Best Supplements to Reduce Cortisol
Cortisol often gets portrayed as a villainous stress hormone, but for athletes, cortisol is critical for performance. Cortisol switches on all the processes that keep the body energized and fueled during your workout. It naturally raises and lowers after exercise.
When an athlete is overtraining or not recovering properly, cortisol may not return to baseline levels after exercise as quickly. Chronically elevated cortisol is problematic for the body. Besides getting adequate rest and not overtraining, there are also a few supplements that can help reduce cortisol.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone known as a glucocorticoid that is produced in the adrenal glands. During a workout, cortisol’s main role is to trigger the release of glucose for quick energy. It also helps to increase breathing, heart rate and blood flow.
Conversely, as cortisol increases, it turns down processes that aren’t needed during exercise such as digestion and reproduction. When a workout is over, cortisol levels naturally return to a baseline amount.
Elevated cortisol becomes harmful when athletes are overtraining, are undernourished or not getting enough rest and recovery. The body may give you signs that cortisol levels are elevated. A few signs may be fatigue, mood changes, interrupted sleep, delayed exercise recovery, increased food cravings, and hormone imbalances.
There are steps that you can take to naturally lower cortisol. This may begin with prioritizing proper rest, recovery, and adjusting your nutrition plan to incorporate cortisol lowering supplements.
Exercise and Cortisol
Most athletes can relate to the complicated relationship between stress and exercise. On one hand, exercise can be a powerful stress reliever. On the other hand, too much exercise or too much high intensity exercise coupled with not enough rest and recovery can be detrimental to stress and cortisol levels.
Regular exercise has a positive influence on the neuroendocrine system, which is responsible for managing stress. Cortisol plays an important role in this system. When the system recognizes stress, including stress from exercise, it produces cortisol.
Cortisol is a signal hormone that turns on all the processes you need during exercise. It increases heart rate, breathing rate, and blood sugar to allow the body to perform. After each workout, cortisol levels return to baseline.
Most types of exercise naturally lower cortisol. This is especially true for low intensity training days, including active recovery days, to help to lower stress hormones.
High intensity exercise, greater than 80% VO2max, causes a larger increase in cortisol than other types of exercise and may stay elevated for longer. As the body recovers from the workout, cortisol levels return. This makes a compelling case for including a variety of exercise intensities in your workout routine to manage cortisol levels so as not to overstress the body.
Foods to Lower Cortisol
Quality nutrition, along with supplementation is highly beneficial in combating stress and lowering cortisol.
Foods to look for:
Fruits and vegetables. Vitamins, minerals, and fiber support healthy digestion and stress response.
Whole Grains. Nutrients and fiber in whole grains keep the gut healthy and support overall well-being.
Fish. Cold water fish like salmon, albacore tuna, herring, and halibut all provide omega-3 fats that help manage cortisol levels.
Healthy fats. Nuts, olive oil, and avocados are sources of monounsaturated fats that help decrease the effects of stress on the body.
Dark chocolate. Besides being a comfort food, dark chocolate contains magnesium, an essential element the body needs to deal with stress.
Foods to avoid:
Foods that can cause inflammation. Highly processed snack foods, fried foods as well as excess sweets and alcohol can increase inflammation in the body.
Too much caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that allows many people to feel more alert and awake. However, caffeine increases cortisol, and may increase feelings of anxiousness.
Supplements to Reduce Cortisol
Quality nutrition plays a pivotal role in lowering inflammation, a side effect of too much cortisol. Sometimes diet alone isn’t enough and so we look to supplements to support a healthful eating plan. While we always aim for a food first approach, outlined below are some of the best supplements to reduce cortisol. As always, speak with your doctor or registered dietitian to see which supplements may be best for you.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, krill, and algae oils offer substantial benefits for decreasing inflammation and cortisol. Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the physical effects of high cortisol, helping people feel better. If you aren’t eating fatty fish or plant-based sources of omega-3s regularly in your diet, this may be a good option.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication system between the gut and the brain. The gut produces and responds to hormones associated with positive mood and stress such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Probiotics help to populate the gut’s microbiome with helpful microorganisms, while prebiotics are like food for the microbiome. Pre- and probiotics can help maintain healthy gut function, supporting a positive mood. Eating a diet that’s abundant in plants like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains will help to provide prebiotics. Probiotic-rich foods include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, miso, yogurt, and kim chi.
Getting quality sleep is an essential way to lower cortisol naturally. L-theanine is an amino acid that helps promote feelings of relaxation. One randomized control trial found that l-theanine supplementation had a positive effect on sleep duration, the amount of time it took participants to fall asleep, and reduced the use of sleep aids. L-theanine is also naturally found in teas such as green tea.
Reishi and Cordyceps are all functional mushrooms known as adaptogens. Adaptogenic mushrooms have bioactive antioxidant compounds that reduce harmful free radicals created from excess stress.
Lion’s Mane contains bioactive compounds that help you to feel calm and relaxed, while working to reduce cell damage from stress. While research is limited in this area, there are studies that point to lion’s mane increasing cognitive function.
Similar to lion’s mane, cordyceps is a type of functional mushroom that helps reduce feelings of stress. Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, which is precisely where cordyceps have the greatest effect. Cordyceps can help to support a healthy nervous system and stress response.
There is not enough research to confirm if cordyceps has any improvement on performance, however, this small-scale studies showed that cordyceps can improve oxygen consumption during high intensity exercise.
Ashwagandha is a type of evergreen shrub that has many of the same stress-fighting properties as adaptogenic mushrooms. Ashwagandha is commonly used to combat feelings of emotional and physical stress.
Ashwagandha has potential exercise benefits like cordyceps. A recent review article looking at ashwagandha and physical fitness showed a positive relationship between ashwagandha and VO2max, an important measure of aerobic fitness. Please note that for drug-tested athletes, any supplements taken must be NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Sport Certified.
Athletes are at a higher risk for magnesium depletion due to their increased amount of exercise. Magnesium plays a role in energy metabolism and must be present in adequate amounts during exercise.
Supplementing with magnesium can support performance and assist in the stress response to exercise. A study of rugby players showed that adding a magnesium supplement helped decrease inflammatory markers typical after exercise. Magnesium is also shown to reduce muscle soreness after strenuous exercise and improve sleep.
Lowering Cortisol Naturally
Supplements can be a potent partner for lowering cortisol, but you can also adopt daily habits to manage stress. Here are a few daily habits to lower cortisol naturally.
Breathing exercises to help lower heart rate, blood pressure, and feelings of stress.
Yoga combines the effect of exercise, mindfulness, and breathing to help effectively lower cortisol.
Meditation and mindfulness practices can help you to feel present and decrease feelings of stress.
Go for a walk outside. Being exposed to the outdoors and nature can improve mood and being outdoors can expose the body to vitamin D, an influential vitamin for managing stress.
Find ways to include wholesome, nourishing foods that fuel your body.
Stick to a sleep routine. Sleep is your secret weapon in lowering cortisol. During sleep, the brain and body rejuvenate.
Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals, particularly breakfast, causes an increase in cortisol and stress hormone production.
A well-rounded diet of wholesome, nourishing foods is your first line of defense for managing stress. There are several effective supplements to reduce cortisol without negatively impacting exercise performance.
Working with a dietitian can help you identify the root cause of your high cortisol and then create an actionable plan to reduce it. For individualized support and to discover your supplement recommendations to lower cortisol, get on our waitlist to apply for nutrition coaching today.