Cortisol and sleep - do you know how they’re connected? It’s probably not something you think about a lot, after all, we know cortisol as the ‘stress hormone’. However, you might be surprised to learn that:
17-19 hours of sleep deprivation are equal to a blood alcohol rating of 0.05% (BAC)
And now you’re probably, thinking:
“OK, that’s bad, but how are cortisol and sleep relevant?”
More than you’d think. In this post, we’ll discuss the cortisol and sleep connection, why you’re probably disrupting your wake-sleep cycles and how to get back on track to feel better than ever (and boost your immune system while at it!)
- Sleep-Wake Cycles are the 24 hours cycle our bodies go through every day between wakefulness and sleep, where 16 hours are usually spent awake and 8 in sleep mode. These may be affected by lifestyle habits.
- Cortisol and Sleep play a reciprocal role in the regulation of the other, as cortisol levels rise during wake times and fall during sleep time. Alterations in either one may negatively impact the other.
- Sleep deprivation affects energy levels, cognitive function, mobile function, the immune system, and may produce anxiety
- There are ways to Reset Your Cortisol Rhythm and get better quality sleep, feel more energized, boost the immune system and de-stress.
Sleep-Wake Cycles vs. Cortisol and Sleep
Before we dive into it, let me tell you a story:
Recently I took some extra hours at work and was pulling in 12-hr shift per day, 5-6 days a week. The only things I did were work and sleep and if I remembered -and was not too tired- maybe ate something. After week three of this madness, I didn’t know if I was coming or going. It was brutal.
Sound familiar? I am willing to bet that a lot of us live our lives this way.
But living like this disrupts our rhythm. Not the ‘bust a move’ kind of rhythm (although you’re probably not the best dancer when sleep-deprived,) but our cortisol rhythm. And without a firm rhythm in place, we can easily feel -and fall- out of balance.
Most of us know cortisol as a stress hormone. But did you know that, along with adrenaline, cortisol is one of the main response chemicals produced by the adrenal glands?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone responsible not just for the stress response but for other bodily functions as well; it regulates the metabolism, the immune response, and supports proper communication between every cell in the body.
Cortisol secretion is controlled by the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Gland Axis (HPGA), which includes the hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland.
Cortisol levels rise during the day and slowly fall at nighttime:
- Cortisol induced HPA activation is linked to light-exposure. Blue light activates cortisol awakening response.
- Within 60 minutes of first awakening in the morning, cortisol levels rise to a peak. This is called the “awakening response.”
- Peak cortisol levels happen usually at the 9 AM mark and gradually decline from there
- Cortisol activates the HPA Axis
- Sleep mode starts at the time the HPA Axis activation is at its lowest
- 2-3 hours after sleep onset, cortisol levels start to rise again slowly
- Melatonin is secreted inversely to Cortisol, therefore one affects the other in sleep cycles
When cortisol is in a healthy rhythm, cortisol is highest in the morning to give you energy to get your day started and keep inflammation low and your immune response at its peak. It is naturally lowest before bed, allowing you to wind down into a rest-and-repair phase.
Sleep and Wake Cycles
As you can see from the cortisol cycle, cortisol and sleep are deeply intertwined. It’s not just your mind racing at night over problems, it’s also the fact that you need cortisol secretions at the right times during the day to properly function, feel energized, and go to sleep at an optimal time.
Studies show that these sleep and wake cycles, also called ‘Circadian Rhythms’ are at the basic level dependant on cortisol and melatonin release, however both of these hormones “synchronize to stimuli such as photoperiod and activity.” This means that while our ‘inner clock’ is predictive of solar time, it is affected by activity (what you do in a day, including choosing not to sleep) and light.
Melatonin and Cortisol are the central pacemakers modulating energy and repair according to the body’s needs and its environment. Cortisol and sleep are therefore affected by:
- Changes in light exposure (too much Netflix, not enough chill)
- Seasonal light availability (the body responds to natural sunlight or lack thereof)
- Activity (exercise, lack of exercise, daily routines)
- Sleep pattern alterations (sleep deprivation, time zone change, jet lag, etc.)
