Eight Tips to Reduce Cortisol

How cortisol affects your health

Two best-selling health books enlightened my understanding about how continuously elevated cortisol affects the body.

Back in 1998, when I was first hearing from new Teeccino fans about the many ways that caffeine was disrupting their health, I read Stephen Cherniske’s landmark book, Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Hidden Dangers of America’s #1 Drug. He was the first to attribute the multitude of stress effects from caffeine stimulating the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, the body’s foremost stress hormone. After the publication of this book, studies about cortisol, its relationship to caffeine, and the long-term consequences of elevated cortisol for one’s health proved Cherniske’s theories to be absolutely correct.

The subsequent publication of The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott, Ph.D. provides an even stronger picture of what happens in the body when you live awash in cortisol.

Cortisol stimulates “fight or flight”: The body’s stress response

Both Cherniske and Talbott explain that cortisol is a necessary stress hormone designed to help you wake up in the morning and, in emergencies, cope with danger. A spike in cortisol triggers the release of amino acids from the muscles, glucose from the liver, and essential fatty acids stored in our fat cells into the blood stream so the body can access a tremendous amount of energy.

Unfortunately modern life doesn’t typically provide the opportunity to react to this hormonal surge by burning it up with intense physical activity. The elevated hormones continue to stimulate the release of even more stress hormones.

For instance, due to our sedentary lifestyle, we are usually drinking a cup of coffee while sitting at a desk, in our car, or eating a meal. When caffeine triggers a cortisol jolt, our state of stress surges in a day already filled with stressful events.

Cortisol accelerates aging and catabolic metabolism

Elevated stress hormones put the body into what both Cherniske and Talbott call a “catabolic” state. This is the destructive phase of cell life that includes widespread tissue destruction, muscle loss, bone loss, immune system depression and even brain shrinkage!

As the body ages, cortisol production increases, DHEA (the rebuild and repair hormone produced by the adrenal glands), testosterone and estrogen levels decrease, and the loss of cartilage, bone and muscle tissue is accelerated.

Many people find they can’t tolerate caffeine after they turn forty the way they could when they were twenty. The reason? At midlife we first feel our aging bodies start to complain as DHEA production falls, cortisol rises and suddenly we no longer have the same energy or endurance we once took for granted.

Since cortisol production competes with DHEA production in the adrenal glands, as cortisol levels increase, DHEA decreases. DHEA functions to stimulate the immune system1, reduce inflammation2, and is involved in memory formation3. The presence of DHEA also has a protective effect on illness related to stress, including: heart disease, brain function, immunodeficiency, obesity, osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes4.

Cortisol affects your digestion

We are all familiar with the heartburn caused by acidic coffee. Elevated cortisol causes energy to be taken away from the gastrointestinal tract. It lowers the production of enzymes needed to digest food and reduces the absorption of minerals and nutrients.

High acidity coupled with low mineral levels can lead to the development of GERD, also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease which is the result of chronic heart burn5. It can also play a role in the development of inflammatory intestinal conditions and osteoporosis.

Additionally, cortisol inhibits the growth of beneficial microorganisms known as probiotics in the intestines. These essential bacteria support the function of the immune system by regulating and training it. They also create B vitamins and increase the absorption of minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium all of which are essential to a healthy functioning immune system. A decrease in the diversity and population of probiotic species results in more colds, sore throats, headaches, diarrhea, upset stomachs and the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and fungus like candida.

High cortisol impairs the immune system

Cortisol triggering the fight or flight response wreaks havoc with the immune system. Initially, within the first 30 minutes of a surge of cortisol, it activates the immune system to prepare for fighting off infection from a possible wound.

However, in the presence of continuously elevated levels of cortisol and glucocorticoids, the immune system becomes depressed6. The thymus gland, which affects the proliferation of the immune system’s T-cells, starts to atrophy7. Chronically elevated glucocorticoids also interfere with the immune system’s response to invading organisms like bacteria, viruses, fungi and some tumors. They further interfere with the immune system by causing cell death of our important white blood cells.

Elevated cortisol interferes with rest and sleep

Cortisol production is naturally high in the early morning around 8 AM because one of its beneficial functions is to help you rise and shine for the day. People who chronically stress their adrenal glands to overproduce cortisol alter their cortisol concentrations so that cortisol is low in the morning when they wake up, instead of high.

