How does high cortisol affect your body? Here are symptoms, treatments and supplements

Army veteran Lisa Browne-Banic works out at the Grey Team veterans center, Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Boca Raton, Fla.
Army veteran Lisa Browne-Banic works out at the Grey Team veterans center, Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Boca Raton, Fla. | Lynne Sladky

Some content creators suggest that elevated cortisol levels lead to weight gain, anxiety and fatigue, per the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But according to experts, cortisol might not be a bad thing.

Theresa Larkin, associate professor of medical sciences at the University of Wollongong told the ABC, “One of the misconceptions in these videos is that cortisol is bad. ... Often the symptoms that people are blaming on cortisol are probably due to chronic stress and depression.”

Here’s everything you need to know about cortisol — and how it affects your body.

What is cortisol’s role in the body?

According to Cleveland Clinic, cortisol is a vital hormone that impacts nearly all organs and tissues within the body. It serves several crucial functions, such as:

  • Managing the body’s response to stress.

  • Regulating metabolism by overseeing the utilization of fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

  • Diminishing inflammation.

  • Modulating blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

  • Influencing the sleep-wake cycle.

Our body has adrenal glands that release cortisol into our bloodstream when we’re stressed, right when we wake up or when we exercise, per Health Direct.

What causes high cortisol?

Consistent stress cause the adrenal glands to continually release cortisol, according to Medical News Today.

Besides stress in your everyday life, you can have an increases in cortisol due to pituitary gland issues (monitors the release of hormones), adrenal gland tumors and medication side effects, per Healthline.

What are symptoms of high cortisol?

Symptoms of high cortisol may include any number of the following:

Talk to your doctor if you have one of these symptoms.

How do you bring cortisol levels down?

If you believe you are at risk of or have high cortisol levels, doctors might recommend natural or medical ways to manage cortisol levels.

How do you treat high cortisol?

Medical News Today shares 12 ways to lower cortisol.

  • Lower stress.

  • Start relaxation techniques.

  • Eat a balanced diet.

  • Avoid caffeine.

  • Get enough sleep.

  • Maintain a good bedtime routine.

  • Start a hobby.

  • Have fun.

  • Exercise.

  • Have good relationships.

  • Get a pet.

  • Stop smoking.

Supplements to take to manage cortisol levels

Forbes Health shares supplements that doctors might recommend to help lower cortisol:

1. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha root powder is a staple in herbal medicine, known for its myriad of uses such as alleviating stress to lower cortisol levels, calming anxiety, boosting brain and nervous system health and enhancing memory, per Health Hive.

Ashwagandha supplements are available in pill, powder and gummy version, according to Inner Body.

Per Healthline, do not take Ashwagandha if you

  • Are pregnant.

  • Are breastfeeding.

  • Have prostate cancer.

  • Are about to have surgery.

  • Have an autoimmune or thyroid disorder.

  • Have liver problems.

2. Omega-3 fatty acids

According to a study published in Molecular Psychiatry, Omega-3 fatty acids can lower the chances of risk of depression by reducing inflammation caused by stress.

Omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil and algal oil (derived from algae for vegetarians), offer various doses and types of omega-3 fatty acids, per the National Institutes of Health.

Per Cleveland Clinic, talk to your doctor before taking fish oil pills. Depending on its dosage, some supplements may:

  • Interfere with prescriptions.

  • Increase the risk of irregular heart beats.

  • Increase the risk of bleeding.

3. Rhodiola

Rhodiola is a plant that grows in areas of Europe and Asia. Its roots are called adaptogens, which help your body handle stress when you consume them. Rhodiola can also reduce anxiety, lower cortisol levels and increase overall resistance to stress, according to Clark Professional Pharmacy.

Rhodiola supplements are available in multivitamin and powder form, per Sports Illustrated.

According to Verywell Health, exercise precautions when taking rhodiola supplements if you:

  • Have bipolar diorder.

  • Have anxiety.

  • Take stimulant medications.

  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding.

  • Have severe allergic reactions.

4. Vitamin C

Vitamin C, an antioxidant, can help lower cortisol levels by reducing oxidative stress and protecting the body from free radicals, molecules that damage cells and contribute to chronic disease, per The rTMS Centre.

Vitamin C supplements include gummy, liquid, powder, time-release and pill varieties, per Puritan’s Pride.

According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the best fruit and vegetable sources of Vitamin C include:

  • Citrus.

  • Bell peppers.

  • Strawberries.

  • Tomatoes.

  • Cruciferous vegetables.

  • White potatoes.

Vitamin C is generally safe to use. If you have any side effects such as nausea, headaches or stomach cramps after taking supplements, talk to your doctor. You may be overdosing, per Mayo Clinic.

5. Magnesium

According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, taking a magnesium supplement over a 24-week period helped to reduce cortisol levels and lower cardiovascular disease.

Magnesium supplements are available in powder, pill and gummy forms, per Healthline.

According to Mayo Clinic, the following should be considered before taking a magnesium supplement:

  • Allergies.

  • Geriatric.

  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding.

  • Drug interactions.