09/02/2021 # Home
When you’re rocking the sleep ritual but still not snoozing, other factors could be involved.
You are totally doing this sleep ritual thing.
You’ve dimmed the lights. Turned off the electronics. Relaxed. Gotten into bed, shut your eyes, and thought of a calm blue ocean.
And now you still can’t sleep.
What kind of cruel joke is that? What’s going on?
Some hormones, like melatonin and growth hormone, help us sleep. They make us feel drowsy, and they rejuvenate and rebuild our body while we’re in dreamland.
But some hormones — while they help us lose fat and stay healthy during the day — can cause problems at night.
We’ll explain how all of these work, but if endocrinology isn’t your thing, feel free to skip to the end.
Cortisol and adrenaline can keep you awake
The hormone cortisol helps “unlock” stored body fat so you can use it as energy.
Adrenaline, or epinephrine, does the same thing, especially if our cortisol stores are low (such as when we’re chronically stressed).
So, these hormones are our friends . . . if they’re in the right place at the right time.
- We want cortisol and adrenaline to be higher when we need fuel, such as first thing in the morning or running away from a bear.
- We want cortisol and adrenaline to be lower when we’re trying to relax, such as in the evening.
But if we’re chronically stressed, cortisol and adrenaline might stay high, or fluctuate and flow at the wrong times. This leaves us feeling “wired and tired” — desperate to sleep but buzzing. Or we might get the classic 4 a.m. “blast out of bed” wakeup as adrenaline kicks in to free up some overnight blood sugar.
So, if you can’t go to sleep, high cortisol may be contributing. If you wake up early, it could be adrenaline (and low cortisol, which gets depleted by chronic stress).
Are you a woman over 35? Then — especially if you have kids — you probably know about disrupted sleep already.
But even without small children tugging you awake at 3 a.m. with a whispered Mommy I just made a vomit on your pillow, you may be facing other hormonal issues beyond cortisol and adrenaline.
As you age, you’re more likely to develop hypo-thyroidism (underactive thyroid gland) and/or hyper-thyroidism (overactive thyroid gland).
Think of thyroid metabolism as the “idling speed” of your body engine.
- Low thyroid can slow down many body processes and lead to fatigue, weakness, lack of energy, and trouble falling — and staying — asleep. If you’re taking thyroid medication, this may also give you insomnia (inability to sleep).
- Overactive thyroid revs you up, creating anxiety and restlessness. The excess energy can make it difficult for the body to know when it’s time to shut down for the night.
Even though women with thyroid issues need more sleep, they often find it hard to get.
If you’re younger but have a lot of stress in your life, you may also be at risk.
Estrogen, progesterone, and menopause
Women’s reproductive hormones can begin to fluctuate as early as their 20s, but most women don’t notice the effects till their late 30s, early 40s, or (for the lucky gals) later.
In particular, as the ovaries slow their production of estrogen, women may experience disrupted sleep, insomnia, and “night sweats” or hot flashes.
(Find yourself kicking off the blankets in the middle of the night and wondering why your PJs are on fire? This could be you.)
Progesterone, the other “female hormone” also declines during this time, often more quickly than estrogen (an imbalance known as estrogen dominance). Since progesterone has a calming effect, low progesterone can also affect sleep.
As with other hormones, stress, poor nutrition, and excess body fat will make these symptoms worse.
However, over-exercising (especially endurance training, such as long-distance running) and chronic restrictive dieting can also drop your hormones and even put you into premature menopause.
Of course, you don’t need to remember all the possible “wonky hormone” scenarios. (There’s no biochem exam.)
Just remember: If you can’t sleep, you may have some hormonal issues. And when it comes to hormones, there’s good and bad news.
The stress factor
The bad news first.
You can mess up your sleep — and your hormonal health — with stuff like:
- Chronic stress
- Too much caffeine (or other stimulants)
- Over-exercising (especially chronic cardio or too-frequent, highly intense training)
- Over-restrictive dieting (including fasting and/or dropping carbs too low)
Whether it’s physical or psychological, stress can and will knock your hormones out of balance.
Fixing your sleep
But now the good news! This is largely treatable. If you’re struggling with these hormonal issues:
- Include a handful of high-fiber, slow-digesting smart carbs at every meal. If you’re tempted to drop your carbs too low … well, just don’t. Carbs help with proper hormone synthesis (including your feel-good sleepytime hormone serotonin) and tell the body that you’ve had enough to eat.
- Eat at regular intervals, every 3–4 hours, when you’re hungry. Don’t fast or skip meals.
- Balance your high-intensity training with low-intensity training like strength training or bodyweight training. Avoid exercising in the evening time, rather do it in the morning.
- Get bright light during your awake periods and darken your environment as much as possible before bed. This will help re-set your hormonal clock.
If your poor sleep/stress is due to sleep apnea from being overweight, rest assured that if you keep sticking to Our Coaching, it will get better eventually.
If you’re concerned about underlying hormonal problems, consult with your healthcare provider to explore further options.
Develop a sleep ritual. Hey, you’re already working on that! Awesome! If not, then read our blog on “11 tips for good sleep”.
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