You’ve done everything you’re supposed to be doing…You've turned off the lights. Had a relaxing bath, spritzed some lavender on your pillow…You’ve turned off the electronics. Meditated. Done your breathing exercises. Gotten into bed, shut your eyes, and thought of your idyllic dream place…perhaps your 5* hut in the Maldives…
And yet no sleep is happening.
What’s going on? You’ve done everything ‘right’, right?
Thanks for nothing, lavender oil. Obviously the meditation and relaxing bath have done diddly squat, too. Sigh.
Maybe It’s Your Hormones…
Some hormones, like melatonin and growth hormone, help us sleep. They make us feel drowsy, and they rejuvenate and rebuild our body while we’re in dreamland.
But some hormones — while they help us lose fat and stay healthy during the day — can cause problems at night.
I will try to briefly explain how all of these work, but if endocrinology isn't your thing, feel free to skip to the end.
- Cortisol and adrenaline can keep you awake -The hormone cortisol helps “unlock” stored body fat so you can use it as energy.
- Adrenaline, or epinephrine, does the same thing, especially if our cortisol stores are low (such as when we’re chronically stressed).
In other words, these hormones are our friends . . . providing that they're in the right place at the right time.
We want cortisol and adrenaline to be higher when we need fuel, such as first thing in the morning or running away from a bear. (Remember you don't have to run the fastest, though.)
We want cortisol and adrenaline to be lower when we're trying to relax, such as in the evening.
But if we're chronically stressed, cortisol and adrenaline might stay high, or ebb and flow at the wrong times. This leaves us feeling "wired and tired" — desperate to sleep but buzzing. Or we might get the classic 4 a.m. "blast out of bed” wakeup as adrenaline kicks in to free up some overnight blood sugar.
So, if you can’t go to sleep, high cortisol may be contributing. If you wake up early, it could be adrenaline (and low cortisol, which gets depleted by chronic stress).
Are you a woman over 35? Then — especially if you have kids — you probably know about disrupted sleep already.
But even without small children tugging you awake at 3 a.m. with a whispered “Mummy I just made a vomit on your pillow”, you may be facing other hormonal issues beyond cortisol and adrenaline.
As you age, you're more likely to develop hypo-thyroidism (underactive thyroid gland) and/or hyper-thyroidism (overactive thyroid gland).
Think of thyroid metabolism as the "idling speed" of your body engine.
Low thyroid can slow down many body processes and lead to fatigue, weakness, lack of energy, and trouble falling — and staying — asleep. If you're taking thyroid medication, this may also give you insomnia.
Overactive thyroid revs you up, creating anxiety and restlessness. The excess energy can make it difficult for the body to know when it’s time to shut down for the night.
Even though women with thyroid issues need more sleep, they often find it hard to get.
If you’re younger, but have a lot of stress in your life, you may also be at risk.
Important to note -the NHS does not generally provide the full range of tests that actually need to be done to find out the information needed, in most cases. And their readings can be wildly inaccurate…
Thyroid UK states on their website:
Do not just accept “normal”. You should always ask for the actual figures of your test results – your level as well as the ranges. Be aware that different areas in the country use different test ranges so one TSH test range might be 0.5 – 5.0 but in another area the TSH range might be 0.4 - 4.0. You could be “borderline” (near the bottom or top of the range) or have “subclinical hypothyroidism” (high TSH and normal FT4) or “subclinical hyperthyroidism” (low TSH and normal FT4) and not be aware of this because you have not been given the ranges of the tests. Subclinical thyroid disease is not usually treated although treatment may be useful.
Find out whether you have had any previous thyroid tests done. If you have, find out exactly which tests you have had done and make a note of them. The most common thyroid tests are Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH), Free T4 (FT4) and Free T3 (FT3). Sometimes the thyroid antibody tests will be done – Thyroid Peroxidase (TPO) and Thyroglobulin (TgAb) - but not often.
For more information go to Thyroid UK http://www.thyroiduk.org.uk/tuk/diagnosis/getting_diagnosis.html
Oestrogen, Progesterone and Menopause
Women’s reproductive hormones can begin to fluctuate as early as their 20s, but most women don’t notice the effects till their late 30s, early 40s, or (for the lucky gals) later.
In particular, as the ovaries slow their production of oestrogen, women may experience disrupted sleep, insomnia, and “night sweats” or hot flashes.
(Find yourself kicking off the blankets in the middle of the night and wondering why your PJs are on fire? This could be you…For me, the fan has lived in our bedroom and has been used 12 months a year…window open all the time and heating has not been on for the past 3 years in our bedroom. I look it as a money saving exercise…but it still sucks!).
Progesterone, the other "female hormone" also declines during this time, often more quickly than oestrogen (an imbalance known as oestrogen dominance). Since progesterone has a calming effect, low progesterone can also affect sleep.
You can buy what is called bio identical hormones on Amazon – look for wild yam (a natural progesterone) – this can help alleviate many symptoms associated with menopause and peri-menopause.
As with other hormones, stress, poor nutrition, and excess body fat will make these symptoms worse.
Of course, you don’t need to remember all the possible “wonky hormone” scenarios. (There’s no biochem exam.)
Just remember: If you can’t sleep, you may have some hormonal issues. And when it comes to hormones, there’s good and bad news.
The stress factor…first, the bad news first. You can mess up your sleep — and your hormonal health — with stuff like:
- Chronic stress
- Too much caffeine (or other stimulants)
- Over-exercising (especially chronic cardio or too-frequent, highly intense training)
- Over-restrictive dieting (including fasting and/or dropping carbs too low)
Whether it's physical or psychological, stress can and will knock your hormones out of balance.
But now the good news! This is largely treatable.
If you're struggling with these hormonal issues:
- Include a handful of high-fibre, slow-digesting smart carbs at every meal. If you're tempted to drop your carbs too low ... well, just don't. Carbs help with proper hormone synthesis (including your feel-good sleepytime hormone serotonin) and tell the body that you've had enough to eat.
- Eat at regular intervals, every 3–4 hours, when you're hungry. Don't fast or skip meals.
- Try low-intensity relaxing-type activities, like yoga or going for a walk.
- Get bright light during your awake periods and darken your environment as much as possible before bed. This will help re-set your hormonal clock.
If you're concerned about underlying hormonal problems, consult with your health care provider to explore further options. Supplements can also help.
Develop a Sleep Ritual
Struggle to ‘shut off’ at night?
Plan your sleep ritual.
What will you do before bed to ensure you get good quality Z’s?
Plan your bedtime.
Like healthy eating, sleep doesn't "just happen" by accident. Choose your bedtime in advance. At that pre-planned time, be in bed with lights off.
Start your sleep ritual at least 30 minutes before your planned bedtime.
Your brain and body need time to shift gears.
Consider whether hormonal issues may be contributing to your sleep problems. A functional medicine doctor (who looks at root problems and treats them naturally instead of prescription medications (let’s not go there…) is a great bet in regards to getting some answers and some help regarding thyroid and other hormone issues going on…on top of finding out if there are other issues happening that are the cause of pain and fatigue.