Cortisol-Control Supplements

The preceding section outlined the importance for everybody of establishing a sound antistress foundation through the use of a balanced multivitamin supplement. For some people, this general nutritional foundation will be enough to help maintain a normal cortisol profile and stress response. For most others, however, a more targeted cortisol-controlling supplementation regimen may be needed to directly modulate the stress response and control cortisol levels within a healthy range.

For example, the "Stressed Jesses" among us will certainly need a daily cortisol-control regimen—and they'll need to follow it very closely. "Strained Janes" will also benefit from their own cortisol-control regimen, but they have the luxury of being somewhat less strict, so missing a day of cortisol control is not the end of the world. "Relaxed Jack" might only need to think about controlling his cortisol levels on an infrequent basis, such as during the rare times when he is under heightened stress. This section outlines some of the most promising supplement for directly modulating the stress response and helping to bring cortisol levels into a more healthful range.

Magnolia Bark

Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) is a traditional Chinese medicine used since A.D. 100 for treating stagnation of qi (low energy) as well as a variety of syndromes, such as digestive disturbances caused by emotional distress and emotional turmoil. (In China it is known as houpu or hou po.) Magnolia bark is rich in two biphenol compounds, magnolol and honokiol, which are thought to contribute to the primary antistress and cortisol-lowering effects of the plant. The magnolol content of magnolia bark is generally in the range of 2–10 percent, while honokiol tends to occur naturally at 1–5 percent in dried magnolia bark. Magnolia bark also contains a bit less than 1 percent of an essential oil known as eudesmol, which is classified as a triterpene compound, and may provide some additional benefits as an antioxidant.

Two of the most popular herbal medicines used in Japan, one called saiboku-to and another called hange-kobuku-to, contain magnolia bark and have been used for treating ailments from bronchial asthma to depression to anxiety. Japanese researchers have determined that the magnolol and honokiol components of Magnolia officinalis are one thousand times more potent than alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) in their antioxidant activity, thereby offering a potential heart-health benefit. Other research groups have shown both magnolol and honokiol to possess powerful "brain-health" 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 honokiol, or a magnolia bark extract standardized for honokiol content, can help to de-stress a person, while a larger dose might have the effect of knocking her out. 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 half a 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.

No significant toxicity or adverse effects have been associated with the traditional use of magnolia bark, which is as a decoction (hot-water tea) using 3–9 grams of dried bark (and only obtained via a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine). Extracts of magnolia bark are now available in commercial antianxiety products; these come in a powdered or pill form at doses of 250–750 mg per day and standardized to 1–2 percent honokiol and magnolol. Researchers in California and Florida studying "stress-eaters" have recently shown that while magnolia bark extract can reduce some indicators of stress and anxiety, there is no significant effect on either daytime cortisol levels or body weight. However, magnolia does appear to have a small effect on reducing evening cortisol levels—which suggests a potential benefit on enhancing sleep quality.

Rachel, the single mom in Chapter 6 who suffered from stress-related irritability and anxiety, was an avid fitness walker and vegetarian. As such, she already had the diet and exercise part of her cortisol-control regimen well covered. By adding a twice-daily supplement of magnolia bark extract (150 mg in the A.M. and 300 mg in the P.M.), she was able to reduce a great deal of her perceived stress, anxiety, and irritability. Rachel reported feeling more "balanced" and relaxed.


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 benefits), while leaves harvested during another time of year may be higher in theanine (good for antistress and cortisol-controlling 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. Three to four cups of green tea are expected to contain 100–200 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 anticortisol 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.

As mentioned above, 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. During deep sleep, the predominant brain waves are the slow delta waves (0–4 cycles/second). When we are in light sleep, or merely drowsy, the slightly faster theta waves are the most prevalent (4–8 cycles/second). Beta waves, which have the fastest cycle rates at 13–40 cycles/second, appear during highly stressful situations, when most of us find it difficult to concentrate or focus on anything. Alpha waves, at 8–13 cycles/second, are slower than high-stress beta waves, but faster than the delta and theta waves associated with sleep. They are the predominant brain-wave pattern seen during wakefulness, when a person is engaged in relaxed and effortless alertness. 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.

An interesting analogy for emphasizing the importance of the different types of brain waves is to compare them to the gears of a car: The slowest brain waves (delta and theta) represent the "idling" and "getting started" gears, alpha acts as the primary "working gear," and beta functions as the fastest "hyperdrive" gear, where you might be spinning your wheels instead of getting anywhere. Just as you use different gears in your car for different driving conditions, your brain generates different wave patterns when it is engaged in different activities. For example, too few theta and delta waves means that you're likely to suffer from insomnia, while too many would cause you to stumble around in a constant drowsy fog. The best situation is to experience an orderly process from one brain-wave pattern to the next—from restful sleep (delta/theta) to focused alertness (alpha) and back to restful sleep (theta/delta)—throughout a twenty-four-hour period. You'll notice that beta has been left out of the ideal cycle, because we don't need to experience anger or agitation if we can avoid it.

