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Cortisol Levels & Sleep: How they impact our overall health

High levels of stress....

Do you miss the days when you could crawl into bed and immediately get the best sleep, where you wake up feeling relaxed? These days, you may drift off to sleep fast, but wake up a few hours later unable to find that perfect position to fall back into another deep sleep. Great news! You are not alone. In fact, the older we get, the harder it becomes to get the proper 8 hours of sleep the doctor ordered. The years of wear and tear afflicted on our bodies catches up to us, causing our hormones to become off balanced and unable to regulate stress levels for adequate sleep. Over time, the built-in mechanisms in our brain that balances internal stress-hormones weakens from high levels of stress, causing our brain to lock into a “fight or flight” stressor as if it is under threat. “The older we get, the calmer we need to be” – Dr. Bill Sears.

High levels of stress as we age does more harm to our brain’s ability to balance cortisol levels, which leads to inadequate sleep. Also, high cortisol levels could cause other health issues such as premature aging, unstable insulin levels (diabetes), cancer, belly fat, erectile dysfunction, and Alzheimer. Lifestyle balance is important for circulating stress hormones to maintain healthy brain tissue for learning and strong memory, in addition to regulating glucose levels for the brain to have stable energy levels. Stable insulin levels are necessary for our brain to function properly and release the right amount of high cortisol and lower melatonin during the day versus low cortisol and high melatonin at night.

What can we do to help balance cortisol levels and improve sleep patterns?

Nutrition: Our diets play a major role in how we sleep. Eating simple carbs like processed sugar and white flour before bedtime causes our blood sugar to rise, which then releases high levels of cortisol. Chemicals in processed food causes poor sleep, as they interrupt melatonin in the brain which is a necessary sleep aid. Try to eat 3 hours before bedtime for digestion, to eliminate chances of heartburn and indigestion during sleep. Healthy carbohydrates like vegetables and fruits, partnered with protein for dinner are the best options for preparing the body for rest.

Exercise: Increasing our heart rate during the day helps the brain prepare for sleep. Understanding that schedules can be complex, with limited availability for activity early in the day, it can become necessary for exercise to be a nighttime routine that produces high level of energy for some individuals at night. This makes falling asleep more difficult. Dr. Bill Sears recommends exercising at least 3 hours before bedtime to provide time for cortisol levels to lower.

Meditation: The worst thing we can do to our brain is force itself to sleep, as that increases stress levels. The idea is to lower your cortisol level, which could be done through prayer, meditation, or reading before bedtime. While preparing for bed, focus on your breathing by inhaling slow and exhaling even longer. Expand your belly by breathing deeper to allow more oxygen to flow into the body. Check out Dr. Bill Sears breathing exercise below for guidance.

Take a full deep breathe by inflating your abdomen, then expand your chest, then lift your upper chest and collarbone. Exhales in the opposite direction: let your chest fall, relax inward, and deflate your belly. Inhale through the nose and out through the mouth. Do not tense your muscles.

By implementing these small changes to your lifestyle, could benefit your body’s ability to get the proper 8 hours of sleep the doctor ordered. Sustaining a long and healthy life comes with its quirks as we age, but knowledge is power on how we overcome obstacles that may interfere with how we age. For more information on cortisol levels, melatonin and sleep, read Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears book: Prime-Time Health.


Sears, William, MD & Martha Sears, RN: Prime-Time Health. Cover, 2010, pp 79. 230-233

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