Cortisol and Sleep
What do we do when we still can’t find restful sleep, even after we’ve perfected our sleep routine? In this article we’re going to look at the effect of cortisol on our sleep cycles.
What is Cortisol and Where Does it Come From?
Cortisol is your stress hormone, released from the adrenal glands, under stressful stimulus. A stressful situation can be anything from an argument with your partner, to anxiety about work the following day, to missing a meal. Your body doesn’t understand the difference between types of stress, so any type of perceived negative event, thought or situation will cause cortisol to be released.
More On Cortisol
Cortisol is a diurnal rhythm hormone. This means that cortisol is released in a certain rhythm naturally, depending on the time of day. In a normal, healthy person, cortisol is released early in the morning, peaking shortly after waking. This is the stimulation that wakes us up, and mobilizes our blood sugars so that we wake up with a bit of energy and hungry for breakfast. As the day moves forward, cortisol should have a nice slope downwards, called a diurnal slope. By the evening, cortisol should be low, eliciting a nice relaxed feeling. In the evening and into the night, cortisol stays level until the early hours of the morning when it will increase again, waking us up.
What About Stress?
When we are under stress, cortisol is released from the adrenal glands. This begins the “fight or flight” cascade of hormones. Under stress, our body thinks we are in imminent danger so it directs our blood supply away from digestive organs, and out to the periphery. Pupils will dilate, you may become sweaty or flushed and feel like you’re trembling. Under this high cortisol picture, you don’t feel relaxed, and you won’t be able to sleep. Typically, stress doesn’t last long, and cortisol diminishes, leaving all these symptoms to disappear, and you return to your relaxed state.
If you’re chronically stressed, your cortisol hormone can be chronically elevated, and if it remains high into the evening, that elevation can make it difficult to fall asleep. You may have the feeling that you’re ‘tired but wired’ so you can’t fall asleep. In this situation, it is best to manage stress to naturally reduce the level of cortisol, so that you can fall asleep easily.
I Can Fall Asleep, But I Always Wake Up!
Another possible scenario is that cortisol that is spiking in the middle of the night. Sometimes, after long periods of chronic stress, the diurnal rhythm of cortisol is affected. Cortisol can be low enough at in the early night to allow you to fall asleep, but random increases occur, which wake you up. When this happens, you wake in the middle of the night or early morning feeling very alert, and possibly anxiety or stress.
At Bay Wellness Centre, we often do either salivary or urine testing to determine what the cortisol curve looks like for you specifically. We get 4 samples of either urine or saliva; one in the morning, one at lunch, one in the evening and one at bedtime. This way, we can plot the data on a graph to give us an idea of when cortisol is high and when it is low. With this information we can treat you to re-balance the release of cortisol, allowing for easy, restful sleep.