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Stress, Cortisol, and Sleep

in Brain Health, Neurofeedback, Sleep, Training, Uncategorized by Ray McGarty

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

  1. 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.
  2. Do some diet and lifestyle changes near bedtime. Put the screens down, eat foods that promote sleep and make your bedroom calm and peaceful
  3. 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.
  4. 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!


Sweet Dreams!

McGarty and Associates.



Are You Making Sleep a Priority? Here’s Why You Should Be

in Brain Health, How-To, Neurofeedback, Sleep by Ray McGarty

Most of us know that getting enough sleep is vital to our well-being. We’re happier when we feel rested, we have more energy to do the things we want to do. But, sleep does so much more than just replenish our energy. Getting enough sleep is essential to a healthy hormone cycle, cortisol cycle, and if that wasn’t enough, sleep can even impact how much we eat! It’s true – studies have found individuals who sleep 6 or fewer hours a night are on average eating an extra 385 calories a day. And not just any calories, they’re craving carbs and sugar because their brains think they need the quick fuel to get them through the day. That means lack of sleep alone contributes to someone eating an extra 2,695 empty calories per week.

We know that the amount of sleep is important, but what how good your sleep is? The quality of your sleep is almost more important than the amount you’re sleeping. If you’re getting 7 hours of poor quality sleep, you’re still not sleeping enough.  Good, quality sleep is hard to come by in this day and age. With so much artificial light, long schedules and the societal drive to “be busy,” sleep quality isn’t high on everyone’s priority list. But it should be. In order to have truly restful, restorative sleep, you have to progress through all stages of the sleep cycle, but most of us aren’t.

Join us this month to learn about why you should be making sleep a priority and what you can do to get better sleep. We’ll cover the things you’re doing that are keeping you awake, tips for improving your sleep space and how neurofeedback helps with insomnia. So stay tuned to get all the information on sleeping your way to better health!


Here are 5 things you can do today to get a better night’s rest:

  1. Sleep in the Dark – I know this seems obvious, but there are some many light-emitting electronics and devices in our rooms! Hide the cell phone, turn off or cover anything that emits light. Both your eyes and your skin have photoreceptors that can detect light and sends information to your brain that isn’t time to sleep yet. Our brains produce melatonin when it’s time to wind down and sleep, but when there are light sources being detected, the brain won’t make the right amount and when there’s less melatonin, there’s more cortisol, which is the stress hormone. So, sleep in the dark!
  2. 1-Hour Screen Rule – no screens 1 hour before bed. Our brains are amazing and complex organs, but they struggle to tell the difference between natural daylight and the artificial blue light coming from our phones and other devices. We love our devices, they entertain us, but they’re also keeping us awake. You just need one hour before bedtime to start sending the right signals to your brain that it’s night, it’s time to start winding down. So send the last emails, texts and check facebook for the last time one hour before bed.
  3. Read Fiction Before Bed – Since you no longer have your phone to look at, what are you going to do before bed? Read. Studies have shown that reading fiction for even 6 minutes slows the heart rate, calms the body and has a relaxing effect. Why fiction? Because it stimulates our creativity, it isn’t introspective and it doesn’t activate our brains in a way that causes us to worry. Fiction is usually light, entertaining and fantastical. So read a good story before bed.
  4. Snuggle – If you share your bed with a significant other – snuggle them! Snuggling and being close to those we love stimulates the brain to release oxytocin, our “love hormone,” but this signals to the body that it is safe and allowed to relax. Snuggling a pet also releases oxytocin. If no one is around, you can still benefit by doing easy self-massage. Rub your temples, or between your eyebrows. Touch stimulates the release of oxytocin.
  5. Light Exercise – 5-10 minutes of easy exercise when you WAKE UP in the morning, will improve your sleep the following night. So have your coffee, or your tea, wake up a little and then do some light stretches or some bodyweight exercises. When you first wake up, your cortisol levels are highest (because your melatonin levels are lowest), exercise can produce endorphins, which you feel better and it gets the blood moving, which stimulates the removal of waste. So improving your sleep actually starts in the morning!


Sweet Dreams!

-McGarty and Associates