You’re likely familiar with omega-3 fatty acids, the healthful nutrients found in oily fish like salmon and herring and widely available in dietary supplements and some fortified food—and if you’re not, our blogs are chock full of info on omega-3s, especially those with the compounds EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). Just scroll through our blogs or use our search button.

BLOG: Do All Fish Have Omega-3s?

What you may be less familiar with is cortisol. In this blog, we’re going to share some general facts about cortisol and then talk specifically about its relationship with omega-3s, with an emphasis on how omega-3s (or the lack thereof) affect your cortisol levels and why that’s important for your health.

Here we go.


What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by your body, more specifically by your adrenal glands, which if you’re not aware, are the small triangle-shaped glands that sit atop your kidneys. The adrenal glands secrete several hormones (and precursors to hormones) that help your body regulate many essential functions such as blood pressure, sexual desire and performance, metabolism and stress.

Likewise, cortisol has an impact on many (“almost every,” according to this piece) of your body’s organs and tissues and is vital to a number of your body’s essential functions, including helping control your body’s metabolism, regulating blood pressure, suppressing inflammation, adjusting blood sugar, and controlling your sleep-wake cycle.

BLOG: Can Omega-3s + Medication Help Depression?

But it’s this function—responding to stress—that is probably what the hormone is most often associated with. In fact, cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone,” with both good and bad connotations.

There’s no question that too much stress does damage to your psyche and your body—and stress is something we all face every day, some more than others. Not all stress is created equal.

There’s chronic stress which is situationally provoked and depending on the situation might be part of your everyday experience. But the stress can also be long-term or the after-effects may last a long time. For example, taking care of an aging parent; worrying about how you’re going to stretch your monthly budget without adding to your debt; working on a daily basis under an unreasonable supervisor or at a job that comes with high-pressure or is just one you really hate but can’t seem to find time to get another one.

Then there is acute stress, which is shorter-term and may come at you suddenly, often unexpectedly. Examples of this type of stress can be walking down a street and accidentally bumping into someone who starts threatening you or almost missing a stop sign just as a child starts to dart across the street.

A third kind of stress is traumatic stress, which can end up with what’s known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In these cases, the stress triggers are often life-threatening events or those that leave you feeling like you have no control of the situation, that you’re a victim. Things like a robbery at gunpoint, a sexual assault, or being in a serious car accident, experiencing a fire in your home or a damaging hurricane, are all examples that could cause traumatic stress. Those serving their country or community, such as soldiers, police, or firefighters, can experience PTSD beyond the duties of their daily job when personally facing death or watching others in danger who they cannot save.

BLOG: Can You Take Fish Oil Instead of Eliquis?

Fortunately, our body has built-in ways to help us cope with our stress, starting with the role of cortisol.

As this article explains, when you face a potentially dangerous situation, the part of the brain where the hypothalamus resides sends out warning signals. Cortisol kicks in, along with adrenaline, another stress-related hormone, to help your body rise to meet the perceived threat. In particular, cortisol slows bodily functions that could be harmful in a fight-or-flight situation and works with the areas in the brain that control fear, mood and motivation to get you through the stress.

Once the threat has passed, your hormones return to normal levels, and as those hormones drop, so do your heart rate and blood pressure — your body returns to what it was doing before the scare.

VIDEO: How Omega-3s Help Anxiety


What Happens with Too Little or Too Much Cortisol?

When the stress is ongoing, so is the fight-or-flight reaction. This in turn can cause your body to be on constant alert resulting in too much cortisol (along with other stress hormones) being produced, potentially upsetting normal bodily functions and putting you at risk for all sorts of problems including anxiety, heart disease, weight gain and more.

On the other hand, when your cortisol levels are too low, that’s not good either. With low cortisol, a condition known as Addison’s disease can develop. While Addison’s disease is rare (only about 1 in 100,000 people in the U.S. are affected by it—President John F. Kennedy counted it among his health problems), your doctor may need to prescribe prednisone or another medication to help you manage the associated symptoms, such as fatigue that gets worse over time, diarrhea, muscle pain, low blood pressure and more.

Another rare condition, Cushing’s syndrome, can occur when your body overproduces cortisol over a long period of time.


Ways to Lower Cortisol Levels

Fortunately, there are several ways to decrease your body’s stress levels, and thereby reduce your body’s cortisol concentrations, by changing your daily lifestyle habits, your exercise regimen and your diet, to name a few.

