Take Back the Night: Hormones and Your Sleep

Take Back the Night: Hormones and Your Sleep

Rest, a Lost Virtue.

Our modern, driven society downplays the importance of sleep.  fat manBusy has become a badge of worth but not without its costs.  Indulgences aside we as a culture have more of a pass-out and come-to approach to sleep.  While we love a good night sleep, we routinely squeeze either end of it for extra time, every day.  But, what if a good night sleep was the missing link to your health?

Here is the typical scenario: after a busy day at the office, you race home, get dinner on the table, then maybe get the kids into bed. Now, your belly is full and the house is quiet.  You may start to feel sleepy, but you push through a few yawns and get your second wind.  Instead of honoring this quiet time and preparing for sounds sleep, we:

  1. Get on the computer, catch up on missed work or maybe get social on Facebook and such.
  2. Get on our phone and trance with some games or texting.
  3. Throw on the tube for mindless TV zone-out .

All of these activities, relaxing as they are, change the daily rhythm of your sleep cycles.

Sleep, it Does a Body Good.

Our genetic physiology wants (needs) us to go to bed when the sun sets and rise when the sun comes up. Sleep is to be sound and restorative. Mornings are a time of inspiration and vitality where we jump up and have excitement for the day because our hormonal cascade from the evening before is right where it needs to be. How many of us go to bed when the sun sets and wake when the sun rises? When was the last time you jumped out of bed, energized and vibrant? How many of us get the type of restorative sleep that is necessary for repair, regrowth and healthy hormone production?  (Quick gauge… how unreasonable did most of this paragraph sound to you?)

Melatonin, an Endangered Hormone.

It’s during the 3 hours before midnight when the body naturally releases melatonin. Melatonin, a hormone produced from the pineal gland, is responsible for regulating sleep patterns. It’s also a powerful antioxidant and helps regulate female hormone cycles.

So here’s the problem with our nightly wind-down routine.  The number one inhibitor of melatonin production is, perhaps you guessed it, exposure to light.  Even the light from an alarm clock is enough to disrupt melatonin, so if you’re stretching the day with full lights on staring at a screen, you’re asking for a rough night sleep.

So here’s why we like our screens at night.  Besides perhaps tackling extra work, one of the reasons we turn on our screens is that the rapid movement of light releases dopamine in the brain. Dopamine makes us feel good and drops our shoulders a bit, but it’s also very stimulating. Unknowingly (until now), we are stimulating ourselves into a fitful, rest-less sleep. Here’s how powerful even the most minimal amount of light can be.  If a patient tells me they know what times they wake at night, I know that they have a greater sleep deficit and greater negative effects.  The process of seeing just the light of the alarm clock in the middle of the night disrupts the vital but delicate melatonin pattern.  These people have greater trouble getting a restful night and the negative health effects compound.  If you must get up at night, stay in the dark (a helmet may be in order so you don’t hurt yourself), and try not to stimulate your brain.

So here’s the simple version.  Your body is trying to release a hormone that regulates sleep cycles, repairs and restores cells after their daily grind and regulates sex hormone production but we are actively and directly blocking its action with evening exposure to light.

Melatonin is so crucial to health that when the body is not able to release melatonin at the appropriate time, the next attempt is earlier in the morning. Melatonin cycles back around in a desperate attempt to keep you healthy.  When this happens early in the morning, guess what, you feel groggy!  Yes, that foggy, slow, hit the alarm clock 10 times feeling is partly due to irregular melatonin production.

Melatonin and Cortisol.

Here is the other kicker, if you are not producing melatonin at the appropriate time, you are shifting toward cortisol production. Cortisol, your stress hormone, when over produced for too long does all kinds of “fun” things in the body. Let’s take a look at a couple.

Cortisol and Weight / Excess Body Fat.

At the very least, excess cortisol cycling in your body boosts blood sugar as if you were eating jelly donuts all day long.  You may be struggling with your weight and here’s cortisol telling insulin to store everything you eat as fat (or even didn’t eat in the case of the cortisol-driven “jelly donuts”).  This is perhaps the ultimate failure of calorie-deficit, deprivation-type diets or simply skipping meals to lose weight.  Cortisol, out of its love for you and desire to keep you alive, mobilizes sugar bombs all day and tells your body to store it all away as fat because for some reason food is not plentiful and you’re likely going to need it later.  Persistence of this complex and essential mechanism can ultimately lead to Type II Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and the like.

Cortisol and Anxiety or Depression.

Cortisol is part of the “fight or flight response” that keeps the body and mind on high alert in acute danger. When used appropriately, it’s a beautiful mechanism designed to keep us alive.  More commonly today, our persistently high cortisol lifestyles have us running from non-existent bears all day long. The result is constant tension, fear, negative thinking and ultimate exhaustion… a combo that further perpetuates the cortisol cycle.

Cortisol as Central to Female Hormone Balance.

PMS? Irregular cycles? Menopausal symptoms?  Excess cortisol over long periods of time causes something called progesterone steal. Progesterone is one of our calming, fat burning, bone building, sleep inducing hormones. Because it balances out some of the harmful effects of excess estrogen, it is a key player in all kinds of hormonal regulation, even dysregulation. When the body is making too much cortisol, it starts to steal the precursors away from progesterone production. So that nice list of progesterone benefits are at risk when excess cortisol is cycling. Simply put, for most of us, making enough progesterone is key to healthy hormones and quality of life.

Take Back the Night.

So here’s the bottom line.  When you’re not sleeping well, you’re just not you.  Melatonin takes a hit and sets a cascade in motion that leaves us a mess.  We need to re-evaluate our need for sleep…good quality, restorative sleep… and take back the night.

Where to Start.

Sleep hygiene is the first step.

  1. Keep your bedroom dark and comfortable.
  2. Don’t use screens after the sun goes down.
  3. Get sunlight during the day.
  4. Go to bed and wake up at the same time, everyday, even weekends.
  5. Proactively address stress.  It can be as simple as a 30-60 minute wander walk.
  6. Avoid sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
  7. Diet rich in tryptophan.

Identify your food sensitivities and address them.  This is perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of getting good sleep.

Regulating your stress hormone, cortisol, is so essential that it almost goes without saying.  Get to know your daily cortisol pattern.  Watch this video so see what it looks like, what it means and why it might be right for you: Adrenal Stress Index.

The goal of these simple recommendations is to help restore natural sleep cycles.  But, life gets in the way of sleep hygiene and sometimes the negative effects of altered sleep cycles have taken their toll and more intervention is necessary via natural hormones and supplementation.

Clearly, we live in a modern society and while sleep hygiene sounds good, it is not always practical, but we must keep restorative sleep as a priority.

We Want to Hear From You.

What works for you?  Please, share stories that you find work.

Does any of this resonate with your health concerns?

Let us know in the Facebook comments below.  Thanks, in advance, for sharing your story so that others can benefit.

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photo credit: malias via photopin cc