This also explains why sleep deprivation also makes you a little cranky, extra anxious, and even depressed: hormones that regulate and control your body are out of sync. Cortisol and sleep feed and live off each other.
Related: understanding sleep stages.
WHEN THE NATURAL “DIURNAL” CYCLE IS DISRUPTED, YOU CAN END UP WITH:
- Sleep problems (insomnia, waking in the night, waking up tired in the morning)
- Hormonal imbalances
- Anxiety and depression
- Blood sugar and metabolic problems (including sugar cravings, metabolic syndrome, PCOS and diabetes)
- Weight challenges
- Decreased memory, focus and willpower
- Immune system imbalances, leading to more frequent infections, reactivation of old viruses, allergies, inflammation and even autoimmune disease
Many long-term chronic health problems can be traced to disturbances in the natural cortisol pattern. Health issues like obesity, diabetes, digestive problems and even cancer have been linked to disturbances in cortisol rhythm. Knowing this makes actively trying to get cortisol and sleep in check the logical next step.
How to Reset Your Cortisol and Sleep Rythm
During the last few days of that work-non-stop-madness, my cortisol and sleep rhythm was out of sorts and I felt the effects for sure. You may be experiencing the same, without noticing because it’s just your new normal.
Resetting my cortisol rhythm was one of the most important steps I took to feel balanced and ensure long term health again and I strongly recommend it to everyone trying to take back control of their energy and health.
The good news is that resetting your cortisol and sleep rhythm doesn’t require any fancy foods, crazy diet plans, supplements, or exercise regimes. It’s actually shockingly simple, it does, however, require a commitment.
Resetting your cortisol and sleep cycle will:
- Help strengthen immune system response
- Support weight loss (cortisol is one of those sneaky causes of weight gain)
- Improve sleep quality
- Refresh your skin
- Boost energy levels during the day
And ultimately look and feel better. What’s not to love?
HERE ARE SIX SIMPLE STEPS TO RESETTING YOUR CORTISOL AND SLEEP RHYTHM AND WITH IT, YOUR ADRENAL STRESS RESPONSE:
#1. RESET YOUR SLEEP SCHEDULE
If you have been reading my articles or listening to my recent videos, you know that I love my sleep. This is because it is the ultimate pause you need at the end of every day; it’s impossible to reset your internal clocks without good quality and enough quantity sleep. Here are a few good reasons why (in case you skipped them before):
- Cortisol regulates the production of melatonin, which is important not only for sleep, but also for detoxification and immunity.
- Elevated cortisol actually suppresses melatonin, increasing your risk of not only sleep problems, but also inflammatory conditions, ranging from diabetes to dementia and cancer.
- When your sleep is disrupted, it tends to aggravate other symptoms, for instance, your sugar and carb cravings go up, your energy and focus go down and so does your immunity.
HOW MUCH SLEEP DO YOU NEED?
I’ve found that I need at least seven hours of good sleep every night to reset cortisol rhythm, but everyone is different. Strive to learn your sleep requirements better, so you can work on your cortisol and sleep cycle.
When you sleep, your brain processes the knowledge, memories, information and cellular waste that accumulates in it during the day, as does your body. Those that believe you can sleep when you are dead, think again!
IS BEDTIME AND WAKE TIME IMPORTANT?
The simple answer is … ABSOLUTELY! A healthy cortisol and sleep cycle has you awake and asleep at roughly the same time every day. Aim to waking up by about 7:00 a.m. and getting to bed between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Make sure you sleep and don’t stay on your phone (that blue light!)
DETOX TO GET TO SLEEP MORE EASILY?
Go for a digital detox an hour before you sleep to really help you wind down. Reading a real book (you know, one with pages?), taking a hot bath, journaling, meditating and even having sex are some other things you can do to help you get to sleep more easily.
AND WHAT IF YOU WORK NIGHTS?
