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Reducing the Risks of High Cortisol

September 2011

By Jan Whiticomb

Reducing the Risks of High Cortisol

Cortisol is a hormone that, when released in excess, can create a host of pathological conditions in the body.

When we are under stress or have an infection, cortisol raises our blood pressure and blood sugar. These changes help us survive short periods of stress, but they hurt us when they continue for years.

The problems associated with chronically elevated cortisol levels include:

  • Suppressed immunity
  • Hypertension
  • High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
  • Insulin resistance
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes
  • Fat deposits on the face, neck, and belly
  • Reduced libido
  • Bone loss1

Cortisol is a “stress hormone” that is responsible for many of the long-term health consequences suffered by those who encounter frequent stressful situations.

In this article, you will discover data about a natural remedy that reduces harmful cortisol levels. The benefits include improved sleep quality, immunity, stress response, and organ function.

What you need to know

  • Rhodiola is a known adaptogen—a plant-based compound that improves resistance to stress.
  • It exerts system-wide protective and restorative effects, increasing longevity and healthy life span in experimental models.
  • It has been shown to favorably modulate the stress response, restore vital organ function, and boost immunity.
  • It also combats aging cognitive function, minimizing depression, and anxiety.
  • Rhodiola enhances muscle performance, increases endurance, prevents muscle damage, and improves blood circulation.

The Dangers of Cortisol

Our bodies have a built-in mechanism for protecting us from the effects of acute, immediate stress (say, an attack by a wild animal). That effect, often called the “stress response,” involves production of several hormones in the adrenal gland. Following the immediate “adrenaline rush” that helps us escape the danger, we experience a massive release of cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.”

Short-term bursts of cortisol are necessary to help us recover from the effects of stress. They boost blood sugar levels, providing immediate energy. They bolster immune responses in the short-term. They pull calcium from our bones, making it available to muscles for immediate action. They reduce our response to pain, keeping us focused on survival. And they enhance short-term memory, enabling us to evade similar threats in the near future.

Reducing the Risks of High Cortisol

Short, intermittent bursts of cortisol helped our ancestors survive in the wilderness and still come to our aid today. But unlike our ancestors, we face chronically stressful situations such as job loss and financial insecurity. Additionally, there are new biological stressors such as obesity and environmental toxins. This chronic stress means that we experience chronic cortisol elevation—where levels of the stress hormone never get a chance to return to normal. This produces a major problem that threatens our health and longevity.

The effects of chronic overexposure to cortisol can be devastating. Prolonged cortisol elevations result in sustained elevations of blood sugar, substantial loss of calcium from bones, depression of important immune responses, high blood pressure, loss of muscle mass, increased fat accumulation, and even loss of cognitive function.

If you’ve ever seen someone on chronic steroid therapy, say, for protection against transplant rejection, you’ve seen the destructive effects of cortisol: such people develop a classic “moon face,” the result of excess fat and fluid accumulations. They develop a stooped posture, the result of calcium losses from bones. They often succumb to infections, the result of excessive immune suppression. Less obviously, but still of concern, they often develop dangerous hypertension requiring medication, and they can develop a range of cognitive dysfunctions as well.

So how can we preserve the beneficial effects of short-term cortisol elevations in response to acute, dangerous stress, while tamping down the dangerous effects of chronic, long-term cortisol elevations? That’s where adaptogens such as rhodiola become important.

The reason that the Soviet scientists were so interested in rhodiola was that they recognized its value in situations where long-term stress was an issue. They saw that rhodiola’s adaptogenic powers could balance the impairments produced by chronic stress without interfering with the valuable short-term stress response. Modern science is further validating rhodiola’s ability to mitigate the impact of chronic cortisol elevations.

A large, phase III placebo-controlled clinical trial was conducted in Sweden in 2009, studying participants aged 20-55 years with a diagnosis of stress-related fatigue.2 Subjects taking the rhodiola extract had significantly lower cortisol responses to chronic stress than did the placebo recipients—and as a result they had lower scores on scales of burnout and improved performance on cognitive testing.

