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Feeling On-Edge? MD Reveals the Natural Helpers That Reduce Cortisol to Usher in a Feeling of Happy Calm + Reduce Belly Fat

Ashwagandha eases anxiety by 44%, while lavender almost instantly induces calm

It’s no secret that everything from running late to an appointment to unexpected home repairs to the hustle and bustle of the holidays can send your stress levels soaring. And that can drive up your body’s production of the cortisol, a hormone that leaves you on high alert and hamper your health. So can taking supplements to reduce cortisol help you feel calmer?

When it comes to taming the tension, “herbal remedies can be an extra helper,” explains Birgit Rakel, MD, Director of the Integrative Women’s Health Program at the Jefferson Health Marcus Institute of Integrative Health in Philadelphia, PA. With a little help from other basic strategies like eating healthy and staying active, the right supplements can make it a little easier to go from crazed to cool, Dr. Rakel adds. Here, we reveal the top science-backed supplements to reduce cortisol, plus explain how keeping a lid on stress improves your health.

The link between stress and cortisol

Cortisol is one of two hormones that your body makes when you feel threatened or stressed. “In response to a threat, cortisol along with the hormone adrenaline are triggered by signaling in the brain to alter bodily processes for the classic fight-or-flight response,” explains Julia Riddle, MD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, NC.

The threat can be something that puts you in danger, like a car careening towards you while you cross the street. But it can also be something that just puts on you on edge, like having to pick up an extra work shift on short notice, waiting in line when you’re already running late, or remembering your endless list of to-dos, Dr. Rakel says.

Often, that’s especially true for women. “We are the sandwich generation,” Dr. Rakel notes. “We have to take care of kids and parents and we have full-time jobs,” which can add up to a constant stream of stress. (Click through to learn how reining in cortisol is one of the best natural menopause treatments, too.)

How high cortisol affects your health

Your body’s cortisol levels can be up to nine times higher when you’re stressed compared to when you’re relaxed, research reveals. That cortisol elevation is helpful for the brief moments when you’re actually in harm’s way. “Cortisol mobilizes glucose, or blood sugar, to give the body increased energy to respond to a threat,” so you can quickly escape harm, Dr. Riddle explains.

But the everyday stressors most of us face can lead to near non-stop cortisol spikes. “I have patients coming in stressed because they’re having financial difficulties, getting asked to do multiple things at work, and caring for their family,” says Dr. Rakel. “You’re constantly sending your body the signal that you’re under attack.” And that’s not ideal. This kind of chronic stress “can have a myriad of health effects,” Dr. Riddle says. Being stretched too thin and constantly being flooded with cortisol can affect your health. Here’s how:

1. High cortisol raises your risk of depression

It’s hard to be upbeat when you’re overwhelmed. And over time, nonstop stress can increase your risk for depression, Dr. Rakel says. One study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found that women with stressful work schedules (including working long hours and working weekends) were up to 75% more likely to be depressed compared to those with less stressful work schedules. 

2. High cortisol causes trouble sleeping

If you’ve ever felt exhausted all day only for your brain to start running through your to-do list the moment your head hits the pillow, you know firsthand how stress can make it impossible to get a good night’s sleep. And the effects can add up. Over the course of a week, stressed out adults log about 7 hours less sleep compared to their lower-cortisol counterparts.

A woman sitting up in bed who can't sleep and uses supplements to reduce cortisol
Tetra Images/Getty

3. High cortisol can lead to GI upset

Having trouble getting things moving lately? It could be from stress. The release of cortisol and adrenaline when you’re stressed signals your body to slow down functions that aren’t needed to help you get to safety, including digestion, Dr. Riddle explains. As a result, chronic stress could leave you feeling constipated. On the flip side, some people may experience accelerated intestinal movements that can trigger diarrhea. (Click through to find out how stress can cause diarrhea — plus how to remedy it naturally.)

4. High cortisol increases diabetes risk

In threatening situations, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline floods your bloodstream with glucose, or blood sugar, to give your muscles ample energy to flee from danger, Dr. Riddle explains. But when you’re stressed all the time, that can lead to chronically high blood sugar levels. And that’s something research shows can double a woman’s risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

5. High cortisol spurs weight gain

Women who report more daily stressors burn around 104 fewer calories per day compared to women who don’t feel stressed, an Ohio Statue University study in Biological Psychiatry found. And researchers estimate that could add up to 11 pounds gained over the course of a year. So it may come as no surprise that chronic tension can increase your risk for obesity, Dr. Riddle says.

What’s more, cortisol can contribute to belly fat. Research in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found longterm cortisol elevation has been linked with increased visceral fat. This is the type of fat found deep within your abdomen and around internal organs. When too much visceral fat accumulates, it does more than just create an unwanted belly bulge. It can raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease, too.

6. High cortisol increases the odds of heart disease

Not to stress you out even more, but high levels of cortisol may increase the risk for a heart attack, suggests a study in Scientific Reports. Feeling frazzled can drive you to unhealthy behaviors like snacking on junk food, being less active, or smoking. And that can be tough on your heart.

