Cortisol and the Chain Reaction

The Good and the Bad News About Cortisol

Cortisol is a steroid hormone released by your adrenal glands under stress.  The normal release of cortisol is essential for a balanced life. It allows your body to handle stress and to maintain the immune system. When the body properly produces and uses cortisol, it raises your energy and focus.  It also acts as an inflammatory agent and reduces swelling, redness and itchiness, heat and even pain.

But when your body is constantly meeting emotional stresses ranging from parenting your children to driving in rush hour traffic to meeting work deadlines and is bombarded with physical, nutritional and chemical sources of stress, the sustained high levels of cortisol will eventually start to take you down.

Elevated Cortisol Leads To Depleted Serotonin, GABA and Melatonin

Chronic stress can lead to a state of elevated cortisol or cortisol surges. This can happen even after the stressful events have passed.

Excess cortisol depletes serotonin (your happy hormone) and GABA (chemical message) that tells the brain to be quiet, so over time you will start barking at your spouse and children, become irritable with friends and co-workers, suffer with anxiety and/or depression and insomnia.

Cortisol levels are supposed to drop at nighttime, allowing your body to relax and recharge.

If you get a cortisol surge during the night, you might wake up suddenly feeling alert and “ready to get to work” or you may feel agitated and hyper-vigilant.  You could feel startled or experience shock sensations. All are conditions that make quality sleep impossible.

If your cortisol levels are too high, you might notice that, even if you’ve been tired all day, you get a second wind right around bedtime. Then you toss and turn all night – and feel tired again the next day.

abnormally low serotonin

Night owls beware!  Being a night owl is not a good trait or habit.  It is actually a key symptom of either abnormally low serotonin or excessively high stress-coping hormones (cortisol and adrenaline). Often both because as noted above, high cortisol depletes your serotonin.

Because serotonin is your happy hormone, it makes sense that those people who are low in serotonin will suffer with low moods but what isn’t commonly known is that a lack of serotonin hampers the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps control your sleep and wake cycles.

Normally, melatonin levels begin to rise in the mid- to late evening, remain high for most of the night, and then drop in the early morning hours. Many things such as light and aging will affect how much melatonin your body produces.

Obviously if you want to have sound and restful sleep, you need to look at ways of reducing your stress so that you don’t create a permanent state of elevated cortisol or cortisol surges.  If you are already at that stage, you will need to also use natural remedies to lower your cortisol.

Here are some symptoms of too much cortisol:

  • Anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • Bone loss (ie osteoporosis)
  • Burned out feeling or severe fatigue
  • High blood pressure
  • Hair loss
  • Impaired memory
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Insulin resistance and/or high blood glucose levels or type 2 diabetes
  • Irritability
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Low sex drive
  • Irregular menstrual cycle, and, sometimes, the cycle can stop altogether
  • Mood swings and/or depression
  • Tired but wired feeling
  • Weight gain at the waist (and after a period of time, limbs look very skinny or slender)
  • Increased infections or illness, poor wound healing, suppressed immune system
  • Not able to relax
  • Hot flashes (random, after eating, at night/night sweats)
  • Waking, fitful or disturbed sleep between 1:00 and 4:00 am

lowering stress


  1. BREATHE.  That’s right.  B-R-E-A-T-H-E, calmly and slowly. Breathing through your nose activates your parasympathetic nervous system so you can relax.  Often just taking a minute or two to do this will drastically change your perception of a stressful situation so you can focus and deal with what’s going on whether it’s in the office, on the road or at home.
  2. Slow down. Practice sitting down to eat so you can actually “rest and digest” and assimilate your nutrients effectively. If you are always eating on the go (at your desk, in your car, on the soccer field), or standing to eat in your kitchen while doing other tasks (paying bills, doing dishes, yelling at your kids), your body is still in “GO” mode.
  3. Stay present. I know you’re busy but please try not to multitask all day long.  This keeps your nervous system responding with “fight or flight” hormones constantly. Pick one task at a time and be mindful during that task.


1. Magnesium Citrate with L-Taurine

Magnesium is a mineral that decreases the release of cortisol and is in itself a sleep promoter. See last’s months newsletter; The Sleep Mineral.

I believe most everyone that is experiencing sleep issues will be deficient in magnesium.

The best supplement that I have found for restoring magnesium deficiencies is magnesium citrate with l-taurine (the l-taurine helps escort the magnesium into the cells where it is needed).  This product is available in my online store.

Magnesium Citrate & L-Taurine New Roots 180 caps


GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is your brain’s natural Valium.  Actually Valium is one of many tranquilizers designed to mimic or amplify GABA’s naturally calming effects.  Taken as a supplement, GABA can not only help you turn off stress reactions after an upset, it can actually help prevent a stressful response when taken prior to an expected ordeal (such as before an exam or getting on an airplane).

It can also be used to reduce what I call “busy brain” and anxiety. (Note: anxiety is often a secondary symptom of low serotonin (refer to this Health Solution Raise Your Seratonin Naturally

GABA will work almost immediately, so you can take it periodically as you need to in specific situations, or you can take it daily to build up your own natural stores again. There is no “hangover” or groggy feeling when using GABA and there are no negative side effects if you abruptly stop taking it.

You will not feel drugged when taking GABA, but you should feel something in the way of an overall calming sensation or ability to focus on the task at hand without distraction. It should not make you drowsy or unable to function as a drug might. If it does not appear to be helping, then it isn’t what you need, and I would suggest trying Holy Basil or Magnesium (Passionflower is another option) instead.

Or if GABA alone isn’t enough, you can combine it with Passionflower and/or Holy Basil and/or magnesium.

If you need fast action for an anxiety attack, you can dump the contents of a GABA capsule under your tongue. It will usually start to work in less than five minutes.

Suggested use for sleep: Start with the lesser dosage listed and increase gradually only if you need more calming action. The longer you take GABA, the less you will need.

The GABA I have been recommending for years has 500 mg per capsule (it is available on my online store).

GABA 500 mg 60 caps

You can take 1 to 3 capsules mid-evening and then 1 to 3 capsules before bed. If you wake up with “busy brain,” you can take 1 to 3 capsules to help you go back to sleep.  You can also use different combinations; for example, you may find 1 capsule mid-evening is calming, but you need 2 or 3 capsules before bed to help you fall asleep. Keep in mind GABA is not a sleep aid but its calming action in the brain allows your body to go through its natural processes to fall asleep much more easily.

3. Holy Basil

This herb has stood the test of time, being used in India for thousands of years for its medicinal properties. It is an adaptogen, meaning it brings balance to the entire body and protects from stresses of all kinds which is why it is so great for reducing depression, stress and anxiety.

Holy Basil improves memory, reduces unclear thinking and mental fog. It balances the hormones and helps reduce excess cortisol levels. If you feel “tired but wired” this may be the best herb for you.

Suggested Use: 1 capsule twice daily (after breakfast and lunch is best)

My preferred brand of Holy Basil is available here:

Holy Basil Extract 500 mg 90 caps


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