Cortisol is a steroid hormone made by the body’s two adrenal glands (one on each kidney). It is essential for life and has many important functions, including regulating blood sugar levels and metabolism, acting as an anti-inflammatory and controlling salt and water balance in the cells of the body. It is also involved in memory formation and triggering the process of giving birth in mammals, rodents and reptiles.
High levels of cortisol are associated with a number of health conditions and problems. Having too much cortisol for prolonged periods can lead to weight gain, interfere with sleep and cause problems with the immune system and digestive system. Too much cortisol can also reduce a person’s resistance to illness and can have a negative impact on the nervous system.
People who are concerned they may have too much cortisol should speak with a doctor. In some cases, high cortisol levels are caused by an underlying medical condition or by side effects of medication. In these cases, a doctor will be able to recommend lifestyle changes or medications that can help lower the levels of cortisol.
The most effective way to lower cortisol levels is by reducing stress, which causes the adrenal glands to produce too much of the hormone. This can be done through relaxation techniques, eating a balanced diet and not smoking. Getting enough sleep and sticking to a regular sleep-wake schedule also helps. People should avoid caffeine-containing foods and drinks close to bedtime, as they can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
In addition to reducing stress, a person can try to decrease the amount of cortisol that is produced by taking certain supplements. Some vitamins have been shown to be helpful in this regard, particularly magnesium. The spice turmeric is another supplement that has been found to have a positive effect on the brain. It has been shown to normalize cortisol levels, improve adrenal function and increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.
A small number of prescription drugs have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the blood. These include glucocorticoids such as prednisone, dexamethasone and hydrocortisone. These are often prescribed in the treatment of inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and asthma, because they can reduce inflammation. In addition, there are some drugs that can block the secretion of cortisol from the adrenal glands. These are referred to as “block and replace” therapy and can be used in conjunction with glucocorticoids. These include steroid synthesis inhibitors such as mitotane, which has a very slow onset of action and is better suited to a “block” regimen than other corticoid-lowering agents, such as adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) or corticotropin releasing hormone agonists (CRH). They are used in the treatment of Cushing’s syndrome, caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland. However, a person who has a medical condition that is treated with these drugs should monitor their cortisol level closely and be alert for signs of excessive secretion.