Of course, most people will reach for a cup of coffee to artificially spike their cortisol levels when they wake up feeling sluggish. When you drink coffee later in the day, elevated cortisol can interfere with the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Coffee with meals can trigger cortisol surges that can cause overeating when blood sugar subsequently drops. High levels of cortisol can also interfere with a good night’s sleep by preventing you from entering Stage 3 and 4 sleep, the deep, rebuild and repair sleep your body needs for recovery.

Cortisol affects weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes

Chronic, long-term exposure to stress hormones disrupts the body’s metabolism causing elevated blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and increased body fat levels. Unfortunately, the result is increased appetite, which thwarts weight control efforts. Stress stimulates cravings for sweet, calorie-dense foods and salty, high-carbohydrate snacks8.

The combination of high cortisol, low DHEA and reduced growth hormone production causes the body to store fat, lose muscle and slow the metabolic rate. No wonder many diets recommend reducing caffeine in order to lose weight!

Stress makes you burn fewer calories and cortisol can actually reduce the body’s ability to release fat from its fat stores to use for energy. Instead, we burn sugar and continue to store fat. Additionally, stress hormones cause increased body fat in the abdominal region, exactly where we don’t need or want it.

Chronic stress can lead the body to ignore the function of insulin. Insulin resistance develops when your cells fail to respond to insulin’s message to take in glucose from the blood stream. It is thought that elevated blood sugar due to stress and diet contributes to the development of insulin resistance.

When insulin fails to unlock our cells, the appetite is increased while the body’s ability to burn fat is decreased9. This syndrome is part of the modern problem of rising rates of obesity and diabetes.

Cortisol affects mood and memory

Moodiness, anxiety, and depression are all consequences of the long-term effects of elevated cortisol on serotonin and dopamine production10.

Although stress hormones cause a temporary increase in short-term memory for up to 30 minutes, elevated cortisol reduces blood flow and glucose delivery to the brain and interferes with the ability of brain cells to take in glucose11. Elevated cortisol can even cause brain cells to actually shrink!

Studies show that students who stay up late on caffeine studying, thus elevating cortisol levels, find their short-term memory fails them on the next day’s exam.

Chronically elevated cortisol ages the skin

Last, but hardly least, is our appearance. Caffeine dehydrates the body, and so do elevated cortisol levels. This leads to dehydrated skin and premature wrinkling. In his best-selling books, The Perricone Prescription and The Wrinkle Cure, Dr. Nicholas Perricone is emphatic about quitting coffee to prevent skin aging. His patients revealed to him the consequences of elevated cortisol levels on skin aging and wrinkling through both dehydration and the decrease of collagen and elastin production.

Eight Tips to Lowering Your Cortisol Production

Cherniske and Talbott both emphasize the importance of increasing our “anabolic” metabolism, the rebuild, repair and rejuvenate cycle of cell life, to reverse the consequences of elevated stress hormones and aging. Cherniske likens the anabolic/catabolic metabolic model to a seesaw. You want to have the anabolic side of the seesaw up in the air and the catabolic, or breakdown and degeneration side down as low as it can go. To achieve this, you should:

1. Eliminate or reduce caffeine.

It’s the quickest way to reduce cortisol production and elevate the production of DHEA, the leading anabolic youth hormone. 200 mg of caffeine (one 12 oz mug of coffee) increases blood cortisol levels by 30% in one hour! Cortisol can remain elevated for up to 18 hours in the blood. This is the best step to immediately decrease your catabolic metabolism and increase your anabolic metabolism.

If you’re a habitual coffee drinker, reducing your daily intake is easier than you think. You can blend your coffee with Teeccino to decrease caffeine while still drinking the same number of cups a day. You can also wean yourself off of coffee completely by gradually decreasing the amount of coffee and increasing Teeccino over a two-week period. This will help you avoid painful caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Check out Teeccino’s Kick The Caffeine Habit Program.

2. Sleep deeper and longer.

The average 50-year-old has nighttime cortisol levels more than 30 times higher than the average 30-year-old. Getting a good night’s sleep becomes harder as we age due the changes in our hormone production.

There are many techniques for increasing both the length of time we sleep and the depth of our sleep. The goal is to reach a prolonged stage of deep sleep, officially called N3 sleep. This sleep stage is essential to clear and reset our brains and repair our bodies with human growth hormone that is released during N3 sleep.

Some good inducers of deep sleep include taking a hot bath before bed and going to sleep at the same time every night, ideally before 11 PM. Many people also benefit from supplementing with melatonin, a natural hormone produced at night that helps regulate sleep/wake cycles. You may not need it every night, but if you are waking up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning, melatonin can help you sleep deeper and lengthen your sleep cycle. If you get sleepy during the day even though you had plenty of rest, back off the melatonin for a while. It’s a sign you are getting too much.

