These supplements are proven to reduce cortisol, a stress hormone that, in excess, is often the cause of physical and mental health problems.
Cortisol is your primary stress hormone.
It’s useful during emergencies, but chronic stress can create an outpouring of cortisol all day long — and that’s a problem.
Excess cortisol leads to a host of physical health problems and puts you at greater risk for anxiety, depression, memory loss, and cognitive decline. (1)
The majority of research on cortisol and supplements that affect it has been carried out on animals.
And a surprising number of clinical trials measure how various substances affect the cortisol level of athletes in extreme circumstances, such as running an ultramarathon! (2)
If you think that that research might not be applicable to the average person, you’d be right.
Let’s take a look at the best cortisol supplements — those shown to reduce cortisol in average humans under ordinary circumstances.
The Best Herbal Supplements to Reduce Cortisol
There are many herbal remedies known to alleviate stress by reducing cortisol.
The following have both long histories of use for stress and the scientific evidence to support that they reduce cortisol in humans.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a traditional adaptogenic Ayurvedic herb used mainly for anxiety.
It belongs to a select group of herbs referred to as adaptogens — natural remedies that counter the physical and mental effects of stress.
Adaptogens are neither stimulating nor sedating but bring the body into a state of balance known as homeostasis.
Numerous studies confirm that ashwagandha is a powerful cortisol buster.
It significantly reduces cortisol levels in chronically stressed humans by as much as 30%. (3)
2. Arctic Root
Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea) is another adaptogenic herb used in traditional Chinese medicine to increase vigor and stamina.
It reduces cortisol and increases resilience to stress, but is slightly energizing rather than sedating.
This makes it a good choice if you are both stressed and fatigued.
Arctic root can also osignificantly reduce depression symptoms, sometimes by as much as 50%. (4)
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It works not just by reducing cortisol, but also by increasing dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine — brain chemicals that have an appreciable impact on mood. (5)
One large clinical trial showed that Arctic root significantly lowered the cortisol response brought on by chronic stress. (6)
Study participants experienced less burnout and improved mental performance.
When looking for a supplement, note that it goes under many other names including rose root and golden root.
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Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is another traditional Ayurvedic herb that’s considered both an adaptogen and a nootropic, a substance that safely enhances mental performance.
When healthy adults were given KeenMind, a patented standardized bacopa extract, they experienced decreases in cortisol and improvements in mood and the ability to perform mental tasks. (9)
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is one of the most popular brain supplements, but unfortunately does not live up to its reputation as a memory enhancer. (10)
However, ginkgo can reduce blood pressure and symptoms of stress by lowering cortisol levels. (13)
Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is a fungus used in traditional Chinese medicine mainly to increase stamina and promote longevity.
You won’t find cordyceps growing in the woods though; this fungus grows on the backs of caterpillars!
Cordyceps has been found to improve physical performance and lower cortisol levels.
Other Supplements That Lower Cortisol
Not all supplements that reduce cortisol in humans are herbs.
This next group of supplements is a mixed bag that includes fats, a compound found only in tea, and a certain kind of fiber.
6. Fish Oil
Fish oil is the most popular supplemental source of omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Fish oil supplements have positive effects on brain functions of all kinds — mood, memory, cognition, and general mental well-being.
It can be beneficial for those with disorders such as depression, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia. (19)
One omega-3 found in fish oil, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is an essential structural component of brain cells.
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Phosphatidylserine is a fat that naturally occurs in high concentrations in the brain and nervous system.
Phosphatidylserine is an outstanding brain supplement in its own right.
In fact, it is the only supplement to receive a qualified stamp of approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for cognitive decline and dementia. (22)
During these studies, it was discovered that, besides reducing cortisol, phosphatidylserine also increased physical performance and reduced post-exercise muscle soreness and recovery time. (26)
L-theanine is an amino acid found almost exclusively in black, green, white, and oolong teas.
It is widely regarded for inducing a state of “calm attentiveness.”
Cortisol reduction may be one of the ways it achieves this.
When study participants were given a drink that contained 200 mg of l-theanine, they reported feeling less stressed afterwards and their cortisol response was substantially blunted for up to three hours. (27)
It would be hard to consume this much l-theanine from tea which generally has 25 mg per cup, but you can easily get a 200 mg dose with an l-theanine supplement.
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Prebiotics are foods that contain insoluble fibers that “good” intestinal bacteria feed on.
Interestingly, the ingestion of prebiotic fibers suppresses the stress response and reduces cortisol in healthy adults. (28)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
How to Reduce Cortisol, the Stress Hormone
While you can buy prebiotic fiber supplements, it’s really not necessary since there are plenty of common foods that contain prebiotic fiber.