Unfortunately, our high-stress modern lifestyles result in the majority of us skipping our second and third brain gears (theta and alpha). Many people wake up suddenly out of a deep sleep (delta) at the sound of an alarm clock, which induces immediate stress and anxiety (beta) about being late or being under time pressure. After insufficient sleep, we use stimulants (caffeine) to force us into an artificial wakefulness that promotes beta waves (and higher cortisol levels) while suppressing both theta and alpha waves (and inhibiting cortisol reduction). For much of the day, the combined effects of work stress and time urgency have us swimming in beta waves and high cortisol levels. By the time we finally get to bed at night, we're so exhausted that we completely bypass the unwinding benefits of theta sleep (when cortisol levels fall) and instead fall unconscious into the deeper (delta) stages of sleep, but rarely for long enough.

Why is all this talk about brain waves important? Because this constant charging back and forth between delta and beta waves tends to keep cortisol levels elevated throughout the daylight hours (a bad thing) while also disallowing time for those levels to subside during the night (a really bad thing). In terms of our mental and physical performance, a constant lack of theta and alpha waves means that we can't concentrate (alpha) when we need to, and we can't relax (theta) when we want to.

And this is where theanine comes in. By increasing the brain's output of alpha waves, theanine can help us to "rebalance" our brain-wave patterns, as well as help to control anxiety, increase focus and concentration, promote creativity, and improve overall mental and physical performance. Research studies are quite clear about the facts 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 side of their brain during their best performances.

Pretty good stuff—and the best way to increase your output of alpha waves is via theanine consumption. This can easily be accomplished by consuming three to four cups of green tea each day (theanine counteracts a fair portion of the adverse stimulant effect of caffeine), or by taking a daily theanine supplement (50–200 mg per day). Before you decide to use decaffeinated green tea as a source of theanine, be aware that most of the theanine is lost during the decaffeination process, so if you wish to avoid caffeine entirely, a supplement may be your most reliable source. Theanine supplements are available in capsule or tablet form as pure (synthetic) theanine, and as a natural extract from green tea (enriched to as much as 20–35 percent theanine). Because theanine reaches its maximum levels in the blood between thirty minutes and two hours after taking it, it can be used both as a daily cortisol-control regimen and "as needed" during stressful events.


The use of epimedium as a medicinal herb dates back to at least A.D. 400. It has been used as a tonic for the reproductive system (boosting libido and treating impotence) and as a rejuvenating tonic (to relieve fatigue). Animal studies have shown that epimedium may function a bit like an adaptogen (more on adaptogens appears later in the chapter) by increasing levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine when they are low (an energy-promoting effect), and by reducing cortisol levels when they are elevated (an antistress effect). There is also evidence that epimedium can restore low levels of both testosterone and thyroid hormone to their normal levels; this may account for some of the benefits of epimedium in improving libido (sex drive). Animal studies using epimedium have shown a reduction in bone breakdown, an increase in muscle mass, and a loss of body fat—each of which may be linked to the observed reduction of elevated cortisol to normal levels.

In a series of studies conducted in humans and animals by Chinese researchers, immune-system function was directly suppressed and bone loss was accelerated by using high-dose synthetic cortisol (glucocorticoid drugs). Subsequent administration of epimedium extract reduced blood levels of cortisol and improved immune-system function (in the humans) and slowed bone loss and strengthened bones (in the animals).

It is interesting to note that although at least fifteen active compounds have been identified in epimedium extracts (luteolin, icariin, quercetin, and various epimedins), many supplement companies currently use extracts standardized only for icariin. The traditional use of epimedium is as a hot-water decoction (tea), which would result in a very different profile of active constituents when compared to the high-icariin alcohol extracts that are more commonly used in commercial products. Although at least one test-tube study has shown icariin to protect liver cells from damage by various toxic compounds, other feeding studies (in rodents) have suggested that high-dose icariin may be associated with kidney and liver toxicity.

Because all of the existing scientific evidence for the antistress and cortisol-controlling effect of epimedium has been demonstrated for water-extracted epimedium (that is, as a tea), and because this form of extraction may result in a safer form of epimedium (compared to the high-icariin alcohol extract), it may be prudent to select supplements that specifically use a more traditional formulation. Commercial preparations of the water-extracted form of epimedium will indicate on their labels that they are water-extracted, while the more concentrated (high-icariin) alcohol extracts tend to emphasize their icariin content (usually 20 percent or so). There have been no reports of adverse side effects associated with the traditional, water-extracted preparation of epimedium at the suggested dosage (250–1,000 mg per day for cortisol control).

You may remember Holly and Alan as the young newlyweds mentioned in Chapter 6 whose high-achievement, high-stress lives resulted in a disconcerting loss of libido. Both exercised religiously (four to five times each week), but their diets needed some tweaking; specifically, each needed a better balance of carbs with proteins, more fresh fruits and veggies, and to adopt more regular eating patterns. Along with these nutritional recommendations, they both started on a supplement regimen of epimedium (300 mg per day) and DHEA (25 mg per day for Holly and 50 mg per day for Alan).

After about one week on the supplements, Holly and Alan were grinning from ear to ear (we need not go into the details why). The combination of epimedium and DHEA helped to normalize their cortisol-to-DHEA ratios as well as their libidos, putting the spark back into their sex life.


Shawn Talbott

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Wisdom of Balance