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Essential Oils for Cortisol Balance

By Jodi Cohen

Illustration of a cortisol level meter indicating a moderate stress level against a textured background.

Cortisol is a naturally-occurring hormone that works to regulate energy levels to help your body meet its physiological demands.  It is normally released upon waking up in the morning, exercising, or in the face of a stressful or dangerous situation, which triggers your fight-or-flight physiological response.

To help support your survival, cortisol keeps you motivated, awake and responsive to your environment. It fuels the production of glucose, or blood sugar, boosting energy to the large muscles, while inhibiting insulin production and narrowing arteries, which forces the blood to pump harder to aid our stressor response.

In other words, cortisol triggers a burst of energy while also suppressing nonessential-in-an-emergency functions, like your  digestive, reproductive and immune systems – this helps direct all the energy available to either fighting the stressor or fleeing it. For this reason chronically elevated cortisol levels can contribute to long-term health concerns.

Research reveals that chronically high cortisol levels decreases immune cell sensitivity to cortisol’s regulatory effect over your inflammatory response. In turn, runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases.


Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels

Cortisol not only depresses the immune system, but also  wreaks havoc on the rest of the body, inhibiting digestion and detoxification and throwing off our circadian rhythms (by impeding the pineal gland from releasing melatonin) and blood sugar and further breaking down the intestinal mucosal lining.  The constant release of cortisol also throws off our body’s feedback system that helps balance all endocrine hormones contributing to symptoms like:

  • Physical Pain: High cortisol levels deplete the adrenal glands.  This raises prolactin levels, increasing the body’s sensitivity to pain, such as backaches and muscle aches.  Excessive cortisol can also make the brain overly sensitive to pain, triggering headaches.
  • Poor sleepCortisol levels are supposed to drop at night, allowing your body to relax and recharge. When cortisol levels are out of balance, you feel more energized at night making it hard to sleep.
  • Fatigue: High levels of cortisol can deplete your adrenal glands and predispose you to chronic fatigue.
  • Anxiety: Cortisol triggers an alarmed response in the body which can contribute to jitters, a nervous stomach, feelings of panic and anxiety.
  • Chronic infections: Cortisol depresses the immune system, allowing bacterial, fungal, parasitic, and viral infections to proliferate.
  • Digestive distress: Cortisol turns off digestion, contributing to acid reflux, nausea, abdominal cramps, IBS, SIBO, diarrhea, constipation, and other digestive challenges.
  • Weight gain: Excess cortisol throws off blood sugar and digestion and can encourage the body to store fat around your abdomen.
  • High blood pressure: Cortisol constricts the blood vessels while the epinephrine increases heart rate which may contribute to high blood pressure and can stress your heart and cardiovascular system.
  • Depression and Irritability: High levels of cortisol suppress production of DHEA and other feel good hormones like Serotonin and Dopamine.
  • Sugar Cravings: Cortisol disrupts healthy blood sugar levels, contributing to sugar cravings.
  • Short-term memory loss: chronic stress actually shrinks the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory
  • Low sex drive: When stress hormones like cortisol are high, libido-inducing hormones like testosterone drop
  • Physical agitation and impatience: Cortisol may causes you to feel fidgety and restless or a need for constant movement which manifests itself in nervous and twitchy gestures
  • Premature aging: Cortisol breaks down muscles and other tissues making us look older and worn out
  • Autoimmunity: Cortisol depresses the immune system and inflammatory response, which can contribute to the development of autoimmunity.
  • Chronic Inflammation: Cortisol calms short term inflammation to enhance your chances of survival. Over time, chronically high levels of cortisol in your body can actually have the opposite effect, contributing to inflammation.  Chronically elevated cortisol levels decrease the sensitivity of your tissues to cortisol, impeding its effectiveness in calming inflammation and suppressing your immune system thus contributing to a viscous inflammatory cycle. (Study)
  • Hormonal fluctuations: Irregular periods or fertility challenges might arise as chronic stress drives pregnenolone/progesterone into conversion to cortisol, which competes for precursors available for synthesizing of other important hormones, like DHEA, estrogen and estradiol. This is known as “The Progesterone/Pregnenolone Steal Effect”.
  • Bone fractures and osteoporosis: Cortisol can draw protein from the bones, leading to osteoporosis.  It is interesting to note that cortisol causes the body to scavenge protein from everywhere (except the liver), breaking down everything for the sake of glucose for brainpower to deal with the perceived stress. Elevated cortisol levels can also tear up ligaments between bones causing the spine to go out of alignment and joints to go out of juxtaposition easily and frequently.


