Today is the second morning in a row I have woken up after sleeping through the night. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time that happened…even for one night. Sleeping never used to be an issue; during medical school I became quite skilled at falling asleep anywhere, anytime I could close my eyes. Little did I know that would become a fond memory! Why can’t sleep be the one thing that is easy? Because our bodies were not created for the constant stress of modern life. And can I just go ahead and say it? We were not built for the chronic stress of 2020! What a crazy, emotional roller coaster the past six months have been. The CDC reports over 31% of US adults age 18 years and older get insufficient sleep. And that data is old – from the 2011-2014 National Health Interview Survey. I have to believe those numbers are higher today.
Who cares about stress?
I talk a lot about stress, because it is a real stinker. Stress is one of the three primary risk factors I really focus on for chronic disease and ill health prevention; the others are food choices and physical movement. Stress certainly is not a new topic, but it seems we feel there is little we can do to minimize it in our lives. It’s everywhere, so why try? It’s not that unusual for many of us to not notice – or ignore – our stress level until our body simply says enough. Either a significant illness presents, or we are in an accident of some kind, or we find that we have absolutely no energy or emotional reserve left. Regardless of what it looks like, our body says stop.
No cell is an island!
One of the many things I love about the human body is how everything is connected…and frequently more connected than we understand even at this point in modern medical science. Even our feelings, emotions and stress play out in our bodies in molecules and biochemistry. And those molecules impact hormones and muscles and the brain and the liver and the small intestine – everything. You get the point. Nothing in our body works alone. No cell is an island! Knowing that, I have started looking at health a little differently than I used to…and that is integrative medicine. (Osteopathic, as well, but that’s for another day.)
Melatonin versus Cortisol
The ability to get a good night sleep is dependent upon multiple factors, not the least of which is a balance between melatonin and cortisol. Keep in mind there are a multitude of players involved in each and every body function. Think of it as a full orchestra playing together to create a symphony; each different instrument influences the function and impact of the entire orchestra. If one instrument is out of tune, the audience can tell something isn’t quite right. Melatonin and cortisol are two of the many instruments that play together every day for our sleep-wake cycle. Cortisol rises in the early morning to help us get out of bed while melatonin falls at the same time, and then their roles reverse in the evening. Cortisol also goes up when your body perceives a stressor – that could be the famous story about being chased by a bear or it could be something that seems as simple as your blood sugar getting a little low. Melatonin is the “hormone of darkness”. Sounds like something from Star Wars, doesn’t it? It’s not, but it is a hormone that is active when the sky is dark and the stars are out. Both have crazy important jobs, but when either one of them gets too loud or too strong it throws off the rest of the players in the symphony.
A Pill for Every Ill
While we can very easily come up with list of prescription medications and/or natural supplements that would help balance melatonin and cortisol, why would we want to take a pill when we can change a behavior and get the same or similar result? That’s the challenge, right? It’s so easy to take a pill, natural or not, instead of making a change in our daily habits. We live in a world where we are more likely to be reactive instead of proactive.
I want to challenge you to try the proactive approach – make changes in your daily routines before you head to the pharmacy or health food store. This isn’t easy for me, either…just so you know.
Please know I do understand that many individuals, myself included, need some additional support from prescriptions and supplements when finding balance. There is no shaming or judging here at Grace. Each of us is a unique individual and not all recommendations/approaches work for everyone. That is why it is so important to work with your own healthcare/wellness provider of choice.
Time to Mix It Up
Here are four tips on how to manage your stress (decrease cortisol) and improve your sleep (increase melatonin):
- Before bed each night, take time to hand-write at least three things for which you are grateful from that day. Find a notebook, a journal, a calendar – wherever you can take some notes. I keep mine next to my bed so it’s a visual reminder. Your cortisol just got a little lower.
- Look to the future with hope and plan how you can make your hopes come true. Today is the first day of the second half of 2020. What is your hope for the rest of the year? Make it something that you can make happen. The key here, again, is to hand-write these out and put them somewhere you can see them regularly. I have three goals so far…and I keep adding. One is professional and two are personal. I want to have more confidence with my favorite hobby – knitting. Knitting a sweater has always been intimidating. Yup – my goal is to knit a sweater by the end of the year. Added benefit – being in control of a little something even in these days of crazy chaos! And there goes your cortisol again – lower!
- Unplug from broadcast news and social media. Not completely, but watch just enough to know what is going on in the world and then turn it off. That is usually about thirty minutes for most folks. What do we control or impact by sitting in front of the TV, computer or phone for hours on end? I know it just makes me anxious and angry. At the very least, make the two hours before bed a time for enjoyable entertainment. These are some of the things I do: read a book, knit some rows of my sweater, brush the dog. Sounds calmer than the evening news, doesn’t it? Less stress = lower cortisol.
- When you go to bed, leave your phone, tablet and laptop in another room. Part of this is to limit your screen time before bed – that blue light lowers your melatonin! The other thing is that we are so crazy connected anymore. I know that I wake from what I think is a sound sleep when my phone vibrates across the room! And, if I am going to be really honest – I have to leave my phone downstairs in the kitchen. If it’s upstairs but in another room, I’ll go get it. I know my weaknesses! Get that tiny computer out of your bedroom. Yup, another cortisol downer.
I know these may not be new to you…but are you doing them? What are you doing to help calm and balance your hormones throughout the day, especially before bed, to allow your body’s orchestra to play its greatest symphony yet?
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