Sleep and stress often go hand in hand. A lack of sleep can cause stress, and stress can cause a lack of sleep. a Study done in 2007 found that 7 out of 10 adults in the U.S. experience stress every day and 70% of those adults have trouble sleeping. 75% of those not sleeping well also reported increased anxiety and stress. It can turn into a vicious cycle, with insomnia being both the cause and the result of stress. But what is stress? What’s going on in our bodies that prevents us from falling asleep? First, let’s define what we’re calling stress – stress is anything that triggers a stress response in the body. The stress response is fight or flight, an increased release of cortisol. The stress response can be triggered by something physical, emotional, psychological or a combination of several factors.
Cortisol itself has the potential to keep you up, it keeps the body alert, slows the production of sleep-inducing melatonin and doesn’t let the brain shut down. Cortisol gets a bad reputation, we almost exclusively think of it as the “stress hormone” and while that’s true, cortisol is actually a major player in most bodily systems. When cortisol is at an optimal level, we feel energized and great, but when cortisol is dysregulated we feel irritated, fatigued, unmotivated and anxious. Cortisol has a profound effect on our very biology, from our endocrine system (our hormones), insulin (regulates blood sugar), our sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone). If that wasn’t enough, cortisol levels impact our digestion, immune system and even the neurotransmitters in our brain.
Cortisol imbalances contribute to almost every illness and disease. Keeping cortisol on track is incredibly important for our health and one way to make sure the cortisol cycle is humming along as it should is by getting enough sleep. We want our cortisol levels to be lowest at night when we’re getting ready to sleep. This is because cortisol is the signal to keep your body alert and energized. When cortisol levels are higher, melatonin levels are lower.
People with insomnia may not have a regulated cortisol cycle. Cortisol should be highest when you first wake up, to energize you enough to get out of bed and get moving. Then cortisol levels should steadily decrease throughout the day until they are at their lowest night. People with insomnia may have higher cortisol levels throughout the day, their cortisol may not decline much at all. Higher cortisol levels keep the body and mind in a state of hyperarousal and this hyperarousal is what prevents relaxation and sleep.
What to Do if You Think You Have Cortisol Imbalance
- Find a naturopathic doctor who will do cortisol level tests. You get blood drawn 3-4 times over the course of the day to see if your cortisol cycle is functioning as it should. You can also ask them about adrenal fatigue and strategies to help support your adrenals.
- Do some diet and lifestyle changes near bedtime. Put the screens down, eat foods that promote sleep and make your bedroom calm and peaceful
- Neurofeedback can help regulate sleep. All hormone production begins in the brain, with the pituitary gland. Since neurofeedback can directly train how the brain functions, you can start treating the root cause right away.
- meditate before bed, taking the time to pause and breathe deeply, send signals to your brain that you are safe and can help shut down the fight or flight response. It is incredibly important to take some time each day to let your brain relax and help your body follow suit.
Cortisol is an incredibly important hormone, but when left unchecked, it wreaks havoc on our sleep. But sleep helps regulate our cortisol levels. So if you’re not sleeping, you wind up in a vicious cycle that only leads to even less sleep and even more stress. But there are ways to combat it. Meditate, get your cortisol levels checked, improve your sleep hygiene!
McGarty and Associates.