Think back to the last time you were stressed out about something: The racing thoughts, clammy hands, and nervous energy you likely felt were thanks in part to a little hormone called cortisol. While it's normal (and essential) for cortisol levels to rise and fall throughout the day, the hormone shouldn't stay elevated for too long.
Here's what doctors want you to know about the link between stress and cortisol, when it's time to bring your cortisol levels down, and the best supplements, foods, and practices to help keep the hormone in check.*
The relationship between cortisol & stress
Cortisol is the body's main stress hormone, and our adrenal glands naturally release it throughout the day. Just about every organ in the body has receptors that react to cortisol, explains Ian Leber, M.D., the chief medical officer of Sollis Health.
"Cortisol is essential for living. It peaks at the beginning of the day to support getting out of bed and decreases throughout the day to allow 'sleep pressure' to build. Without cortisol, we would lack the motivation to get up and do things," says Shera Raisen, M.D., a physician at concierge primary care center The Lanby.
"Cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose, and it also increases the availability of substances that repair tissues," explains dual board-certified doctor Seema Bonney, M.D. This makes us feel more awake, alert, and ready to take action. So it makes sense that any time we're faced with a perceived threat, the adrenals churn out some more cortisol to help all the organs in our body prepare to fight or flee the situation.
The issue is that as cortisol revs our bodies up, it diverts energy away from the processes that aren't essential for the fight-or-flight response, such as digestion and rest.
"Typically, perceived threats pass quickly and the hormone levels return to normal resulting in a return to baseline for those nonessential systems," Bonney explains. However, "when stressors are consistently present and you constantly feel under attack, this fight-or-flight response stays turned on." This is when cortisol can start to negatively affect things like sleep quality, blood sugar balance, immunity, and digestion.
RELATED STORY: The 6 Best At-Home Cortisol Tests + Signs Of Abnormal Levels
The best supplements that support healthy cortisol levels
Going through a period of prolonged stress and suspect your cortisol levels could use some help or optimization? There are plenty of ways to begin to bring the hormone back to baseline. If you're looking for a daily supplement to support a robust stress response, these three ingredients have all been shown to support healthy cortisol levels in clinical research:*
Ashwagandha is a plant extract that people have been using to promote balance in the body for thousands of years.* First popularized in Ayurvedic tradition, the adaptogen is increasingly being studied, with the backing of preclinical and clinical science. Research suggests it gets its stress-easing power from unique plant compounds called glycowithanolides, which activate brain receptors1 that then go on to calm the body down during stressful times.* In one 2019 randomized clinical trial2, those who took 240 milligrams of ashwagandha extract daily for eight weeks experienced a 23% reduction in cortisol over time, while a placebo group had no change in the stress hormone.* Today, you can find ashwagandha in capsules, tinctures, or powder supplements, either on its own or combined with other calming plant compounds.*
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in abundance in fish oil, can be another helpful ally during tense times.* The three major types—DHA, EPA, and ALA—have been shown to ease psychological and physiological reactions to stress and support mental well-being overall.* In one small study3 in 2003, for example, seven men who supplemented with a daily fish oil supplement had lower cortisol levels after three weeks.* Omega-3 supplements (specifically fish oil) are extremely popular and readily available. Read up on how to find the right one for you here.
L-theanine is an amino acid that promotes the production of relaxing alpha waves4, which calm down the brain but don't necessarily make us tired. In one 2016 clinical study5 published in the journal Nutrients, those who drank a beverage containing L-theanine and then completed a cognitively stressful task got through it with significantly lower cortisol levels than a placebo group. This calming amino acid is found primarily in green tea, but it can also be taken as a supplement.
Leber adds that getting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals can also help keep the stress response in check. "It's the equivalent of ensuring your car has enough oil and the tires have the right amount of air," he tells mbg. "The vitamins associated with cortisol metabolism are B12, folate, magnesium, and vitamin C."
Other ways to relieve stress
In addition to giving your body the right vitamins and minerals and supplementing as needed, here are some other ways that Bonney, Leber, and Raisen recommend keeping stress and cortisol levels in check.
Proactively work a handful of these self-care practices into your routine so that the next time a trigger arises, your body is ready to quickly come back to calm:
- Do yoga.
- Practice taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
- Exercise for 30 to 50 minutes daily (though Bonney notes that too much rigorous exercise may cause cortisol levels to rise, so don't overdo it).
- Have a daily meditation and mindfulness practice.
- Eat magnesium-rich foods such as avocados, bananas, broccoli, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and spinach.
- Make sleep a top priority.
- Challenge negative, stressful thoughts as they arise.
- Reduce your added sugar intake.
- Eat plenty of plants, whole grains, and gut microbiome-friendly foods.
- Spend time in nature.
- Take a stress supplement, like those listed above (here are mbg's 15 favorites).*
Cortisol is a hormone that helps conduct the all-important stress response. Practicing stress management techniques and fueling your body with the right foods and supplements will help keep it in check so your body is ready to react to stress—but not get consumed by it.*
How we select supplements
At mindbodygreen, our expert-vetted dietary supplement product selections and recommendations in the supplement space elevate quality, efficacy, innovation, and safety.
Our team ensures that each supplement product is thoughtfully formulated--from the active ingredients to those "Other ingredient" excipients too. We are highly preferential towards clean formulas that are plant-centric (and oftentimes vegan or vegetarian) as well as free of GMOs, gluten, soy, dairy, major food allergens, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, synthetic dyes, and more.
Overall, we recommend products with clean ingredients at efficacious doses in bioactive forms. Whenever possible, we celebrate and elevate plant-origin (i.e., plant-sourced) ingredients from a variety of botanicals.
Ingredient source and innovation are top of mind for our critical reviews and selection of supplement products. We prioritize forward-thinking formulations and delivery formats that are genuinely helpful in transforming your health.
We include supplement brands and products that prioritize quality. This includes robust manufacturing practices and comprehensive purity and potency testing.
You can learn more about mindbodygreen supplements+ manufacturing and quality testing practices here.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.