Good night, sleep tight – are your hormones keeping you up at night? Melatonin and cortisol are two hormones that vary throughout the day and are very much regulated by our circadian rhythm and sleep/wake cycles. Our circadian rhythm is our own internal biological clock or schedule, the ebb and flow of hormones and enzymes and the changes in activity during a 24-hour day. What we do throughout our day influences our sleep/wake cycle but more importantly what we do before bed also known, as sleep hygiene or sleep habits may be more beneficial.
Melatonin is responsible for maintaining the body’s internal clock and rhythms and regulates sleeping and waking cycles. Melatonin is an antioxidant that supports healthy immune function, decreases cortisol and protects the body from stress. The release of melatonin is triggered by darkness and hindered by light. Even the slightest exposure to light during regular sleep hours disrupts this process including light from televisions, computer and phone screens and even digital alarm clocks.
Cortisol is the hormone that governs your hunger cravings, digestion, blood pressure, sleep/wake patterns, physical activity and how to manage stress. Around midnight, cortisol is the lowest, and that’s when our cells perform our greatest repair and healing however, if your cortisol is still high at night, our bodies can’t repair what our bodies need. Over time, if your cortisol remains high in the evening, our sleep/wake cycle is disturbed and it may be harder and harder to sleep creating an endless cycle.
It’s during nighttime when are hormones get a chance to harmonize and communicate with one another. Your probably wondering, how long do I have to sleep in order for my symphony of hormones to take place – well, it’s actually different for everyone! You’ll often hear people say “be sure to get at least an 8 hour sleep” but it’s actually less about the number of hours but more about the quality of your sleep that makes you feel tired upon waking or ready to jump out of bed and start your day! Here are a list of factors that may influence our sleep/wake cycle:
- High/low cortisol levels – Signs and symptoms of high cortisol: feeling wired yet tired, difficulty falling asleep or disrupted sleep, getting a second wind right before you close your eyes for the evening. Signs and symptoms of low cortisol: fatigue, feeling stressed most of the time and insomnia.
- Medications or supplements – the time of day when medications or supplements are taken can affect your sleep/wake cycle.
- Chronic stress – over exposure to stressors can cause sleep deprivation by being in a state of constant alertness and not giving the body the time to power down before bed.
- Sleep environment – being constantly bombarded with blue light from phone screens – a late night Instagram scroll or watching Netflix on your television or laptop can keep the mind racing before bed.
- What you eat or drink before bed – the food choices you make throughout the day can influence how you sleep at night. Consuming caffeine or alcohol in the evening can suppress melatonin release. I wish I could say that alcohol could be a sleep aid but unfortunately, I’d be lying to you! Using alcohol may help you to fall asleep however the quality of your sleep will be interrupted and your more likely to not cross into REM sleep, which helps with mental restoration.
- Blue light emitted by electronics before bed – if you remember from earlier, melatonin is actually hindered by any form of light – blue light exposure before bed actually makes it harder for you to fall asleep because it actually blocks melatonin.
Now that we’ve gone through some factors that may influence our sleep/wake cycle next I’ll list all the ways we can create better sleep hygiene aka sleep habits before bed:
- Keep a regular sleep schedule – try to get to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends!
- Create your own sleep sanctuary – keep it cool, reduce noise and light by using an eye pillow with essential oils or ear plugs, maybe it’s time to invest in some new pillows or a comfy mattress!
- Power down an hour before bed – Any electronics, or stimulating conversations or activities before bed instead read a book or enjoy some deep breathing exercises to wind down.
- Soak it up – Draw yourself a nice bath with some Epsom salts and a few drops of calming essential oils to relax your mind and your muscles. If you don’t enjoy having baths, even soaking your feet will help you to relax! And if you’d prefer not to do either, be sure to take your magnesium!
- Breathe deeply – inhale, exhale: deep breathing or diaphragm breathing calms the mind and relaxes our body’s parasympathetic nervous system (aka our rest and digest system).
- Meditate – there are so many benefits to meditation – taking time for yourself, improved focus, relaxation for the mind and body, it can change our perspective and mindset and the best part, is you can’t be bad at it! Just like yoga or any other hobby or sport, all it takes is consistent practice! Two meditation apps that I love are Headspace and Insight Timer (this ones a free app!).
- Journaling – whether your making a to-do list for the next day, writing down your worries or just being grateful for the little things each day can help you sleep with a clearer head.
- Practice yoga (or light stretching) – doing a relaxing activity before bed can get you prepared for a good night’s sleep.
- Avoid big evening meals, limit caffeine and alcohol consumption before bed – eating large meals or snacks close to bedtime may cause acid reflux, indigestion and heartburn and having a late night coffee or glass of wine may affect the quality of your sleep.