Cortisol is a hormone secreted by your adrenal glands that plays an important role in managing your body's response to stress. Cortisol mobilizes your body's energy reserves by increasing glucose levels in the blood, activating the conversion of proteins to carbohydrates and suppressing inflammation. Low cortisol levels can result from prolonged stress such as a serious illness, chronic lack of sleep or sustained mental or emotional stress. Some herbs have purported ability to increase cortisol levels. Consult your doctor before using herbs to treat low cortisol levels.
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Glycyrrhetinic acid, one of the active compounds in licorice, was found to increase cortisol levels in a study published in the 2011 issue of "The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism." Ten healthy young adult volunteers with normal blood pressure took 500 mg per day of glycyrrhetinic acid for 10 days. The researchers measured increased cortisol activity and elevated levels of cortisol in the urine of the study participants. The researchers concluded that the results of their study indicate that glycyrrhetinic acid increases cortisol activity by blocking an enzyme that converts cortisol to its less active form.
Panax ginseng exerts various effects directly on the adrenal glands and indirectly through the stress response pathways between the brain, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands, according to the 2009 issue of the journal "Alternative Medicine Review." Animal studies have produced mixed results regarding ginseng's effects on cortisol, say the authors, with some showing increased adrenal activity and cortisol production and some showing inhibitory effects of ginseng on cortisol levels, demonstrating what herbalist refer to as adaptogenic properties -- the ability of an herb to either stimulate or inhibit adrenal activity, as required, to bring balance to the system. Ginseng's influence on the hypothalamus -- the part of the brain that regulates some aspects of metabolic rate -- shows a stimulatory effect on cortisol production, indicating that it is helping prepare the body to respond to stress. Ginseng also increases the brain's sensitivity to cortisol.
The Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha, one of the most important herbs in the traditional Indian medicine system, exerts anti-stress effects by lowering blood sugar and cortisol levels during sudden extreme stress. Ashwagandha also decreases signs of chronic stress such as ulcers, decreased libido, impaired memory and suppression of the immune system. Rocky Mountain Analytical Laboratory lists ashwagandha as an adaptogen herb, along with rhodiola, schisandra and ginseng, as capable of either raising or lowering cortisol levels. The University of Maryland Medical Center cautions against using ashwagandha along with thyroid or corticosteroid medications or, in some cases, if you have an autoimmune condition, due to its immune stimulating effects.
Rhodiola exerts numerous effects on the brain and body, including influencing neurotransmitter function, promoting endorphin production and increasing levels of adrenal hormones when needed. Rhodiola is capable of decreasing cortisol levels during acute stress and also exerts stimulating and anti-depression effects, according to a study published in the January 2007 issue of the journal "Phytotherapy Research." Rhodiola is one of the most effective adaptogen herbs and has been credited with reducing fatigue, improving work performance and reducing anxiety, say the authors of the study.