Insomnia, stress, and the havoc the two can wreak on one’s brain chemistry have long been mainstays of popular culture, perhaps no more memorably than in Chuck Palahnuik’s 1996 novel Fight Club, inspired by the author’s own struggles with sleeplessness. In the book and subsequent film, main character Jack is unable to sleep for days at a time. The less sleep Jack gets, the more stressed he becomes—and the more stressed he is, the less he sleeps.
Though most of us don’t lose touch with reality in quite the way Jack does, this maddening cycle is all too common. 40 percent of us get less than the seven-to-nine hours of sleep per night recommended by the National Sleep Foundation—and overwork and stress are major contributors to that sleeplessness. In our always-connected culture, it’s getting rarer and rarer to crawl into bed with eight hours to spare before the alarm goes off. And even when we manage to do so, it can be hard to mentally switch off.
For that untimely wakefulness, thank your adrenal cortex (located at the top of each kidney, in the outer portion of the adrenal gland) and the cortisol it releases. When you’re well-rested, cortisol (otherwise known as the “stress hormone”) helps you address short-term crises as they arise, then naturally starts to dissipate in the afternoon so that you’re fully relaxed at bedtime. Unless you’re under a lot of stress. Then your pesky adrenal cortex continues to produce cortisol all day long, increasing alertness and making it difficult to relax.
As you might expect, frequent stress chronically elevates cortisol levels, resulting in a state of hyper-vigilance ill-suited for restfulness in the long-term. But losing a little shut-eye for even one night—whether your insomnia is stress-related or not—can result in elevated cortisol the next afternoon, too, preventing you from sleeping for another night… I am Jack’s raging adrenal cortex.
“Studies have shown that even small amounts of sleep deprivation result in an increase in cortisol at night when levels should be decreasing,” says Dr. Joseph Ojile, founder and CEO of the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. “This has a cyclical effect: The less you sleep, the more cortisol your body produces, thereby basically working to keep you awake longer.”
If this pattern sounds all too familiar, you may have already experienced some surprising symptoms of chronically elevated cortisol: abdominal weight gain, an impaired immune system, and body aches and pains. But don’t worry. You can work to get your hormones back to their natural levels with a few minor adjustments to your diet, under the guidance of your healthcare professional:
“Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that regulates your circadian cycle,” says Dr. Ojile. “Effectively, you ‘take’ melatonin naturally every time you go to sleep.” But when you’re not getting enough melatonin naturally, due to too much stress or jetlag from a business trip, you can buy melatonin over the counter. The supplement mimics your body’s natural nighttime hormone production and tricks it into thinking it’s time to sleep—but since herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA, consult your doctor about appropriate dosage, and note that it’s recommended for use in the short-term only.
“We know that deficiencies in Vitamin D in particular lead to sleep problems,” notes Dr. Ojile. If you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s a good idea to incorporate foods rich in this nutrient, such as fatty fish (salmon, trout, tuna, and others), fortified milk, and egg yolks, or check with your doctor about taking daily Vitamin D. A physician’s guidance is important as Dr. Ojile notes that some studies have shown that for some individuals, the vitamin can “negatively impact your melatonin levels, leading to sleeplessness.”
If you’re experiencing a chronic lack of adequate sleep, Dr. Ojile says valerian can help. This flowering grassland plant that may reduce the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep, since it “helps reduce stress and anxiety.” Once again, check with your doctor before taking valerian, and be aware that side effects such as headache or dizziness may occur.
People have been using chamomile tea to promote sleep for thousands of years, but Dr. Ojile is quick to point out that there’s no scientific evidence that this tea actually affects sleep. With or without the backing of scientific evidence, many people swear by chamomile tea, and it’s worth a try if you need to wind down before hitting the sack—even if it’s the placebo effect that’s putting you to sleep.
While exercise can improve sleep quality, working out, by definition, puts at least some stress on your body. The stress of exercise causes a release in cortisol, but taking vitamin C after a workout is a proven method for bringing cortisol back to normal levels. And though there is little evidence that nighttime workouts lead to insomnia, it’s a good idea to schedule your work out several hours before you hit the hay.
And of course, the most important thing you can do to get back on track is making sleep—and enough of it—a priority. First things first: Be sure to engage in proper sleep hygiene. Use your bed only for sleep and sex, turn off all screens at least four hours before bed, and avoid alcohol at bedtime. If you are feeling stressed about all the goings-on in your life, making time for sleep is a good first step toward emotional health. Sleep deprivation leads to decreased sex drive, wrinkles, slower reaction times (equivalent to those experienced when drunk), and depression. Do, and you’ll be far more productive in the long run.
Illustration by Addison Eaton
The GOOD Wellness Project is an eight-month collaboration with Walgreens and Vitamin Angels, in support of the #100MillionReasons initiative to bring vital micronutrients to 100 million malnourished children across the globe by 2017. In order to gain clarity and raise awareness about health and well-being, we are diving into vitamins, alternative medicine, the effects of the environment on our body systems, and more, to provide a deeper understanding of what it looks like to live a healthy, well-balanced life.