So the next time you are stressed out and tempted to grab unhealthy comfort food, reach for a snack that contains one or more of these top prebiotic foods instead.
Supplements That May Reduce Cortisol
This next group includes supplements that may reduce cortisol.
And what does that mean?
There are many supplements that purportedly decrease cortisol, but their supporting evidence relies exclusively on animal studies or their results in human trials have been inconclusive.
Supplements that have been found to reduce cortisol, but only in animal studies, include:
- astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) (32)
- holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) (33, 34)
- lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) (35)
- magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) (36)
- N-acetylcysteine (37)
- Lactobacillus helveticus (probiotic) (38)
- tribulus (Tribulus terrestris) (39)
This doesn’t mean that these supplements won’t have the same effects in humans, but it does mean that their effectiveness in humans has not yet been clinically proven.
But when a clinical trial (i.e., a human study) was conducted, the study participants did not experience a change in cortisol levels. (43)
The evidence is similarly mixed for schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), a berry used in traditional Chinese medicine.
The one study performed on humans found that it decreased cortisol levels, but only in trained athletes after heavy physical exertion. (47)
Unless you are an athlete, there’s little evidence that schisandra will reduce your cortisol levels.
While magnesium definitely is a relaxing, anti-anxiety mineral, the evidence for magnesium lowering cortisol levels is inconsistent.
For example, these three studies came to three different conclusions:
- magnesium decreases cortisol (after exercise) (48)
- magnesium has no effect on cortisol levels (49)
- magnesium substantially increased cortisol (after exercise) (50)
Curcumin is the main bioactive compound in the spice turmeric.
It is a top-notch brain supplement beneficial for anxiety, depression, and neurodegenerative diseases.
It helps to normalize cortisol balance, adrenal gland function, and BDNF levels, but so far only in lab animals. (51)
Vitamins and Zinc
Vitamins C, B1, B2, and B3 (niacin) have been found to reduce cortisol after prolonged physical exercise. (52)
One study found that taking a zinc supplement dramatically inhibited the release of cortisol. (53)
But another study found the change in cortisol levels to be statistically insignificant. (54)
One Supplement That Increases Cortisol
When most people are looking for a cortisol supplement, what they really want is an anti-cortisol supplement — one that decreases cortisol.
However, there is a cortisol supplement that increases cortisol if that’s something you seek to do.
People with Addison’s disease, also known as adrenal insufficiency, benefit from licorice root supplements which raise cortisol levels. (55)
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a multipurpose herb used in both traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic healing, most commonly for digestive disorders.
You may be familiar with it as the flavoring used in natural licorice candies.
Licorice contains glycyrrhetic acid, a compound that increases cortisol. (56)
Which Cortisol Supplements to Try First
With a number of cortisol-reducing supplements to choose from, you may be unsure which one or ones to try first.
Here are our recommendations in priority order.
#1. Satisfy Your Core Nutritional Needs First
Having a nutritional deficiency in itself is stressful to bodily systems and can create more stress!
This means that you need to be sure you’re getting your daily requirements of vitamins, minerals, and particularly, essential fatty acids.
Stress is a notorious nutrient drain and virtually everyone under stress could benefit from a high-quality multivitamin-mineral supplement and an omega-3 supplement in the form of fish oil or krill oil.
Most multivitamin supplements, unfortunately, are relatively low in magnesium, so I’d also suggest taking additional magnesium separately.
Magnesium is extremely important for combating stress and it’s estimated that 75% of us have subpar levels. (57)
#2. Try Ashwagandha or Phosphatidylserine
Next, I’d suggest starting with either the traditional Ayurvedic remedy ashwagandha or phosphatidylserine, depending on which symptoms of stress you’re experiencing.
Ashwagandha excels in stress reduction and decreases cortisol significantly more than many other supplements.
It’s a good choice if you have anxiety, insomnia, or depression caused by stress.
Phosphatidylserine is another proven cortisol reducer.
It’s also an excellent brain supplement that improves memory and protects against mental decline, while enhancing physical performance.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
This article contains only a quick summary of each cortisol supplement we’ve mentioned. Search our site to find in-depth articles on most of these supplements.
Supplements to Reduce Cortisol: Take the Next Step
Excess production of the stress hormone cortisol can be very damaging to your brain health and mental wellness.
While there’s an abundance of supplements that claim to decrease cortisol, most rely on animal studies or clinical trials using well-trained athletes to support these claims.
Only a handful have been shown to reduce cortisol in typical humans under normal circumstances.
Cortisol-lowering supplements are a diverse group that includes traditional herbs, certain fats, compounds found in specific foods, and core nutrients.
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READ NEXT: How to Reduce Cortisol, the Stress Hormone