The benefits of reducing cortisol

Fortunately, there’s good news to report. Taking steps to rein in your stress and keep your cortisol levels low can start to help you feel better almost immediately. “Your heart rate starts to go down, you start to sleep better, and your body starts to go back into relaxation mode,” Dr. Rakel says.

Over time, that can dramatically reduce your risk of the health-harming conditions above. And while you can’t eliminate the daily stressors from your life entirely, you can reach for supplements that reduce cortisol to keep stress in check and your health in tip-top shape. (Click through for easy ways to lower cortisol in the morning and feel stress-free all day.)

Related: Anxious and On-Edge? Doctors Share the Best Supplements to Tame Stress Naturally

The best natural supplements to reduce cortisol

Certain supplements can help you feel more relaxed. And when you’re not on high alert, your body won’t need to pump out as much cortisol, explains Dr. Rakel. She recommends seeking out certified organic supplements that have been verified by a third-party certifier like NSF to ensure the product you pick is high quality. Also smart: Start with just one supplement at a time. “It reduces the risk of possible interactions with any medications you might be taking,” Dr. Rakel adds. Choosing one of these four supplements that reduce cortisol is a good place to start.

1. Magnesium

The mineral “is usually my first-go to” for patients who are seeking a stress-relieving supplement, Dr. Rakel says. Magnesium deficiencies are tied to feelings of fatigue, irritability, anxiety, stomach upset, headaches, and trouble sleeping. The good news is that supplementing with 192 to 300 mg daily eases anxious feelings within 6 weeks, suggests a review in Nutrients.

Dr. Rakel prefers magnesium threonate, a form of magnesium known to support brain health. Two options: LifeExtension Neuro-Mag Magnesium L-Threonate (Buy from Amazon, $27.67) and NOW Foods Magtein Magnesium L-Threonate (Buy from Amazon, $26.29). (Interested in more benefits of magnesium? Click through to see the best magnesium for sleep.)

2. Ashwagandha

When it comes to plant-based supplements that reduce cortisol, this traditional Ayurvedic herb known as ashwagandha is Dr. Rakel’s top choice for stress relief. And it’s especially helpful if anxious thoughts are making it hard to fall asleep. Taking 300 mg of ashwagandha daily has been shown to directly lower cortisol levels and curb anxious feelings up to 44%, found a study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine.   

“I recommend patients start by taking it before bed. It’s calming and it helps with sleep,” says Dr. Rakel, who adds that you’ll notice the biggest effects after about 6 weeks. Two options: Tribe Organics Organic Ashwagandha (Buy from Amazon, $26.47) and Organic India Ashwagandha (Buy from Amazon, $30.99). (Click through for more benefits of ashwagandha and to learn how ashwagandha can revive a weary thyroid.)

Ashwagandha root next to powder and pills to reduce cortisol
eskymaks/Getty

3. Lavender

Another favorite of Dr. Rakel’s, lavender essential oil can also help you unwind and get some high-quality shut-eye. It’s been shown to increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter known for easing feelings of anxiety, according to a review in Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

While some research has looked at taking lavender capsules, the review showed that sniffing lavender essential oil can bring on near-instant calm. There’s also less concern about side effects, since lavender capsules can trigger or worsen acid reflux in some people, Dr. Rakel says. To get the benefits, simply take a slow, deep whiff of lavender essential oil whenever stress strikes. Two options: NaturoBliss Organic Lavender Essential Oil (Buy from Amazon, $9.99) and Sky Organics Lavender Essential Oil (Buy from Amazon, $7.99).

A field of lavender
Caroline Gauvin/Getty

4. Rhodiola rosea

Tension zapping your energy during the day? Dr. Rakel likes to recommend this herbal remedy for patients struggling with stress and daytime fatigue or brain fog. “Ashwaghanda and lavender are the ‘downers,’ while rhodiola is an ‘upper,'” she explains. (Click through to learn how rhodiola rosea changed one woman’s life by relieving her fatigue and depression.)

Taking 200 mg of Rhodiola rosea, an arctic herb, twice daily was shown to ease fatigue, boost mood, and enhance cognitive function in adults reporting high levels of life stress, a study in Phytotherapy Research found. And most of the study subjects noted an improvement after just three days. Two options: Nature’s Way Rhodiola Energy (Buy from Amazon, $11.24) and Gaia Herbs Rhodiola (Buy from Amazon, $27.83).

Rhodiola rosea yellow flowering plant, which can be used to reduce cortisol
Inventori/Getty

For more natural ways to reduce stress:

Breathing In Orange Essential Oil Lowers Cortisol Levels By 84%, Countering Stress

Stressed All Day and Can’t Sleep at Night? *This* Extract Can Solve Both Problems — Naturally

Ever Feel So Stressed It Seems Like The World Is Spinning? 6 Ways To Instantly Feel Calmer

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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