When the stress hormone cortisol is overactive due to various environmental influences, insomnia and problems falling asleep often result. More and more people lack sufficient quality of sleep, because chronic stress has become one of the most common widespread ailments. Sleep and stress are regulated by a number of hormones that need to be balanced in order to eliminate the problem. 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 for a maximum of 14 days, tending to less. This is because during this resting phase our organs and immune system undergo special processes and carry out cell repairs. Above all, however, our brain can no longer absorb much information after being awake for 16 to 20 hours, because this information is only processed and stored during sleep. In one night, we repeatedly go through several sleep phases - if our sleep is intact. Each of these phases fulfils its own important tasks. More about the sleep phases and some sleep tips can be found in the article "Sleep better" (Part 1).
The stress hormone cortisol in context of metabolism
Hormones are substances that give specific signals to cells by docking with certain receptors. This docking triggers a specific reaction. This is how countless processes in the body are controlled. You can think of it simplified as the lock-and-key principle. Cortisol, for example, is the key for many so-called catabolic processes in the metabolism. This means that it signals the breakdown of substances. This breakdown primarily serves to provide energy. The name cortisol is given to the stress hormone because, when stress is felt, it informs the cells that more sugar must enter the bloodstream (energy) and at the same time regenerative processes such as digestion and the immune system are stopped. These processes belong to the anabolic metabolism, i.e. the constructive one, which is opposed to the catabolic one.
Cortisol was therefore essential for our survival, especially in the wilderness: if a bear chased us, the stress hormone gave us the signal to "fight and flight mode" at lightning speed: Our blood sugar shot up, everything relaxing was stopped so that we could run away as fast as possible. This cost a lot of energy. In a stressful situation, our body hardly distinguishes between a dangerous bear and mental stress, such as that caused by work, arguments, annoying car journeys or lack of sleep. All these things activate the release of cortisol.
The balance is crucial
It is important that neither system is better or worse than the other. Rather, the point is that catabolic and anabolic processes should alternate and balance each other in a healthy body. When fleeing from a bear, Stone Age man first rested. Maybe there was a nap, or he found something to eat, but he certainly didn't get caught up in a heated phone call with the boss in the after-work traffic, with worries 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. In a healthy biorhythm, cortisol has its most active time in the morning from six to eight o'clock. This is because it is also our "wake-up hormone". At this time, it puts the organism under positive stress so that regeneration hormones such as the sleep hormone melatonin are shut down.
Our cortisol levels also rise during exercise sessions, but if they are kept short and intense, they have a very positive effect on stress hormone balance. A temporary cortisol release with a recovery period after exercise, which can be supported by good carbohydrates and a quiet sitting or lying down moment, allows the relaxation hormones to work afterwards. This is exactly what hormone balance is.
Melatonin and sleeping
Melatonin is our sleep hormone. In a natural biorhythm, the release of this neurotransmitter starts about three hours before bedtime. In order for us to fall asleep well and also sleep through the night, the functioning of melatonin is very crucial. Regular and good sleep hygiene is beneficial here: always going to bed and getting up at about 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 found mainly in fish, eggs, nuts and goji berries. It therefore makes sense to eat these foods regularly.
10 guidelines for a melatonin cortisol balance & better sleep:
Regular sleeping hours: Always go to bed before 11 pm and get up before 8 am.
Short, intensive strength training, regular walks and generally enough exercise promotes the balance of stress hormones and relaxation hormones. Immediately after getting up, a glass of water with a dash of lime juice and some rock salt boosts cortisol release.
The right breakfast ensures the release of activating hormones in the morning - e.g. at breakfast.
Eat little sugar and grains, but more protein, vegetables, good fats and low-sugar fruits like berries.
Avoid blue lights in the last three hours before sleep, as they can interfere with melatonin production. In concrete terms, this means: no screens and if they are on, then only with blue light filters/night mode.
Perform relaxing activities before sleeping: Yoga, stretching, reading a book, listening to an audiobook, writing down positive affirmations, meditating and alternating showers to reduce cortisol in the evening.
Use the bedroom exclusively for sleeping! A workspace in the bedroom can stimulate cortisol levels again in the evening.
A cool and dark bedroom promotes melatonin production: 18⁰C is optimal, and pitch dark is best.
Avoid heavy and large meals just before sleep. Instead, a few complex carbohydrates and light proteins help: a small bowl of warm gluten-free oat porridge with banana and berries are balm for sleep hygiene.