The role of cortisol in anxiety


The role of cortisol in anxiety

Ah, cortisol. Hello, old friend. 


Chances are good you’re no stranger to this hormone – it’s likely paid a visit to you at some point, some of us more regularly than others. This is especially true if you’re someone who struggles with anxiety. 


However, you may not know what role cortisol plays in anxiety – just that it makes your anxiety feel worse. 


Here we are sharing what cortisol does and how it can affect your mental health. 


What is cortisol?

Let’s start with some of the basics. Cortisol is a hormone that is made in the adrenal glands. When we experience times of anxiety or stress, cortisol levels in our bodies rise. And when we feel more relaxed, cortisol levels drop. 


During those times in which cortisol goes up, it means that all of our body’s energy is designated to dealing with that anxious or stressful situation. While that sounds like it may be a good and helpful thing to have our body on alert, it actually isn’t. When the body’s energy is focused on that anxiety and stress, then other key bodily functions such as digestion and immunity are pushed to the back. 


Cortisol levels naturally go up and down throughout the day. They usually peak around 8 a.m. and then reach a low in the late afternoon and through the night. This helps us regulate our sleep and wake cycles. 


Cortisol plays a few additional roles in our bodies:


  • Helps to deal with stress and danger
  • Helps control blood sugar
  • Helps control blood pressure
  • Helps the brain form memories
  • Helps regulate metabolism


Cortisol and anxiety

Think about cortisol this way: if you’re in a life-or-death situation, your body isn’t going to focus on ensuring that you know you’re hungry. Instead, it’s going to focus on getting you out of that life-or-death situation. 


This acute stress is a good thing when you are actually experiencing a situation where your life is threatened. However, we rarely find ourselves in that scenario, yet cortisol is still there ready to do its job. 


And this is where it wreaks havoc on our mental health and leads to chronic anxiety. 


When that acute stress becomes triggered by things other than life-or-death situations such as paying bills, a work deadline, a presentation, and more, your physical and mental health struggle. 


The more time your cortisol levels are up, the more time your body spends in this chronic state of stress. 


Think about it this way: Fight-or-flight mode is a good thing when it’s actually needed to save your life. But it’s terrible when your body finds itself in this mode chronically. 


Some of the issues you may deal with as a result of chronic stress include:


  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive troubles
  • Heart problems
  • Weight issues
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep struggles
  • Headaches
  • Poor memory
  • Inability to concentrate


How to lower cortisol levels

If you find yourself in a chronic state of anxiety, then your cortisol levels are not where you want them to be and your body and mind are suffering. 


Here are some things you can do to lower your cortisol levels and thus, your anxiety. 


Get enough sleep

A lack of sleep and anxiety go hand-in-hand. It’s hard to know whether the chicken or the egg came first, but there is no denying that in order to keep your cortisol levels in a healthy place, you need to be getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night – ideally more like 8 or 9.


If you struggle to sleep, try these things:

  • No blue lights (screens) at least 2 hours before bedtime
  • Eat your last meal at least 2 hours before bedtime
  • Read a book in bed
  • Meditate before bed



Movement throughout the day is a great way to exert some energy and regulate your cortisol levels. However, it’s important to stick to exercise that is low-intensity. Studies have shown that high-intensity workouts can actually increase cortisol levels, and that’s not what you’re trying to do. 



You don’t have to meditate for an hour a day to feel the effects of meditation. If all you have time or focus for is 5 minutes, that’s all you need. Studies show that mindfulness meditation lowers the body’s cortisol levels. This makes meditation a great practice to go to in times of anxiety as well as to use as a preventative method. 


Eat well

A diet that is filled with whole, unprocessed foods helps keep your brain and body functioning better. By focusing on anti-inflammatory foods, you reap the benefit of lower cortisol levels


Here are some key things to start eating to lower your cortisol levels and anxiety:

  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Organ meats
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Beef
  • Avocados
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Bananas
  • Spinach
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Kimchi
  • Quinoa


Take supplements

Sometimes a boost from the right supplements is just what the doctor ordered for cortisol levels and anxiety. 


Here are our favorite supplements to turn to in times of stress.


GABA. This amino acid exists naturally in the body, but if you’re suffering from anxiety then chances are good your GABA levels are low. This means that your brain struggles to take your body out of “anxious mode,” which leaves you in that chronic state of stress.  


To remedy that, consider adding GABA supplements to your daily vitamin regimen. 


Rhodiola Rosea. This adaptogen helps our body better regulate itself so that when anxiety starts to kick in, we are more equipped to withstand the stress.


Rhodiola Rosea also stimulates the body’s natural mood stabilizers, and reduces symptoms of anxiety as well as symptoms of depression, while also boosting mental clarity and focus. 


Sounds like a win all-around.


L-Theanine. This second amino acid on our list is not produced naturally in the body, which means we’ve gotta turn to supplements or food to get it. 


Why do you need L-Theanine? Because it helps us relax by promoting the brain’s production of alpha wave patterns which puts us in a state of active relaxation. 


Sign us up. 


You can find all three of these anxiety-reducing aids in our Mood Chews.



There is a time and a place for high cortisol levels, and it’s certainly not in your everyday life. If you’re experiencing high cortisol levels that are putting you in a state of chronic stress and anxiety, here are some things you should try today. 


  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Exercise daily
  3. Meditate daily
  4. Eat whole, unprocessed foods
  5. Take the right supplements