3. Exercise regularly.

Exercise helps to build muscle mass and increase brain output of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression. Exercise has been proven to reduce the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, while it promotes the production of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers that produce an exhilarating high. Watch how easy it is to sleep deeper and longer after a healthy workout too!
Cherniske recommends taking DHEA supplements to shorten the adaptation period when out-of-shape muscles and cardiovascular system discourage people from continuing to exercise before they get in shape. DHEA also accelerates the building of muscle mass and increases the feeling of being strong and energetic.

4. Keep your blood sugar stable.

Avoid sugar in the diet and refined carbohydrates to keep from spiking your insulin production. Eat frequent, small meals balanced in protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats like olive oil and flax seed oil. Diets rich in complex carbohydrates keep cortisol levels lower than low carbohydrate diets. Keep well hydrated – dehydration puts stress on the body and raises cortisol levels. Keep pure water by your bed and drink it when you first wake up and before you go to sleep.

5. Take adaptogenic herbs and mushrooms.

Herbs and wellness mushrooms that are classified as “adaptogens” help the body adapt to stress, including both physical and emotional stressors. They reduce the body’s production of cortisol and adrenaline, and increase endurance and energy production while strengthening the immune system. Take adaptogens on a daily basis for best results as they act over time to normalize the body’s metabolic and functional systems.

Here’s a list of the top adaptogens: ashwagandha, ginseng, reishi, chaga, astragalus, eleuthero, schisandra, Tulsi (holy basil) rhodiola, turkey tail, lion’s mane, tremella, cordceps and maca. You can find them in teas and beverages including blends made by Teeccino. Adaptogens have been around for decades since they were first identified in the ‘40s, but now they are the new hot trend in stress reduction. Make sure you are getting an effective dose as some brands are mixing so many adaptogens in one supplement or beverage, you can’t get enough of each one.

6. Meditate or listen to relaxation tapes.

Deep mental relaxation and making time to listen to your breath promotes the production of alpha (focused alertness) and theta (relaxed) brain waves. Avoid jolting alarm clocks that take you from delta waves (deep sleep state) to beta waves (agitated and anxious state) and stimulants like caffeine that promote beta waves while suppressing alpha and theta waves.

Meditation slows down our breath and heart beat while activating the parasympathetic nervous system to calm and soothe our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight or flight response. Numerous studies prove that meditation is highly successful in producing a calmer, more focused state of mind with many beneficial long-term effects on your health!


It’s true, laughter is the best medicine. Studies show that laughter reduces cortisol while it helps us reset our mental frame of mind. Feeling stressed? Watch some ridiculously funny movie that produces those deep belly laughs that make tears roll down your cheeks. You’re sure to feel less stressed afterwards!

8. Snuggle with your pet or loved one.

It’s all about opening our hearts, isn’t it? A dog that greets us at the end of a stressful day with a wagging tail and joyful licks helps us immediately feel better as our hearts open to receive their love. A cat that curls up and purrs next to us makes us feel safer and calm.

We can do the same for each other. Let’s remember how important it is to hug, tell someone how much they mean to us and take a moment to give each other appreciations. When we feel appreciated and when we think of all of our blessings, stress is naturally reduced and a warm glow takes its place!

For a deeper exploration of the role of cortisol and the consequences of long-term elevation of stress hormones, read The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott, Ph.D. and The Metabolic Plan by Stephen Cherniske, M.S. If you think your adrenals are exhausted, this book is essential reading: Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome by Dr. James Wilson.



  1. Nawata, H., et al 2004
  2. Schwartz, A.G., et al 2004
  3. Reddy, D.S., et al 2003
  4. Barrou, Z., Charru, P. and Lidy, C. 1997; Nawata, H., 2004
  5. Naliboff B. D., et al 2004
  6. Herbert, T.B., and Cohen, S. 1993; McEwen, B.S. 2000; Sapolsky, R.M. 2004
  7. Kinoshita, Y. and Hato, F. 2001
  8. Bjorntorp, P., et al 2001; Takeda, E., et al 2004
  9. Tsigos, C. and Chrousos, G.P. 2002
  10. Lee, A.L., Ogle, W.O. and Sapolsky, R.M. 2002
  11. Sapolsky, R.M. 1996


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