When the stress hormone cortisol is overactive due to various environmental influences, insomnia and problems falling asleep often result. More and more people are lacking sufficient quality sleep because chronic stress has become one of the most common ailments. Sleep and stress are regulated by a number of hormones that must be in balance in order for the problem to be eliminated. But how exactly can you regulate cortisol levels and optimize sleep?
Short digression: Why we need sleep
When we sleep, we recharge our batteries, so to speak. Without this regeneration we can survive a maximum of 14 days, generally less. This is because during this rest phase our organs and immune system undergo special processes and carry out cell repairs. Above all, our brain can no longer absorb much information after being awake for 16 to 20 hours, because it is only processed and stored during sleep. We go through several sleep phases in one night - if our sleep is intact. Each of these phases fulfills its own important tasks. You can read more about the sleep phases and some sleep tips in the article “ Sleep Better ” ( Part 1).
The stress hormone cortisol in metabolism
Hormones are substances that give cells specific signals by docking on certain receptors. This docking triggers a specific reaction. This is how countless processes in the body are controlled. You can simply imagine this as the key and lock principle. Cortisol, for example, is the key to many so-called catabolic processes in metabolism. This means that there are signals for the breakdown of substances. This degradation primarily serves to provide energy . Cortisol is called the stress hormone because when stress occurs, it informs the cells that more sugar needs to enter the bloodstream (energy) and at the same time regenerating processes such as digestion and the immune system are stopped. These processes belong to the anabolic metabolism, i.e. the constructive one, which contrasts with the catabolic one.
Cortisol was crucial for us humans' survival, especially in the wild: If a bear chased us, the stress hormone quickly gave us the signal to go into "Fight & Flight mode": Our blood sugar shot up, everything relaxing was stopped, so that we could do as much as possible were able to run away quickly. This took a lot of energy. In stressful situations, our body hardly distinguishes between a dangerous bear and mental stress, for example from work, arguments, annoying car rides or lack of sleep. All of these things activate the release of cortisol.
The balance is crucial
It is important that neither system is better or worse than the other. It's more about the fact that catabolic and anabolic processes should alternate and balance each other in a healthy body. When escaping from the bear, Stone Age man first rested. Maybe he took a nap or found something to eat, but he certainly didn't get caught up in a heated phone call with his boss in rush hour traffic while worrying about the unpaid mortgage on his house in the background.
It is extremely important for our hormones and the organs associated with them to be able to recover again and again. With a healthy biorhythm, cortisol is most active in the morning from six to eight o'clock. This is because it is also our “wake-up hormone”. This puts the organism under positive stress at this time so that regeneration hormones such as the sleep hormone melatonin are reduced.
Our cortisol levels also rise during sports sessions, but if they are kept short and intense, they have a very positive effect on the stress hormone balance. A time-limited cortisol release with a regeneration phase after exercise, which can be supported by good carbohydrates and a quiet sitting or lying moment, then allows the relaxation hormones to work. That’s exactly what hormone balance is.
Melatonin and sleep
Melatonin is our sleep hormone. In a natural biorhythm, the release of this messenger substance starts approximately three hours before going to bed. The functionality of melatonin is very important so that we can fall asleep well and stay asleep. Regular and good sleep hygiene is beneficial here: always going to sleep and getting up at approximately the same time, a cool bedroom temperature and calming activities in the last three hours before sleep and a diet that supports melatonin production are important aids. The formation of melatonin depends on the amino acid L-tryptophan, which is mainly found in fish, eggs, nuts and goji berries. So it makes sense to eat these foods regularly.
10 tips for a melatonin-cortisol balance and better sleep
Regular sleeping times: Always go to sleep before 11 p.m. and get up before 8 a.m.
Short, intensive strength training, regular walks and generally enough exercise promote the balance of stress hormones and relaxation hormones. Immediately after getting up, a glass of water with a dash of lime juice and a little rock salt stimulates cortisol release.
The right breakfast ensures the release of activating hormones in the morning - for example at breakfast .
Eat less sugar and grains, but more protein, vegetables, good fats and low-sugar fruits such as berries.
Avoid blue lights in the last three hours before bed as they can disrupt melatonin production. Specifically, this means: No screens and if so, then only with a blue light filter/night mode.
Do relaxing activities before sleep: yoga, stretching, reading a book, listening to an audio book, writing down positive affirmations, meditating and taking contrast showers to reduce cortisol in the evening.
Use the bedroom exclusively for sleeping! A workplace in the bedroom can stimulate cortisol levels again in the evening.
A cool and dark bedroom promotes melatonin production: 18⁰C is optimal and it is best when it is pitch black.
Avoid heavy and large meals shortly before bed. Instead, a few complex carbohydrates and light proteins help: A small bowl of warm gluten-free oat porridge with banana and berries is a balm for sleep hygiene.
Take a good magnesium supplement before sleeping: The more cortisol our body releases, the more magnesium is filtered through the kidneys and excreted in the urine. So if you don't sleep well due to stress, you could possibly have a magnesium deficiency. What is important is high bioavailability and the form of magnesium.