Supplements for Balancing Stress Hormones

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

I started posting these excerpts at the very start of this year – because some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

Even though it’s the heart of summer now, the Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals (which tend to be “year-round” goals for many of us as well).

I’m almost done with the posts – into the last chapter now and hard at work on my next book, Deadly Antioxidants, which will be released in March 2015.

Please stay tuned for each of the last few installments – or if you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Supplements for Balancing Stress Hormones
Even though I have saved the “stress” supplements for last, in some ways this aspect can be considered of primary importance to control because of its intimate interactions with the remaining three of the Four Pillars of Health (managing oxidation, controlling inflammation, and stabilizing glucose). Of particular note is to keep in mind that many of the supplements that are effective primarily for balancing stress hormones are also effective as secondary controllers of blood sugar (and thus glycation), free radicals (and thus oxidation), and cytokines (and thus inflammation).

Branched-Chain Amino Acids
The group of amino acids referred to as the “branched-chain amino acids” (BCAAs) comprises three essential amino acids: valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Supplemental levels have been shown to increase endurance, reduce fatigue, improve mental performance, increase energy levels, prevent immune-system suppression, and counteract muscle catabolism following intense exercise.
In numerous studies of athletes, BCAAs have been shown to maintain blood levels of glutamine, an amino acid used as fuel by immune-system cells. During intense exercise and stress, glutamine levels typically fall dramatically, removing the primary fuel source for immune cells and leading to a general suppression of immune-system activity (and an increased risk of infections) following the exercise. By supplementing with glutamine, BCAAs, or both, a person can maintain blood levels of glutamine and thereby avoid suppression of immune-cell activity due to a lack of fuel.
In related studies, BCAA supplements have been shown to help counteract the rise in cortisol and the drop in testosterone that is often seen in endurance athletes undergoing stressful training. In these studies, intense exercise was used as a model for high stress, so the increased cortisol levels and the reduced testosterone levels represented exactly what happens in the average person when they experience a stressful situation at work, at home, or while standing in line at the grocery store.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb from India that is sometimes called “Indian ginseng”—not because it is part of the ginseng family but to suggest energy-promoting and antistress benefits that are similar to the ones attributed to the more well-known Asian and Siberian ginsengs. Traditional use of ashwagandha in Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine is to “balance life forces” during stress and aging, similar to the use of cordyceps in restoring “Qi” (pronounced “chee” and equivalent to the modern description of “vigor”) in traditional Chinese medicine and the modern use of many of these “adaptogenic” supplements for restoring vigor. Withanolides are thought to contribute to the calming effects of ashwagandha during periods of stress and may account for the use of ashwagandha as a general tonic during stressful situations (where it is calming and fatigue fighting) and as a treatment for insomnia (where it promotes relaxation).

Beta-sitosterol is one of hundreds of plant-derived “sterol” compounds that are known to influence cortisol exposure, immune function, and inflammation in the body. Plant oils contain the highest concentration of phytosterols, so nuts and seeds contain fairly high levels, and all fruits and vegetables generally contain some amount of phytosterols. Perhaps the best way to obtain beta-sitosterol is to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds (which obviously brings numerous other benefits as well), but beta-sitosterol is available in supplement form as well.

Beta-sitosterol is known to modulate immune function, inflammation, and pain levels through its effects on controlling the production of inflammatory cytokines, and much of this immune/inflammation control appears to be related to an improved interaction of immune cells (which produce inflammatory cytokines) with the adrenal glands (where cortisol is produced). In terms of immune function, beta-sitosterol has been shown to normalize the function of T-helper lymphocytes and natural killer cells following stressful events (such as marathon running), which normally suppress immune-system function. In addition to alleviating much of the postexercise immune suppression that occurs following endurance competitions, beta-sitosterol has also been shown to normalize the ratio of catabolic stress hormones (cortisol) to anabolic (rebuilding) hormones, such as testosterone and DHEA.

Citrus Peel
Citrus peel (Citrus sinensis) contains a unique class of flavonoids, known as polymethoxylated flavones (PMFs)—specifically, tangeritin, sinensetin, and nobilitin. The PMFs represent a class of “superflavonoids,” extracted from citrus peels, that exhibit approximately threefold potency compared to other flavonoids. PMFs are just what they sound like—flavonoid compounds with extra “methoxy” groups compared to “regular” flavones. Like all flavonoids, the PMFs deliver potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, but the PMF version is about three times more potent in its ability to restore biochemical balance (and it reduces cortisol levels by about 20 to 30 percent).

