Most of us have heard cortisol referred to as the “stress hormone.” While cortisol does help trigger our “flight or fight” response, it performs many other functions, such as regulating blood pressure and helping us feel alert in the morning. So, cortisol is crucial to our health and well-being. When our cortisol levels aren’t balanced, however, it can affect our health. Increased cortisol at night can also prevent us from getting good sleep.
At Sleepably, we help adults and children nationwide experience healthy, restorative sleep through sleep coaching. Sleep coaching enables you to identify the cause of your sleep problems and develop an actionable plan. Since daytime stress is a common cause of insomnia among our clients, we’ll discuss how to improve cortisol levels for sleep in this blog.
What Does Cortisol Do?
Cortisol is an important hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Multiple body systems are impacted and regulated by cortisol, including glucose metabolism, muscle development, and maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. It also helps regulate our immune systems while playing an essential part in our response to stress- stimuli.
On a day-to-day level, it helps us maintain physical stamina by providing us with the energy needed to carry out daily tasks; without cortisol, people would be far more prone to fatigue and exhaustion. As such, cortisol has many vital and varied roles in maintaining good health.
How Does Cortisol Affect Sleep?
Cortisol is part of our circadian rhythm—our body’s natural process for regulating sleep cycles. When your circadian rhythm is healthy, your body will produce the highest levels of cortisol in the morning to help you wake up and to give you energy for the day. As evening approaches, cortisol levels should drop, and your body should start producing more melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep.
However, if we’re under a lot of stress, cortisol levels can remain high for longer than normal and interfere with our sleep. A study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity also found that sleep deprivation can, in turn, increase cortisol levels, leaving you trapped in a cycle of high cortisol and sleep deprivation.
Signs of High Cortisol at Night
So, how can you know if your cortisol levels are elevated? High cortisol can manifest in a number of ways, including:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Disturbed sleep during the night
- Feeling tired but wired when you wake up
- Increased irritability
- Difficulty concentrating
- Weight gain
- Muscle loss
It’s important to look out for any signs that your cortisol levels are too high at night so you can take action to address the problem. Talking to a doctor or certified sleep coach can help determine whether your symptoms are stress-related or have another underlying cause.
Ways to Reduce Cortisol At Night
Luckily, there are several ways to improve your cortisol levels naturally without the use of medication or supplements. If you’re dealing with elevated cortisol levels at night, here are some strategies to help improve the situation:
Eat a Balanced Diet
The foods you eat can have a major impact on your cortisol levels. Eating more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help reduce stress, while processed foods full of sugar and unhealthy fats can increase it.
Try to incorporate foods that are high in vitamin B, Omega-3s, and magnesium, such as:
- A variety of seeds and nuts
- Olive oil
It’s still okay to incorporate foods that you enjoy, though. Stressing about a healthy diet and cutting things out of your diet can work against the goal of decreasing stress.
Develop a Bedtime Routine
A consistent bedtime routine is essential for setting your body up to sleep well. This means establishing a time when you plan to turn off screens and technology, take a warm shower, read, or do something else that relaxes you before shutting the lights out. A regular bedtime routine helps signal to your body that it’s time to prepare for sleep and will help reduce cortisol levels.
An ideal bedtime routine should include several steps that you can implement consistently and last between 30 minutes to an hour. For help creating a healthy bedtime routine, check out Sleepably’s free guide on the subject.
Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep is key to regulating cortisol levels. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, and try to go to bed at the same time each night. During the day, make sure you are getting some natural sunlight and taking regular breaks during long periods of work or studying.
If you’re still having difficulty sleeping, talk to your doctor or a certified sleep coach. They can help you identify potential causes and make an action plan for getting better rest.
Manage Stress During the Day with Deep Breathing or Mindfulness
The best way to reduce cortisol levels at night is to manage stress throughout the day. You can do this through deep breathing or mindfulness exercises, like meditation.
If you’re new to meditation, plenty of guided meditations are available online. Additionally, take a few moments during the day to pause and take some slow deep breaths, especially if you are coming out of a stressful situation, such as a high-pressure work meeting. Aim to breathe in for four seconds and out for six seconds. This will help reduce cortisol levels and calm your body so you can sleep more soundly at night.
Regular exercise is essential for cortisol regulation. Aim to get 30 minutes of physical activity at least a few times per week, such as taking a walk, running, or playing sports. Do something that increases your heart rate and makes you sweat to reduce stress levels.
The key here is to do high-intensity workouts early in the day since they can temporarily increase cortisol. If you’re working out in the evening, incorporate more relaxing forms of exercise, such as yoga or stretching.
Is Stress Keeping You Awake at Night?
If you think stress and high cortisol levels are keeping you awake, contact Sleepably today. Working with an adult sleep coach can help you address daytime stress and optimize your bedtime routine to achieve better sleep naturally. If you’re not ready to schedule a free consultation, we hope the strategies above can help you manage your stress levels and get a better night’s sleep. Sweet dreams!