There are a number of factors that could be disrupting your sleep, but more than likely, the cause is chemical. Let’s talk about the role of sleep hormone.
It’s 3:00 am, the alarm clock will be going off in three hours and you’re wide awake. What’s worse, this isn’t the first time this week you’ve faced the torture of a restless night, despite drinking copious amounts of herbal teas. What’s going on?
Like most of your bodily functions – from controlling your moods to telling you when to stop eating – sleep is largely influenced by hormones.
Anyone who regularly flies long distances has no doubt been tempted by those handy little single-dose packets of the synthetic sleep hormone melatonin next to the foam earplugs and around-the-neck pillows at the airport newsstand.
Produced by the pineal gland located above the brain stem, the natural sleep hormone melatonin regulates the body’s sleep cycle.
Levels of the hormone increase in the evening as daylight hours fade, are steady throughout the night and drop off towards daybreak. Factors influencing the production of melatonin include natural and artificial light as well as age.
However, while hugely important for sleep, melatonin isn’t the only sleep hormone at play in determining how many z’s you get. The presence of adrenaline, cortisone, and cortisol – all sleep inhibitors – can also have a hand in keeping you up at night.
Hormones that contribute to sleep problems
Most commonly associated with the biological “fight or flight” response, adrenaline is released when we encounter stress. For our early human ancestors, this stress probably took the form of an animal with sharp teeth.
While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll encounter a man-eating beast just before bedtime, perhaps the modern-day equivalent on the stress scale would be reading an angry e-mail from your boss or getting sucked into a heated political debate on Facebook.
Adrenaline’s impact on the body is almost instant.
Heart rate and blood pressure increase, air passages in the lungs expand, and pupils widen. This is the body’s way of maximizing blood delivery to the muscles in order to prime itself for physical effort. Sadly, not what you want coursing through your veins just before hitting the sack.
A rush of adrenaline is gone almost as quickly as it arrives, but more likely to stick around is the simultaneously released stress hormone cortisol. Complementing the work of adrenaline in readying your muscles for action, cortisol goes about maximizing glucose levels in the blood for the brain’s benefit.
It also limits functions such as digestion, immune responses, and reproductive urges, since those aren’t particularly helpful in a crisis. That being the case, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to consider the negative consequences of the presence of cortisol brought about by prolonged stress. In addition to disrupting sleep, the stress hormone can cause weight gain, mental imbalance, and heart problems.
The third component of the stress-response chemical cocktail potentially keeping you awake is cortisone. Its primary function is in quickly converting proteins into carbohydrates (to be burned as you run for your life) and preventing swelling (both to facilitate movement and to minimize the impact of any injury sustained during battle).
Due to the latter benefit, cortisone is often used to treat painfully swollen joints or itchy rashes and bites.
How to calm the beast that is stress
So how do you avoid triggering the release of unwanted stress hormones when it’s time to drift into dreamland?
In addition to the danger of seeing that enraging e-mail from the boss or a racist diatribe from Uncle Steve, sleep researchers tell us that blue light emitted from computer, tablet, or phone screens can inhibit the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. (As we already discussed, this can also be true of the light emitted from your television.)
If you really can’t bear the thought of no TV or screen time before bed, there’s some good news. A recent study by the University of Houston concluded that wearing special glasses that filter out blue light can prevent this.
If the blue light is not the culprit, there are some general ways of reducing the stress that will also help bring your nighttime hormones into better balance.
An evening relaxation routine that includes gentle music, aromatherapy from essential oils, and a warm soak in the tub might seem unrealistic to those with hectic schedules. But it’s worth the effort to try and have some quiet, alone time, even if you don’t go for full-on meditation at a Zen temple.
If you suffer from back pain, a memory foam mattress could be the answer, especially now that it’s possible to find one easily online with even trial periods often available. The bedroom should really serve as a place of rest where you can look forward to some creature comforts.
Go ahead and splurge on high-thread-count bedding.
Keep the sleeping area clear from clutter. The idea is really to build a sanctuary from stress. It’s also a good idea to avoid taking any arguments in the bedroom.
They say you should never go to bed angry and, as demonstrated above, there’s a good reason for this beyond simply the state of your relationship, as important as that is.
If something needs resolving, find another place (and ideally, time of day) to hash it out. If you treat the bedroom as off-limits from conflict, it’s more likely to be an inviting place to sleep.
So no need to give up on the herbal teas. Getting stress under control in combination with avoiding blue light should get the sleep hormone melatonin flowing and your eyelids feeling heavy.