Our research group was the first in the world to use PMFs from citrus-peel extract for restoring biochemical balance while also promoting blood-sugar control and weight loss. As part of several research trials, we provided supplements of PMFs (with eurycoma root extract, green-tea catechins, and theanine) to a group of moderately overweight subjects. The PMFs reduced cortisol levels by 20 percent, body weight by 5 percent, body fat by 6 percent, and waist circumference by 8 percent over a period of six weeks. A longer, twelve-week study showed even better results, with additional beneficial effects on reducing cholesterol (by 20 percent), boosting vigor (by 25 percent), reducing fatigue (by 48 percent), and maintaining normal testosterone levels and resting metabolic rate.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) is a Chinese mushroom that has been used for centuries to reduce fatigue, increase stamina, improve lung function, and restore “Qi.” Traditionally, it was harvested in the spring at elevations above fourteen thousand feet, restricting its availability to the privileged (the emperor and his court). Several studies of cordyceps have shown improvements in lung function, suggesting that athletes may benefit from an increased ability to take up and use oxygen. A handful of studies conducted in Chinese subjects have shown increases in libido (sex drive) and restoration of testosterone levels (from low to normal) following cordyceps supplementation. During stressful events, cortisol levels rise while testosterone levels drop (leading to problems with biochemical balance). Using cordyceps as a way to normalize these suppressed testosterone levels can help modulate the cortisol-to-testosterone ratio within a lower (and healthier) range. At least two chemical constituents—cordycepin (deoxyadenosine) and cordycepic acid (mannitol)—have been identified as the active compounds in improving energy and stamina. Animal studies have shown that feeding with cordyceps increases the level of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the liver by 45 to 55 percent, a beneficial effect for boosting energy state and potential for physical and mental performance. Furthermore, mice fed cordyceps and subjected to an extreme low-oxygen environment were able to utilize oxygen more efficiently (30 to 50 percent increase), better tolerate acidosis and hypoxia (lack of oxygen), and live two to three times longer than a control group. In a number of Chinese clinical studies, primarily in elderly patients with fatigue, cordyceps-treated patients reported significant improvements in their levels of fatigue, ability to tolerate cold temperatures, memory and cognitive capacity, and sex drive. Patients with respiratory diseases also reported feeling physically stronger. Recently, a small study presented at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting showed that cordyceps significantly increased maximal oxygen uptake and anaerobic threshold, which may lead to improved exercise capacity and resistance to fatigue.

Eurycoma longifolia, a Malaysian root often called “Malaysian ginseng” for its energy-boosting effects, affords a natural way to bring suboptimal testosterone levels back to within normal ranges. It is also probably the best first-line therapy (before trying synthetic options, such as DHEA supplements or topical/injected testosterone) for anybody suffering from chronic stress. In traditional Malaysian medicine, eurycoma is used as an anti-aging remedy because of its positive effects on energy levels and mental outlook (which are most likely the result of improved biochemical balance and vigor).

Eurycoma contains a group of small peptides (short protein chains), referred to as “eurypeptides,” that are known to have effects in improving energy status and sex drive. The “testosterone-boosting” effects of eurycoma appear not to have anything to do with stimulating testosterone synthesis, but rather appear to increase the release rate of “free” testosterone from sex hormone–binding globulin (SHBG). In this way, eurycoma is not so much a testosterone “booster” as a “maintainer” of normal testosterone levels (testosterone that your body has already produced and needs to release to become active). This means that eurycoma is particularly beneficial for individuals with suboptimal testosterone levels, disrupted biochemical balance, and low vigor, including those who are dieting for weight loss, middle-aged individuals (because testosterone drops after age thirty), stressed-out folks, sleep-deprived people, and serious athletes who may be at risk for overtraining.

The vast majority of what we know about eurycoma comes from rodent studies, test-tube binding evaluations, and a handful of open-label human-feeding trials. The test-tube binding studies have shown that eurycoma peptides and related compounds do help release more of the “free” form of testosterone from its binding proteins. The rodent studies have yielded more than a dozen reports of increased energy levels, improved hormonal profiles, and enhanced sex drive. The limited number of human-feeding trials have demonstrated a clear subjective indication of reduced fatigue and heightened energy and mood, as well as a greater sense of well-being in the subjects consuming eurycoma.