Essential Oils for Cortisol Balance

Essential oils can help lower cortisol levels. Research consistently finds that inhalation of essential oils, like the study which looks at Lavender and Rosemary, that essential oils decrease cortisol levels. A similar study found that participants who inhaled essential oils demonstrated considerably reduced salivary cortisol concentrations than those who did not.  More specifically, in the 4-week study, researchers found that anxious and stressed hypertensive patients who inhaled essential oil blends experienced “considerably reduced serum cortisol and anxiety levels compared to the control and placebo groups.”

Adaptogen herbs help naturally lower high cortisol levels in several key ways.

Similarly to adaptogen herbs, essential oils are also helpful for fighting stress and balancing hormones. Essential oils, including lavender, myrrh, frankincense and bergamot, contain potent, active ingredients that have been shown to naturally lower cortisol, reduce inflammation, improve immunity, and help with sleep and digestive functions.

Inhaling essential oils is thought to help improve your body’s stress response by toning down the activity of your sympathetic nervous system and increasing the activity of your parasympathetic nervous system.

It is believed that the linalool and linalyl acetate naturally present in lavender may act as a mild sedative  and stimulate the participants’ parasympathetic nervous system.

How to Calm Cortisol with Essential Oils

Essential oils can be used to balance the various feedback loops to regulate the production of cortisol, including the hypothalamus and the adrenal glands – part of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis – to ensure that they are not chronically activated or dysfunctioning which can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels.

In response to stress, your hypothalamus triggers your adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol until your hormones reach the levels that your body needs, and then a series of chemical reactions known as the negative feedback loop begins to switch them off.  In other words, when the hypothalamus receives the signal that cortisol levels in the body are sufficient, it signals the adrenals to stop releasing cortisol.  So long as the hypothalamus is able to correctly send and receive signals, cortisol levels in the body should return to balance.

Adrenal® :  These small, triangular-shaped glands secrete cortisol to regulate energy production and storage, control blood sugar, immune function, heart rate, muscle tone, and other processes that enable you to rapidly respond to stress.  The health and resilience of the adrenals (along with the hypothalamus and hippocampus) help to determine our tolerance to stress.  To help keep your adrenals balanced and not over releasing cortisol, apply 1- 2 drops of the Adrenal® on the adrenal glands (lower mid-back, one fist above the 12th rib on each side) upon waking, before bed and throughout the day as needed.  You can find more information on Adrenal®  blend here.

Hypothalamus™ :  This pearl size region of the brain located just above the brain stem serves as control center for neural and hormonal messages received from/sent to body, including signals to trigger the release of cortisol.  The ability of the hypothalamus to receive clear messages from the body is critical as all outgoing endocrine and neural signals are based on the clarity of these incoming signals, including the ability to put the brakes on cortisol release.  To optimize the ability of the hypothalamus to send and receive signals, apply 1 drop of Hypothalamus™ on forehead slightly above the third eye up to 6 times daily. You can find more information on Hypothalamus™ blend here.

Circadian Rhythm® :  Our sleep/wake cycle, known as our circadian rhythm, requires the release of melatonin, a hormone crucial to sleep.  Melatonin has an antagonist relationship to the stress hormone cortisol and the two hormones in conjunction help regulate our circadian rhythms.  This means that when cortisol is high, melatonin is low.  Chronic and prolonged stress triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol and throws off the body’s natural cortisol/melatonin rhythm. Cortisol should be high in the mornings when you wake up and gradually taper off throughout the day so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep.  High levels of cortisol at night, drive down melatonin and make it difficult to fall asleep.  To return the circadian rhythms to balance and put the brakes on the nighttime release of cortisol, apply Circadian Rhythm® above ears, on top of skull and very back of the head before bed. You can find more information on Circadian Rhythm® blend here.

Parasympathetic®: When your brain senses a threat, it triggers your vagus nerve to activate your nervous system’s “fight-or-flight” survival response triggering the release of cortisol.

Essential oils are natural, non-invasive, easy tools to use to activate your vagus nerve.  They possess both olfactory (smell) and transdermal (topical application) qualities, making them easy to inhale and apply on the skin to activate your vagus nerve. Research backs this up as inhaling essential oils such as lavender or bergamot has been shown to activate your vagus nerve as measured by improved heart rate variability. Inhaled essential oils travel directly to your brain (specifically to the prefrontal cortex behind your forehead) where they can immediately help calm the fear response in your brain.  In addition, topically applied essential oils can cross the blood-brain barrier to stimulate your vagus nerve within the brain.

Apply the Parasympathetic®:  blend behind your earlobe on your mastoid bone to help calm your nervous system.


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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.