This is a tough situation, because working nights is inherently affects the cortisol and sleep cycle. But don’t fret, there are things you can do to protect yourself:
- Get extra sleep before your shift. I know that sounds wonky, but a phenomenon called sleep banking (sleeping ahead to store up on rest) can help prevent exhaustion and physiologic consequences from missed sleep.
- Eat well on the job. Eating nutrient dense foods overnight can keep your cortisol leveled and the unhealthy calories off.
- Try adaptogenic herbs as they may offset the stress on body and brain during night-shift work.
- Make time to decompress when you get home.
- Support your waking hours and immune system with a caffeine-free supplement like our Immunity. This is especially good when you have sleep deprivation and your defenses are low.
#2. FOLLOW THE LIGHT
The light spectrum is a part of what helps keep your cortisol and sleep cycle balanced
- Bright natural sunlight in your eyes in the morning can reset your morning cortisol cycle, which in turn resets your energy, mood and mental clarity all day long.
- If you can’t get natural light in the morning because of your work schedule or where you live, you can try light box therapy. Try to get natural light exposure by sitting near a window when you work. And then follow with the digital detox in the evening.
- You can take it a step further by setting your phone into a “night shift” setting to make sure that blue light is not emitted, or download blue-light-blocking apps like f.lux or bluelight filter to help offset the negative effects of looking at your electronic screens late at night.
#3. EAT THE RIGHT FOODS, AT THE RIGHT TIME
I have talked about my transformation in my previous articles and how I suffered from leaky gut. That was in part because of a low carb diet. While a low carb diet may sound like a weight-loss winner, a very low carb diet can actually increases your cortisol and worsen the likelihood of putting on belly fat.
I found that I benefited from eating a small healthy carbohydrate choice three to five hours before going to sleep to help create a healthier cortisol and sleep a definite win-win for me. Healthy choices include a serving of:
- Whole grain brown rice or quinoa
- Serving of sweet potato
- Winter squash
- Potatoes (baked or roasted)
It is important to note that eating within three hours of bedtime can impair both sleep and cortisol, but skipping meals also has a negative impact on cortisol.
#4. RESET AFTER WORK AND BEFORE DINNER
I find that relaxing and rebooting mentally and emotionally after a hard or long workday leads to healthier cortisol levels and better sleep. Make it a weekday end-of-work habit to decompress for even just 15 minutes with a favorite activity when you get home from work.
My personal favorite things to do are to scream as loudly as I can in my car on my drive back home after work and doing very deep breath work while in the shower. Pick whatever works for you, some great choice are:
- Brisk walk
- Yoga session
- Spending time with your kids
- Playing with your pets
#5. AVOID CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL LATER IN THE DAY
There are many healthy foods that keep you awake. And a great cup of coffee can be one of life’s pleasures. However, caffeine, including from green tea, chai and chocolate, can keep you up at night. So doing a caffeine detox after two pem can really help reset your cortisol and sleep cycle.
Additionally wine, like coffee, can feel like ‘a gift that keeps on giving.’ But I’ve found that when I detoxed from alcohol, my sleep improved dramatically, particularly my ability to stay asleep and feel refreshed in the morning.
#6. EAT CLEAN
Chronic inflammation is huge trigger of cortisol and sleep imbalances. In addition to the blood sugar balance, processed foods, poor-quality fats and a high-sugar diets can cause inflammation that can lead to chronically overactivated cortisol production. Cleaning up your diet so you’re only getting real, healthy, low-inflammatory foods can do wonders for your adrenal reset.
When your cortisol levels are out of sorts, it can present a myriad of issues like trouble sleeping, anxiety and weight problems that can be a nuance and tough to bear.
The good news is that there is so much you can do from nutrition to exercise to lifestyle and the 6 steps outlined above are a great place to start. Eat, sleep and live in a way that supports your body’s endocrine systems. You deserve it!
What do you do to keep your cortisol and sleep cycle leveled? Share your formula in the comments below, we would love to hear from you.
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