Do you toss and turn at night, followed by dragging energy in the morning and throughout the day? Does you feel like your circadian rhythms are off kilter?
This rut of poor sleep and low energy can be a hamster wheel of medications and supplement cocktails – Ambien or valerian at night followed by caffeine or an energy drink in the morning. If this sounds familiar, you probably know that medications and supplements will not solve your sleep and energy problems. At best they temporarily mask them, and usually, they stop working.
Meet your circadian hormones
Your circadian hormones, melatonin and cortisol, are big players in your ability to sleep at night and be awake during the day. These hormones have a rhythm, controlled by your circadian clock. This 24-hour clock is a real part of your brain, located in your suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), inside your hypothalamus. It governs your sleep-wake cycle, your hormones, and your appetite, as well as other rhythmic functions and behaviors.
Melatonin is essential for sleep. Your pineal gland secretes melatonin in response to darkness. Light inhibits melatonin – your pineal gland is very sensitive to any light that comes in through your eyes. This includes light from electronics, nightlights, and streetlights. Besides light, melatonin is inhibited by alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
Melatonin is also important for many other things, including female hormone regulation. It informs when you start your period, the length of your cycle, and when you go into menopause. This is why we integrative medical doctors always consider sleep quality in female hormone problems such as infertility.
Besides regulating sleep and female hormones, melatonin has all sorts of useful actions. It’s both a hormone and a neurotransmitter (brain signaller). It even protects your brain from inflammation, migraines, stroke, and dementia.
Cortisol is a wake-up steroid hormone made by your adrenal glands. 50% of your cortisol should be secreted in the first 30 minutes you are awake. This is called your cortisol awakening response (CAR). If you have a night riddled with insomnia, and then sleep late to make up for it, you’ll sleep through your cortisol awakening response. You miss out on this important wake-up chemistry, and you may feel tired all day.
You may think of cortisol as a bad hormone, as it gets a bad rap these days. This is because of what happens during chronic stress. Cortisol is your second-responder stress hormone, after adrenalin. If your stress response is sustained, then cortisol remains elevated, which does have negative effects.
Cortisol in the right amount is a good thing. It helps your energy, resilience, metabolism, and immune system in just the right ways.
Cortisol and melatonin are oppositional
When one is high the other is low. Daylight stimulates cortisol release, and darkness stimulates melatonin. They have a waxing and waning, yin and yang relationship.
If your circadian rhythm is disrupted, you may fall into a pattern of high cortisol at night, which can manifest as insomnia, excessive thinking or worry, heart palpitations, or the classic night owl energy. You may be tired throughout the day and then have a burst of energy late at night. The problem here is you can’t secrete melatonin if cortisol is high.
Melatonin is sensitive and needs the right environment. You need to have low cortisol and your sleep hygiene dialed in. Think of melatonin as your yin hormone: it needs a dark, calm, and cool environment to put you to sleep and restore your body.
Cortisol, on the other hand, is your yang daytime hormone. You make it when melatonin is low and light is coming. It’s yang properties are light, warmth, and energy. If you bolt awake at 5 AM, this is probably your cortisol awakening response – like it or not! If you sleep through it and wake groggy and tired at 10 AM, you did not make use of your morning cortisol and you may drag through your day on low cortisol.
You can measure your cortisol circadian rhythm, including your CAR, through saliva or urine. It’s ideal to have a robust CAR, and very low cortisol in the evening.
Reset your circadian hormones
With sleep problems, it’s easy to focus on what to do at night to influence sleep. However, what you do all day long affects your circadian hormones, as cortisol and melatonin are set by your 24-hour circadian clock.
The “rules” of sleep hygiene take the 24-hour rhythms into account and are always a good place to start. However, there are more ways you can specifically affect cortisol and melatonin at certain times.
Set your cortisol in the morning
This is the best time to set your circadian rhythm for the day, no matter how your night went. Get up and expose yourself to full-spectrum light and movement. Ideally, go outside and exercise. It can be simple, like walking briskly around the block. Or go into your backyard and jump rope or bounce on a mini-trampoline. If movement is not an option, simply step outside and soak in the light.
If there isn’t enough light, or going outside is too difficult, you can purchase a portable blue light box and turn it on in your vicinity while you move or exercise indoors, or simply sit and wake up. Research shows that blue light boxes help to restore circadian rhythms, and improve sleep and depression.
Try not to ignore your Cortisol Awakening Response and push yourself to sleep through it, because of a bad night or just because you can. If your circadian hormone rhythm is disrupted, you may not ever restore it if you do not get up with your CAR. Just like a healthy protein-centric breakfast sets your blood sugar regulation for the day, so does a healthy wake-up when your cortisol is peaking.
Several patients with relentless insomnia have restored their sleep and energy with these morning suggestions. These are folks who took every supplement and medication imaginable at night, with no effect. Desperation will get you up and moving in the morning!
Things that go with your morning CAR:
- Coffee (if you don’t have insomnia, hypoglycemic symptoms, or anxiety).
- Black or green tea, Matcha
- Stimulating adrenal herbs such as Asian ginseng.
- Full-spectrum light
- Movement: dance, walk, jump, run, bike, swim, etc.
- Licorice root (if you have adrenal dysfunction with low cortisol but not with hypertension!)
- B vitamins
Sustain your cortisol in the right amount throughout the day
Here’s when you may get in trouble with your cortisol. It’s important to support cortisol production throughout the day, without jacking it up in a chronic unsustainable way. The latter leads to cortisol that is too high, then eventually adrenal “fatigue” and burnout. This is called HPA dysfunction – HPA is your hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis.
To support cortisol:
- Adrenal adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha, reishi, and maca.
- Adrenal vitamins and minerals: B5, B6, C, magnesium, zinc.
- STRESS management – you can’t eliminate stress but you can certainly change how you let it affect you! Here are 7 Ways To Reduce Stress.
In the evening wind cortisol down and let melatonin rise
Cortisol should start dropping in the late afternoon and keep going down. With low cortisol, and a calm, cool, dark environment, your sensitive pineal gland can release melatonin. The rules of sleep hygiene address this. In addition:
In the evening, wind down all the active, yang, and bright things from the day:
- Screens (computers, tablets, phones, TV) emit blue light, which stimulates cortisol. Turn them off at least 30 minutes before bed, and up to two hours, especially with sleep disruption!
- Screens can also stimulate cortisol with dramatic, violent, addicting content. Think social media and adrenalin-stimulating Netflix binges. When do you need to cut this off?
- Nix drama in the evening – no fights, no disturbing or dramatic written media. Think news and high-drama addicting novels.
- This is not the time to do vigorous exercise, or start a high-energy project like cleaning out your garage.
Set the stage for melatonin:
- Eat enough carbohydrates with dinner. That will help you make serotonin which makes melatonin. Keto dieters can be low in melatonin.
- Do calm, restorative activities like reading, listening to music, meditating, restorative movement, hanging out with your family, journaling, and cuddling,… you get the idea.
- Use soft light in the yellow spectrum.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below,