Here are six things to consider that can help lower your body’s stress—and cortisol—levels:

  1. Engage in good sleep practices (e.g., set a reasonable routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, allowing for 7-8 hours each night; turning off your cell phones, tablets and television at least 30 minutes before bedtime, etc.).
  2. Regular talk therapy with a skilled therapist (a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist) can help ease your stress-related concerns and provide coping mechanisms for addressing, or avoiding, stress. Your therapist may, in turn, recommend medication or dietary supplements which could further help.
  3. Meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises are known to calm your mind and put your stress in check.
  4. Regular exercise can be a great stress buster. Whether it’s dancing, jogging, fast walking, just walking, Pilates or something else you love to keep your heart working well and your body feeling strong, do it consistently.
  5. Drink plenty of water to hydrate your body; dehydration leads to stress and its symptoms such as anxiety, increased heart rate, and feeling faint which can set cortisol production in motion.
  6. Eat healthy—this one shouldn’t surprise you—making sure to balance your diet with protein, fiber, complex carbs (e.g., whole grains), healthy fats (this is where omega-3s come in), and limit your intake of processed foods, trans- and saturated fats, white (also known as simple) carbohydrates and added sugars.

As an added bonus, these healthy habits can also greatly impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight and generally feel—and be—healthier.

Which leads us to cortisol’s role in metabolism.


Omega-3s and Healthy Cortisol Levels

Cortisol helps control how your body uses fats, proteins and carbohydrates for energy, says the Cleveland Clinic in this post. Too much cortisol slows your body down, leading to, among other things, an increased appetite (including sugar, salt and fat cravings), weight gain and fatigue. You can develop something known as “cortisol belly” with fat building up around the waist, a potential danger for developing heart disease, diabetes, and fatty acid liver. Read more here.

BLOG: Omega-3s and Lung Health

Omega-3s, the “good fats,” may actually reduce your cortisol levels. This study found that supplementing with omega-3s for four months led to a profile of stress resilience, meaning lower overall levels of cortisol and inflammation during stress, and higher levels of telomerase and anti-inflammatory activity during recovery, according to the authors. The beneficial effects appeared to occur with the higher dose studied. The authors also called their results preliminary, suggesting additional studies would be helpful.

This post points to two studies that may be of interest in this area. First, a 3-week randomized controlled trial that found that “a combined supplementation of fish oil at 60 mg per day and DHA (252 mg/day) significantly lowered cortisol levels in response to a stressful task, compared with a placebo.” The article also mentioned a longitudinal cohort study with 2,724 participants that associated high omega-3 levels in the blood with lower inflammation and cortisol levels.

VIDEO: How Do Omega-3s Get Into the Brain?


The Importance of Testing

Knowing that omega-3 fatty acids can help lower your cortisol levels and reduce your inflammation is helpful information. Combining that knowledge with your own personal numbers makes that information all the more powerful.

Both the omega-3 fatty acids and cortisol in your body can be tested to determine whether your body’s levels are too high, too low, or just about right.

In the case of omega-3s, your doctor can order a lab test for you which would involve a blood draw, placing a thin needle in your vein. Or there are at-home self-tests available, including three options from OmegaQuant that require a simple finger prick and a single drop of blood to determine your omega-3 status. Our tests use the Omega-3 Index to identify the amount of EPA and DHA in your blood, specifically in the red blood cell membranes.

BLOG: The Omega-3 Index and Pediatric Depression

Once you self-administer the test, return it to the OmegaQuant lab and your results will be returned back to you with a report and recommendations for making changes, if warranted, to raise your omega-3 blood levels.

When it comes to testing cortisol levels, that can be done through a blood test, a urine sample or a saliva test.

According to this post, values for a blood sample depend on the clinical context and the time of day and may vary slightly depending on the particular lab. Because some labs use different measurements or may test different specimens, it’s important not to try to evaluate the results on your own, but to consult with your personal physician.

Bottom line: If you’re considering taking omega-3 supplements to lower your cortisol levels, you first want to know what your cortisol levels are and to also know your omega-3 status. Having the right amount of both cortisol and omega-3 fatty acids are important to your health — it’s all about balancing the two.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This test is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent or mitigate any disease. This site does not offer medical advice, and nothing contained herein is intended to establish a doctor/patient relationship. OmegaQuant, LLC is regulated under the Clinical Laboratory improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) and is qualified to perform high complexity clinical testing. The performance characteristics of this test were determined by OmegaQuant, LLC. It has not been cleared or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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