What is Cortisol?
When you are stressed, your body enters a state of “fight or flight” which is a state of increased alertness and releases adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.
It does this so that it can best respond to whatever is stressing it. When this is a short term response, it is helpful, but for long term, it can cause further complications including sleep disturbances, insomnia, high blood pressure, blood sugar dysregulation, and diabetes.
Cortisol is responsible for regulating the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Elevated cortisol levels change normal metabolism resulting in an increased breakdown of protein for energy. It also suppresses the action and function of other hormones and the immune response.
Cortisol: Sleep Disturbance
Your body uses cortisol as a wake-up call every morning.
It has a spike somewhere between 6:00-9:00am that wakes you from sleep, it then drops off throughout the day and is at its lowest after 6:00pm.
This, combined with the action of melatonin, forms the basis of your body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is your body’s clock, the pattern of hormonal changes that help you know when to sleep.
It is connected to daylight hours, with the light helping stimulate cortisol and darkness stimulating melatonin production.
Melatonin helps you fall asleep. Too much cortisol, which can occur in people who are too stressed throughout the day, and you throw off this balance. Melatonin can’t kick in properly and you end up with interrupted sleep or insomnia.
Improving your Sleep
There are a variety of things that you can do to help improve your sleep that also help improve your mood and manage stress. These include:
- Deep breathing: slow, deep breaths from the abdomen helps to stimulate your vagus nerve. This helps to switch off your body’s stress response which helps keep cortisol levels in their normal range.
- Exercise: helps to balance the activity of the HPA axis, keeping stress responses proportional to the stress experienced so that they don’t last longer than they should. This helps keep cortisol levels normal and the physical activity also helps you relax.
- Sleep hygiene: light exposure, because of the link to stimulating cortisol production, is an important part of this one. Exposure to bright light or blue light stimulates cortisol, which prevents melatonin from doing its job in sending you to sleep.
- Herbs like passionflower, liquorice, lavender, oats, chamomile, and kava can help to support your nervous system, help manage stress, and improve your sleep.
- Nutritional supplements containing magnesium and B group vitamins help support energy levels and neurotransmitter production, helping to make sure that you have the building blocks needed for a relaxing night’s sleep.