As women we tend to think of hormones only when they’re affecting us during PMS, but do they have an effect on our sleep?
Absolutely. Hormones pretty much have an affect on everything, from skin health to hunger cues and, of course, sleep. For example: the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin - which most of us have heard about before - is produced by the brain's pineal gland; sunlight stops the gland from producing it, whereas melatonin increases as it gets dark. If we have our faces in screens all day and into the night, the light emitted from those screens will inevitably interfere with our brain's melatonin production, affecting our sleep.
Another hormone, cortisol (produced and secreted by our adrenal glands which sit atop our kidneys), plays an integral role in the body's circadian rhythm; there is usually a cortisol spike in the early hours of the morning, which contributes to feelings of wakefulness. As the day progresses, cortisol levels gradually decline. Cortisol is also secreted during moments or times of stress - it's one of the hormones in the "fight or flight" response - and this can rev your body up, making sleep all but impossible. The hormone interferes with sleep by actually signaling the body to lower its levels of melatonin. One contributing factor in why those who suffer from stress have difficulty sleeping.
And does it work the other way around, with lack of sleep affecting our hormonal balance?
Of course! Have you ever noticed that you're much hungrier on the days following a poor night's sleep? It's definitely not in your mind, it's a real thing. The hormones ghrelin (which stimulates appetite) and leptin (which tells your brain you've eaten enough) get thrown off with lack of sleep. Ghrelin levels increase, while leptin decreases; basically meaning you will be hormonally driven to eat more, since the normal stop gap properties of leptin will be decreased and not as effective.
In addition, there is a lot of recent research demonstrating that cortisol levels are increased following even one night of poor sleep - and certainly more so with prolonged or chronic sleep deprivation. This can result in a poorer physiologic response to stress and poorer blood sugar control. These two things combined set the stage for chronic inflammation, which as we are continuing to learn, is really the genesis of many chronic conditions and diseases.
What are the periods of our lives when we are most affected by hormones?
Because hormones affect every aspect of our life - each and every organ system is dependent upon hormones in order to properly function - in theory, they're always affected.
That being said, it is during periods of additional or extreme stress (life transitions - marriages, break ups, divorces; loss of a loved one; difficulty at work; etc) that this is especially true. Ironically, of course, it's usually during these stressful times when we're more likely to ditch our self-care routines, but it's when they're really needed the most.
What are 5 ways in which we can work with our hormones to support balance and sound sleep?
- One of the best ways is to align your schedule with the body's natural circadian rhythm. Ideally that means getting into bed around 10pm and asleep by 10:30; since this is when cortisol levels are at their lowest, physiologically preparing your body for sleep. Have you ever noticed that you can be exhausted around 9:30/10, but then get a second wind around 11pm? That's your body overriding its natural rhythm and forcing an output of cortisol which can keep you up - and oftentimes feeling wired - until well after midnight (even if you're actually tired).
- Creating a bedtime or evening routine. What that looks like is personal to you, but an example would be making yourself a beautiful cup of tea an hour before bed, helping your mind recognize that sleep is approaching and to start slowing things down.
- Implementing a screen time cut-off time is super powerful. The blue light emitted from computers, phones, tablets, and televisions sends signals to the brain which interrupt the body's melatonin production. As the master sleep hormone, we need melatonin to be released into and throughout our body before sleep in order to promote/support restful sleep.
- Meditation can be a total game changer. If you're just starting out, don't expect to sit "perfectly" for 20-30 minutes. Start small - start with one minute. Meditation can help manage stress, and has been proven to lower cortisol levels, which as we know, will be helpful in physiologically preparing your body for sleep.
- Watch what you're eating before bed. If you're hungry before bed, make sure that you're eating a snack that is well balanced in terms of your macronutrients (fats, carbs and protein) so your blood sugar is properly managed throughout the night. Eating sugary treats right before bed will only spike your blood sugar, requiring your body to secrete enormous amounts of insulin to bring it back down to normal, which then interrupts sleep.
What does your evening look routine look like, and what parts come naturally vs what you need to remind yourself to do for self-care?
Such a great question! Some parts of my evening routine definitely do not come naturally, and I'm glad you asked, as I think it’s important to remember that even experts like me struggle with ingrained patterns that might not be the most health-promoting.
Historically, I've struggled the most with getting into bed, even if I'm tired. I've even called myself a sleep procrastinator. So most of my evening routine is centered around interrupting/rewiring that historic tendency. If I'm not vigilant about it, it easily becomes an unhealthy pattern.
Lighting is also a huge part of my routine. I'm lucky enough to have dimmers on all my light switches, and I make an intentional effort that by 9:30, all my lights are dimmed. It helps cue my brain that we're transitioning to the night time and tells my nervous system to start down-regulating. I'll turn off all the lights in my bedroom, save for a small one on my nightstand. I usually also light a beautiful candle in my bedroom (next to my bed) to create a real sensory sanctuary for myself - basically making an environment that's irresistible to procrastination.
If I've spent the evening at home (and therefore have the time), I usually draw myself a bath, adding both Epsom salts & various essential oils based on my mood. I soak in the tub for a solid 15-20 minutes and again, lighting here plays an integral role. Bathroom lights are dimmed and candles are lit. No phones or distractions. Sometimes I'll meditate or sometimes I'll just let my body rest.
Right before bed, I dissolve some homeopathic elemental magnesium in hot water. Once in bed, I usually read a book for about 10-15 minutes or until my eyes get heavy.