So many of my clients complain of waking between 3am-5am and find themselves wide awake and struggling to fall asleep again, this causes long term disturbance to sleep patterns (and leads to issues with appetite and weight, mood and immune strength). I also see repeatedly with friends. Chances are you will have many friends with the same problem. There is a reason for it and it is hormonal. And there are 10 things you can do about it.
I often talk with both clients and friends about the stress hormone – Cortisol. When environmental stress becomes a long term issue, your cortisol levels rise as a survival mechanism. It’s main role was for survival in threatening conditions, running away from danger. However, when this high level of cortisol is sustained it leads to a variety of health conditions. Eventually your adrenal glands, the ones that produce cortisol, become over worked and are unable to produce consistently high levels of cortisol in response to stress, whether that stress be running for exercise, a heavy gym session, narrowly missing an accident on your bike or someone shouting at you. When this happens your cortisol levels plummet especially in the early evening, in line with your circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle).
Low Cortisol at Night
One of cortisol’s roles is to raise blood sugar for energy in times of stress. However, if your physiology is in a state of stress and your adrenals are struggling to respond sufficiently then your cortisol level will drop significantly from 6pm onwards and further throughout the night so your blood sugar will be very low. In order to protect your blood sugar from going too low in the middle of the night because of not producing enough cortisol, your body reacts by producing adrenaline instead. This also raises your blood sugar and is even more stimulating than cortisol. It will make your heart race and ‘switch’ on certain neurotransmitters that stimulate your brain to keep you very alert. How many times have you woken up between 3am and 5am, exhausted but with your heart racing and your mind on over-drive? That is adrenaline trying to keep your blood sugar from dropping too low.
What you can do about it?
1) BE AWARE OF WHAT IS HAPPENING – I can’t emphasise this enough. Understanding the mechanisms at work, and accepting that it’s a hormonal reaction that is making your mind race, is the first step towards addressing the situation. Don’t fight it. You will make it worse. Your hormones are more powerful than you think.
2) DON’T LOG ON TO FACEBOOK AND ANNOUNCE THAT YOU CAN’T SLEEP – it’s like turning up at a heavy metal gig just to announce you have got a headache. The last thing you want to be doing right now is looking at a screen!
3) EAT A CARBOHYDRATE based snack before bed: a banana, some dried fruit, one piece of rye toast, yoghurt and granola, anything is better than nothing really. Eat a light carbohydrate snack when you wake up in the night – SOD YOUR DIET – this is more important otherwise you will always struggle to lose weight.
If you’re diabetic and worried about eating carbs, then add in a little protein to slow down the sugar release, something like a few nuts will do the trick.
4) DRINK LICORICE TEA before bed – liquorice increases the uptake of Cortisol at the cellular receptor sites.
5) AVOID COFFEE after 12 noon – if you are tired and weary it’s because your body is signalling that it needs to rest. You may not be able to rest if you are at work or looking after children, however do try and keep going without the caffeine. The last thing you should do is load up on caffeine if you are a night waker . It’s as if your body is making the effort to communicate with you (which it is) and asking for assistance by requesting that you slow down. Then you ignore the signals and press the over-ride button because you think that the ironing pile is more important than your health or tomorrow’s energy levels…..it really isn’t.
6) GO TO BED when you are tired and before you get your “second wind” (night wakers tend to be exhausted from about 6pm onwards but get a second wind later in the evening).
7) SLOW DOWN: If you are a night waker, chances are you experience and react to stress more than your body is capable of dealing with. If you are truly serious about wanting to deal with it, change your state of mind, stop worrying about things that really don’t matter every single minute of the day and TAKE TIME OUT. This may be hard for you to do to start with as most night wakers feel guilty for relaxing, are always on the go, and never sit down. That is exactly why they are night wakers. They are struggling to produce all those stress hormones. Start doing something relaxing and make it a new habit.
8) LEARN TO MEDITATE. It’s not hippy stuff. It’s empty, chilled-out kind of stuff. And it takes up 10 minutes a day. If you are a night waker, chances are you currently won’t have a clue about how to “switch off”. Even if you try it you won’t manage more than 30 seconds. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest life skills you can learn – it’s your weapon against 21st century madness. Buy an App to help you, listen to YouTube meditations with earphones. I dismissed meditation for years having exhausted my adrenal glands, once I started, I never looked back. It was a life saver for me.
9) STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR WEIGHT – if you are a night waker, your hormones will ensure you are a fat hoarder rather than a fat burner anyway regardless of your diet. Work on your stress and your sleep first and you will THEN find weight management much easier. If you are diabetic these hormone changes play havoc with your blood sugars so getting the sleep pattern right first is vital.
10) AVOID EXERCISE IN THE EVENING – this will kick start your adrenaline pathways at exactly the wrong time. You may want to exercise and perhaps only have the chance to do so in the evening but I refer you to point 9). All you are doing is continuing the vicious and frustrating cycle. JUST STOP – it’s only temporary. Start thinking long term change, not what suits you today or momentarily or how many calories you need to burn off from lunchtime.
Happy sleeping ;o)