Fortunately, a range of specific feeding studies in athletes, dieters, and in stressed and sleep-deprived subjects—who are all under chronic stress and are perhaps the key customers for eurycoma-based products—have been conducted. These studies in “overstressed” subjects used a specific eurycoma root extract prepared with a patented water-extraction and freeze-drying process (developed in collaboration between the government of Malaysia and MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). In some studies, the patented eurycoma root extract is used alone, and in others, it is blended and balanced with other supplements, such as theanine, citrus PMFs, and green-tea catechins. Overall, these studies found a maintenance of normal testosterone and biochemical balance in supplemented subjects, including dieters (compared to a typical drop in testosterone among nonsupplemented dieters) and cyclists (compared to a typical drop in testosterone in nonsupplemented riders).

For a dieter, it would be expected for cortisol (a catabolic hormone) to rise and testosterone (an anabolic hormone) to drop following several weeks of dieting stress. This change in biochemical balance (cortisol up and testosterone down) is an important cause of the familiar “plateau” that many dieters hit (when weight loss stops) after six to eight weeks on a weight-loss regimen. By maintaining normal testosterone levels, a dieter could expect to also maintain their muscle mass and metabolic rate (versus a drop in both subsequent to lower testosterone levels) and thus continue to lose weight without hitting the dreaded weight-loss plateau.

For an athlete, the same rise in cortisol and drop in testosterone is an early signal of overtraining, a syndrome characterized by reduced performance, increased injury rates, suppressed immune-system activity, increased appetite, moodiness, and weight gain. Obviously, maintenance of normal testosterone levels could prevent some of these overtraining symptoms, as well as help the athlete recover faster and more effectively from daily training bouts.

Ginseng is perhaps the best known of the “adaptogens” (herbs to help the body “adapt” to the biochemical imbalances caused by chronic stress). Several strains of ginseng are available—including Panax (“true”) ginseng (also called Korean, or Asian, ginseng), American ginseng, and Siberian ginseng (not a true ginseng; see the next paragraph for more information)—and each type contains some of the same compounds but in slightly different proportions, thus providing slightly different effects in terms of antistress benefits. Numerous animal and human studies have shown that different types of ginseng can increase energy and endurance, improve mental function (learning and maze tests), and improve overall resistance to various stressors, including viruses and bacteria, extreme exercise, and sleep deprivation. Human studies have shown improved immune function and reduced incidence of colds and flu following a month of supplementation with Panax ginseng. In a handful of studies, ginseng supplementation has also provided benefits in mental functioning in volunteers exposed to stress, such as improvements in ability to form abstract thoughts, in reaction times, and in scores on tests of memory and concentration.

Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus, or “Eleuthero” for short) is not truly ginseng, but it is a close-enough cousin to deliver some of the same energetic benefits. The Siberian form of ginseng is generally a less-expensive alternative to Panax, or Asian/Korean, ginseng, although it may have more of a stimulatory effect rather than an adaptogenic effect—not necessarily a bad thing if you just need a boost. Often promoted as an athletic performance enhancer, eleuthero may also possess mild to moderate benefits in promoting recovery following intense exercise, perhaps due in part to an enhanced delivery of oxygen to recovering muscles.

The active compounds in ginseng are known as ginsenosides, and most of the top-quality ginseng supplements will be standardized for ginsenoside content. It is thought that the ginsenosides interact within the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to balance the body’s secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol. ACTH has the ability to bind directly to brain cells and can affect a variety of stress-related processes in the body.

Magnolia Bark
Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) is a traditional Chinese medicine used since ad 100 for treating “stagnation of Qi” (what we view in Western medicine as low vigor or burnout). Magnolia bark extracts are rich in two biphenol compounds, magnolol and honokiol, both of which are thought to contribute to the primary antistress and cortisol-lowering effects of the plant.

Japanese researchers have determined that the magnolol and honokiol components of magnolia bark extracts are one thousand times more potent than alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) in their antioxidant activity, thereby helping to balance the “oxidation” Pillar of Health. Other research groups have shown both magnolol and honokiol to possess powerful “mental acuity” benefits via their actions in modulating the activity of various neurotransmitters and related enzymes in the brain (increased choline acetyltransferase activity, inhibition of acetylcholinesterase, and increased acetylcholine release).

Numerous animal studies have demonstrated that honokiol acts as a central-nervous-system depressant at high doses but as an anxiolytic (antianxiety and antistress) agent at lower doses. This means that a small dose of a magnolia bark extract standardized for honokiol content can help to “de-stress” a person, while a larger dose might have the effect of putting you to sleep. When compared to pharmaceutical agents such as Valium (diazepam), honokiol appears to be as effective in its antianxiety activity yet not nearly as powerful in its sedative ability. These results have been demonstrated in at least a half dozen animal studies and suggest that magnolia bark extracts standardized for honokiol content would be an appropriate approach for controlling the detrimental effects of everyday stressors, without the tranquilizing side effects of pharmaceutical agents.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is a species of plants from the Arctic mountain regions of Siberia. The root of the plant is used medicinally and is also known as “Arctic root” or “golden root.” Rhodiola has been used for centuries to treat cold and flulike symptoms, promote longevity, and increase the body’s resistance to physical and mental stresses. It is typically considered to be an adaptogen (like ginseng) and is believed to invigorate the body and mind to increase resistance to a multitude of stresses. The key active constituents in rhodiola are believed to be rosavin, rosarin, rosin, and salidroside.