A placebo-controlled Chinese study in 2009 also revealed protective effects of rhodiola on stress-induced cortisol levels in otherwise healthy individuals.3 In this case, subjects who received rhodiola experienced no change in their cortisol levels, while levels rose sharply among placebo recipients when both groups were exposed to chronic stress in the form of endurance exercise. Rhodiola also increased the efficiency with which subjects used oxygen, potentially reducing additional stress from oxygen radicals.

Advanced laboratory studies have now demonstrated that rhodiola achieves its cortisol-lowering, stress-fighting effects through several different mechanisms. Rhodiola directly interacts with the brain-adrenal gland system to reduce cortisol production while enhancing stress-resistance proteins.4 It upregulates “stress-sensor” proteins that reduce the production and impact of cortisol, resulting in enhanced mental and physical performance and even longevity.5 And multiple studies have demonstrated the complete lack of side effects from rhodiola supplementation.2,4

Modulating the Stress Response

Modulating the Stress Response

Unlike any other compound, adaptogens condition your body to respond favorably to stress at the physiological level through a unique mechanism.

Adaptogens deliver minute shocks of mild stress that condition your physiology to respond to more major stresses in a favorable way. Interestingly, this is similar to the vaccine theory of innoculating the body with a small but harmless amount of a virus to help the body fend off a major attack.6

Rhodiola reduces fatigue and restores normal mental and physiological functioning, even in stressed humans categorized as having “burnout.”6,7 Studies of highly stressed individuals—doctors working overnight shifts, students studying for major exams—all demonstrate improvements in fatigue level, neuro-motor performance, and perceptive and cognitive function, even when tested under ongoing stressful conditions.8-10

A study of young to middle-aged women with significant impairment from living in psychologically stressful environments demonstrated improved scores on attention, speed, and accuracy during stressful cognitive tasks.11 Those effects were evident just two hours after a single dose of rhodiola combined with Siberian ginseng and Schisandra chinensis. No serious side effects were reported in this or any other study of rhodiola.4

Rhodiola Research Conducted in Russia

Scarcely heard of in this country, rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb that first gained prominence when used by Russian cosmonauts to improve their endurance, concentration, and strength during space missions. During the Cold War, the Russians began to scientifically study the use of adaptogenic herbs for their elite athletes and military.

Their goal was to identify a natural product that created a sense of well being and reduced the harmful effects of the stress hormone, cortisol. The Russian scientists knew that high levels of cortisol initiate a dangerous cascade of stress and disease that would hamper the efforts of their best and brightest.

Rhodiola is one of only 16 scientifically established adaptogens, or plants endowed with the power to enhance system-wide function in the aging human.

A Powerful Weapon Against Anxiety

While Rhodiola rosea has demonstrated the ability to help people deal with stress, it has also shown promise in alleviating stress-related symptoms such as anxiety and a diminished appetite.

A new study shined a light on rhodiola’s ability to circumvent the symptoms and severity of general anxiety disorder, a common condition characterized by frequent, excessive worry that is out of proportion to external circumstances. Symptoms of the disorder include difficulty concentrating, irritability, tense muscles, sleep disturbances, and trouble controlling worries. Ten participants (ages 34-55) with generalized anxiety disorder received a total daily dose of 340 mg of R. rosea extract for 10 weeks. At the study’s end, the participants demonstrated significant improvements in symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, as determined by a widely used clinical assessment scale.12

As researchers began to investigate rhodiola in greater detail, they discovered that one of rhodiola’s key components, the phytochemical salidroside, may be responsible for many of rhodiola’s anti-aging properties, as well as an important factor in its ability to help combat anxiety. One animal study showed that salidroside produced notable sedative (calming) and hypnotic (sleep-inducing) effects in a dose-dependent fashion.13 Another study showed that administering salidroside to animals reversed stress-induced anorexia (discontinuation of eating ).14 Together, these findings support rhodiola’s ability to calm individuals subjected to stress and to restore normal patterns of rest and eating.

These studies back up centuries of common knowledge in Russia and Scandinavia, where people have used rhodiola to alleviate everyday symptoms of anxiety and poor sleep.