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Factors that May Inhibit the Stress Response & Lower Cortisol

Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Joe Cohen, BS | Last updated:
Stress

In this modern age, many people feel like they are constantly under stress. This comes not only from career deadlines, family pressure, and financial obligations but also from anything that disrupts our body’s natural state of balance. Here are some science-based tips to counteract everyday stressors.

Stress Response Science

The Two Major Systems

The HPA Axis Scientists think that there are two major systems in the body that mediate the stress response; both originate from the hypothalamus [1].

One is called the Hypothalamus-Pituitary and Adrenal (HPA) axis [1].

Three glands make up the HPA axis and release the following hormones: CRH (Hypothalamus)->ACTH (Pituitary)->Cortisol (Adrenal) [1].

The other proposed stress pathway is the sympathomedullary system, where signals are sent to the adrenals to release adrenaline and norepinephrine [2].

The HPA axis is thought to deal with longer-term stressors, while the sympathomedullary system appears to deal more with acute stressors. Both can become imbalanced from stress, by which many other brain regions and pathways can also be affected [2].

One measure of the stress response is a person’s blood cortisol, but many other markers have also been proposed to reveal how stress is impacting the body.

Limitations

Note that the HPA axis and sympathomedullary system are not the only participants in the stress response [3].

Sympathetic, fight-or-flight activity can also be counteracted by parasympathetic, rest-and-digest activity. This is part of the cholinergic pathway in the body.

Lastly, the stress response can involve many other possible factors – including brain chemistry, environment, health status, and genetics – that may vary from one person to another.

Factors that May Lower the Stress Response

When to See a Doctor

Remember that it’s natural and healthy for the stress response to be activated moderately and for a short time. Issues usually arise when activation becomes chronic [1].

If your goal is to improve extreme stress-related issues – including those of panic disorders or anxiety – it’s important to talk to your doctor, especially if stress is significantly impacting your daily life.

Major mental changes, such as excessive sadness, panic, persistent low mood, euphoria, or anxiety, are all reasons to see a doctor.

Your doctor should diagnose and treat any underlying conditions causing your symptoms.

Additionally, changes in brain and body chemistry are not something that people can change on their own with the approaches listed in this article. Instead, the factors to avoid listed here are meant to reduce daily stress and support overall mental health and well-being.

You may try avoiding the factors listed below if you and your doctor determine that this could be an appropriate approach for reducing your stress response.

The strategies listed below should never be done in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes.

Lastly, clinical evidence is lacking to support avoiding some of the factors listed here as a means of stress reduction.

Lifestyle

  1. Positive social encounters [4]
  2. Laughing/being happy [5]
  3. Spending time in nature [6]
  4. Diaphragmatic breathing [7]
  5. Meditation [8, 9]
  6. Yoga [10, 11]
  7. Being physically active (may lower cortisol in the longer term) [12].
  8. Regular dancing [5]
  9. Massage therapy [13]
  10. Music therapy [5]
  11. EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)
  12. Napping after sleep loss [14]
  13. Glucose restriction/fasting (if recommended by a doctor) [15]
  14. Chewing (may lower CRH) [16]
  15. Vagus nerve stimulation [17]

Foods

  1. Salmon and other fatty fish high in omega 3s [18]
  2. Turmeric [19]
  3. Green tea/L-Theanine [20]
  4. Dark Chocolate [21]

Supplements (Investigational)

Supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use and generally lack solid clinical research. Regulations set manufacturing standards for them but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective.

  1. Curcumin
  2. Fish Oil/DHA [5, 22]
  3. Rhodiola/Salidroside [23]
  4. Magnesium [24, 25, 26]
  5. Zinc [27]
  6. Selenium [28]
  7. Probiotics [29]
  8. Black Cumin Seed Oil [30]
  9. Lysine [28]
  10. Vitamin C [28]
  11. St John’s Wort [31]
  12. Oxytocin [4]
  13. Phosphatidylserine [5]
  14. Aromatherapy (orange essential oil) [32]
  15. Schisandra [33]
  16. Holy Basil/Tulsi – (in rats) [34]
  17. Tribulus (proposed to lower CRH and cortisol) [35]
  18. Ginseng (hypothesized to block ACTH under chronic stress conditions) [36, 37]
  19. Cordyceps (seems to reduce stress markers in rats) [38]
  20. Ginkgo (researched in conditions of acute stress) [37]

Proper evidence is lacking to support the use of any of these supplements in people who are under high stress.

Devices

  1. PEMF (thought to depend on the device used) [39]
  2. tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) [40]
  3. TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) [41, 42]
  4. Electroacupuncture (seems to lower CRH in rats with IBS) [43]

Experimental: Hormonal Pathways

The following factors are theoretical. They help scientists better understand the stress response pathway, but their impact hasn’t been tested in humans.

Be sure to discuss your hormone-related labs with your doctor and do not start or stop taking prescription hormones unless recommended by a doctor.

  1. Progesterone [28]
  2. GHRH (in men, but not women) [44]

Factors Purported to Promote GABA Activity

Supplements and Diet

Some theories suggest that GABA is the mind’s “natural calming signal.” It’s said to be the neurotransmitter that might relieve anxiety, help people get good sleep, relax, and wind down [45].

Scientists hypothesize that GABAergics inhibit the HPA axis, including compounds that activate GABAB [46, 47] or GABAA [48, 49] receptors. Many of these compounds are investigational and haven’t been properly researched in humans.

That said, limited research suggests that the following supplements or dietary factors may promote GABA activity:

  1. Butyrate [50]
  2. Ketogenic diets; According to one unverified theory, less glutamate is metabolized and more is made into GABA in ketosis [51]. Findings are contradictory [52].
  3. Honokiol (from Magnolia) [28]
  4. Theanine (from green tea) [28]
  5. Hops [28]
  6. Chinese Skullcap [28]
  7. Kava, but with caution since kava can have side effects [28]
  8. Valerian [28]
  9. Lavender [53]
  10. Taurine [54]
  11. Ashwagandha [55]
  12. Bacopa [56]

Read more about GABA, sleep, anxiety, and mood.

About the Author

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen, BS

Joe Cohen flipped the script on conventional and alternative medicine… and it worked. Growing up, he suffered from inflammation, brain fog, fatigue, digestive problems, insomnia, anxiety, and other issues that were poorly understood in traditional healthcare. Frustrated by the lack of good information and tools, Joe decided to embark on a learning journey to decode his DNA and track his biomarkers in search of better health. Through this personalized approach, he discovered his genetic weaknesses and was able to optimize his health 10X better than he ever thought was possible. Based on his own health success, he went on to found SelfDecode, the world’s first direct-to-consumer DNA analyzer & precision health tool that utilizes AI-driven polygenic risk scoring to produce accurate insights and health recommendations. Today, SelfDecode has helped over 100,000 people understand how to get healthier using their DNA and labs.
Joe is a thriving entrepreneur, with a mission is to empower people to take advantage of the precision health revolution and uncover insights from their DNA and biomarkers so that we can all feel great all of the time. 

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