In one clinical trial, Rhodiola rosea extract was effective in reducing or removing symptoms of depression in 65 percent of the patients studied. In another study, twenty-six out of thirty-five men suffering from weak erections or premature ejaculation reported improvements in sexual function following treatment with Rhodiola rosea extract for three months. In another study of physicians on nighttime hospital duty, rhodiola supplementation for two weeks resulted in a significant improvement in associative thinking, short-term memory, concentration, and speed of audiovisual perception. An additional study of students undergoing a stressful twenty-day period of exams showed daily rhodiola supplementation alleviated mental fatigue and improved well-being.

Overall, Rhodiola rosea extract appears to be valuable as an adaptogen, specifically in increasing the body’s ability to deal with a number of psychological and physiological stresses. Of particular value is the theoretical role for rhodiola in increasing the body’s ability to take up and utilize oxygen—an effect similar to that of cordyceps (see above)—which may explain some of the nonstimulant “energizing” effects attributed to the plant. Rhodiola is often called the “poor-man’s cordyceps” because of ancient stories in which Chinese commoners and Tibetan Sherpas used rhodiola for energy because the plants grew wild throughout the countryside, while only the emperor, his immediate family, and his concubines were allowed access to the rare cordyceps mushroom.

Theanine is an amino acid found in the leaves of green tea (Camellia sinensis). Theanine offers quite different benefits from those imparted by the polyphenol and catechin antioxidants for which green tea is typically consumed. In fact, through the natural production of polyphenols, the tea plant converts theanine into catechins. This means tea leaves harvested during one part of the growing season may be high in catechins (good for antioxidant and anticancer benefits), while leaves harvested during another time of year may be higher in theanine (good for antistress and biochemical-balance effects). Theanine is unique in that it acts as a nonsedating relaxant to help increase the brain’s production of alpha waves. This makes theanine extremely effective for combating tension, stress, and anxiety, without inducing drowsiness. Clinical studies show that theanine is effective in dosages ranging from 50 to 200 mg per day. A typical cup of green tea is expected to contain approximately 50 mg of theanine.

In addition to being considered a relaxing substance (in adults), theanine has also been shown to provide benefits for improving learning performance (in mice) and promoting concentration (in students). No adverse side effects are associated with theanine consumption, making it one of the leading natural choices for promoting relaxation without the sedating effects of depressant drugs and herbs. When considering the potential benefits of theanine as an antistress or biochemical-balance supplement, it is important to distinguish its nonsedating relaxation benefits from the tranquilizing effects of other relaxing supplements, such as valerian and kava, which are actually mild central-nervous-system depressants.

One of the most distinctive aspects of theanine activity is its ability to increase the brain’s output of alpha waves. Alpha waves are one of the four basic brain-wave patterns (delta, theta, alpha, and beta) that can be monitored using an electroencephalogram (EEG). Each wave pattern is associated with a particular oscillating electrical voltage in the brain, and the different brain-wave patterns are associated with different mental states and states of consciousness. Alpha waves, which indicate what we call “relaxed alertness,” are nonexistent during deep sleep as well as during states of very high arousal, such as fear or anger. In other words, alpha waves are associated with your highest levels of physical and mental performance; therefore, you want to maximize the amount of time during your waking hours that your brain spends in an alpha state. By increasing the brain’s output of alpha waves, theanine can help you “rebalance” your metabolism and your brain-wave patterns as well as help you control anxiety, increase focus and concentration, promote creativity, and improve overall mental and physical performance. Research studies have clearly shown that people who produce more alpha brain waves also have less anxiety, that highly creative people generate more alpha waves when faced with a problem to solve, and that elite athletes tend to produce a burst of alpha waves on the left sides of their brains during their best performances.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

  • Hey Shawn,
    Do you have a recommended supplement to lower cortisol levels. I use to take Monavies Balance and found it helped. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Warmest regards
    Your pal

  • Do you have a PMF supplement recommendation? You’ve recommended this supplement in many places. I’ve been trying to find one having the substances suggested and cannot find one. Thank you.

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