Ask The Pharmacist: Saying no can reduce cortisol and anxiety

Suzy Cohen

Cortisol is one of the hormones your body releases in response to stress, and it impacts many different functions in your body. People think cortisol is a bad hormone but it’s not bad at all, it helps regulate blood sugar levels and metabolism.
Cortisol is often referred to as the ‘belly fat’ hormone because too much cortisol causes you to gain weight, especially around your mid-section. In normal amounts cortisol helps keep inflammation down.

Man measuring his belly.

But like all good things, too much cortisol results in a variety of health issues, from frequent infections to acid reflux, heart disease, diabetes and a higher risk of cancer.
Cortisol overload is mostly associated with adrenal fatigue. You will feel physically beat up and achy at times, very tense and on edge as well as overwhelmed. Your brain refuses to comply and memory slips, and you develop insomnia. Sugar, salt and fat cravings are also intense so you probably like eating a bag of sea salt potato chips and chasing it down with a sugary drink of some sort.

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There’s no easy fix at this point, but the quickest way to help yourself is to give yourself some me-time, or a vacation from whatever weighs on your heart and causes the stress. If you continue to drag yourself through each day, you’ll wind up at a physician’s office. Then you are sure to be given all kinds of psychoactive medications and possibly stimulants. But why would you want to start taking those drugs that are addictive or dangerous when you can ask to have your adrenals checked with a test? It’s called a “four-point cortisol saliva test” or something similar, depending on the lab that you use.

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If you are anxious or panicky, the fastest way to help yourself is to avoid processed foods and those laden with MSG or what’s called “free glutamate” foods that include either one of these ingredients: fast food, junk food, cold cuts and broths, including bone broth. Chinese food is also pretty notorious for having MSG, although some restaurants have stopped adding it. Vegan diets are extremely high in MSG.

Anxiety is provoked by medications in some people:

  • Asthma inhalers and pills
  • Estrogen-containing drugs
  • Antibiotics
  • Steroids
  • SSRI antidepressants
  • Levodopa
  • Decongestants
  • Thyroid medication in excess

Adaptogens are helpful in rescuing tired adrenals, but let’s be realistic, they can’t compensate for a hundred micro-stressors a day, addictions to Facebook likes, a bad relationship or a horrible boss. Ask your doctor if either Siberian ginseng, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Schisandra, Tulsi (holy basil) are okay for you.

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We can’t entirely avoid stress or people who are crazy, and that’s okay. But I’ll tell you straight up, it is not intelligent to allow yourself to be taken advantage of. It’s totally within your rights to set boundaries and politely say “No.” If you continue to put everyone’s happiness first (above your own) you will surely be miserable and anxious. If you are a people pleaser, stop it. You’re headed for disaster, then you’ll be useless to everyone who needs you. Tough love, but someone has to tell you.

Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist. The information presented here is not intended to treat, cure or diagnose any condition. Visit