActive (use the link to get 10% off))
- Lysine & Arginine – Use 3g of each at the same time in the morning
- Magnesium – Low magnesium leads to elevated CRH and ACTH. Stress depletes magnesium. Start with 200mg and work up to 2g if needed – (Amazon, iHerb, NeuroActive)
- Omega 3 – Possibly by competing with omega 6 for the COX enzyme. Instead of mega-dosing omega 3, lower omega 6 intake.
- Phosphatidylserine – 100mg could be effective at lowering cortisol, but sometimes up to 600mg is required. PS helps clear cortisol off of its receptor. – (Amazon, iHerb, Neuroactive)
- Vitamin C – it blunts the ACTH release. 1.5g is better than 500mg – (Amazon, iHerb)
- Niacinamide (no other form) – it inhibits 11β-HSD type 1 and promotes 11β-HSD type 2, thus inhibiting cortisone conversion to cortisol and promotes cortisol conversion to cortisone. 500mg daily is ample – (Amazon, iHerb)
- Vitamin B6 – it inhibit cortisol secretion and reduces cortisol receptor sensitivity. An excess will also reduce androgen receptor sensitivity.
- Vitamin D – just 2000IU is able to reduce cortisol by 40%, by reducing the enzyme 11β-HSD 1 (R). Vitamin D also improve cortisol sensitivity, thus reducing CRH and ACTH. – (Amazon, iHerb)
- Aspirin – it inhibits the enzyme 11β-HSD1 and blunts the release of cortisol during stress. In one study 800mg twice daily significantly increased testosterone and lowered cortisol – (Amazon)
- Vitamin A – it inhibits the enzyme 11β-HSD1. Instead of supplementing I recommend eating more vitamin A rich foods, such as beef liver, egg yolks, leafy greens, pumpkin, butternut, etc.
- Zinc – 30mg would be enough for a potent effect. Oysters, red meat and organ meat are the best sources of zinc – (Amazon, iHerb)
- Theanine – 200mg theanine was shown to lower cortisol quite significantly, but only after 3 hours of ingesting. – (Amazon, iHerb, Neuroactive)
- Emodin – it inhibits the enzyme 11β-HSD1. The half-life is very short though.
- Relora – this is a combination of magnolia and phellodendron. Magnolia can also be used on its own for potent anti-stress effects in doses of 200-500mg. – (Amazon, iHerb)
- CBD oil (R)
- Glycine – use 5g before bed or 5g three times per day to keep stress at bay – (Amazon, iHerb)
- Milk thistle – use 200-500mg as higher doses might become estrogenic – (Amazon, iHerb)
- Ornithine – 500mg+ in the morning. Even doses of 5g before bed can help greatly for sleep. – (Amazon, iHerb)
- Tulsi (Holy Basil) – 500mg in the morning – (Amazon, iHerb)
- β-hydroxy β-methylbutyrate (HMB) – use 1g three times daily. It’s great for sparing muscle mass – (Amazon, iHerb)
- Ginkgo Biloba – Use 120mg in the morning. – (Amazon, iHerb, NeuroActive)
That is it for the cortisol lowering supplements. Although it’s not an exhaustive list, it contains most of the most common and potent cortisol lowering supplements.
Now, let me give you a AM and PM stack to help modulate cortisol levels.
1) Liquorice root extract – 20-200mg, but only if you blood test show low cortisol in the morning.
2a) Caffeine + Theanine (100mg each)
2b) Red ginseng (500-1500mg)
2c) Cordyceps (700mg)
2d) Holy Basil (500mg)
2e) Schisandra berry (1g)
2f) Rhodiola Rosea (200-500mg)
- Phosphatidylserine (100-600mg)
- CBD (300-600mg)
- Glycine (5g)
- Magnolia (300-500mg)
- Magnesium (200mg-2g)
How this works is to use 1 and one of the options from 2 from the AM stack. You can always combine a few options from 2, but as a start, pick only one.
With the PM stack, pick only one. If it doesn’t work for you, after a day or two, up the dose. If it still doesn’t work for you, then try another one.
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