Over 50% of my clients complain of waking up between 3am-5am and finding themselves frustratingly wide awake causing long term disturbed sleep patterns (and leading to issues with appetite and weight). I also see this time and time again with friends in general. Chances are you will have many friends with the same problem. There is a reason for it. And it is hormonal. And there are 10 things you can do about it.
I posted a blog recently about the adrenal stress hormone Cortisol. When environmental stress becomes a long term issue your Cortisol levels rise as a survival mechanism (Cortisol has a number of roles for the purposes of survival in threatening conditions). But when this elevated Cortisol is sustained it leads to a variety of health conditions (see blog post on stress). Eventually your adrenals that produce Cortisol become over-stretched and are unable to produce consistently high levels of Cortisol in response to stress. So your levels plummet. Especially from early evening in line with our circadian rhythms.
Low Cortisol at Night
One of Cortisol’s roles is to raise blood sugar for energy in times of stress. But if your physiology is in a state of stress and you have adrenal insufficiency, Cortisol will drop significantly from 6pm onwards and throughout the night so your blood sugar will be very low. To protect your body from going into a state of hypoglycaemia (very low blood sugar) in the middle of the night when you are unable to produce enough Cortisol, your body reacts by producing Adrenaline instead. This also raises blood sugar but is more stimulatory than Cortisol so it will make your heart race and ‘switch’ on certain neurotransmitters that stimulate your brain to keep you very alert. How many times have you woken up between 3am and 5am, exhausted but with your heart racing and your mind on over-drive? That is adrenaline trying to keep your blood sugar from dropping too low.
What can you do?
1) BE AWARE OF WHAT IS HAPPENING – I can’t emphasise this enough. Understanding the mechanisms at work, and accepting that it’s a hormonal reaction that is making your mind race is the first step towards addressing it. Don’t fight it. You will make it worse. Your hormones are more powerful than you think.
2) DON’T LOG ON TO FACEBOOK AND ANNOUNCE THAT YOU CAN’T SLEEP – it’s like turning up at a Metallica gig just to announce you have got a headache.
3) EAT A CARBOHYDRATE based snack before bed: a banana, some dried fruit, one piece of rye toast, yoghurt and granola, anything is better than nothing really. Eat a light carbohydrate snack when you wake up in the night – SOD YOUR DIET – this is more important otherwise you will always struggle to lose weight.
4) DRINK LICORICE TEA before bed – licorice increases the uptake of Cortisol at the cellular receptor sites.
5) AVOID COFFEE after 12 noon – if you are tired and weary it’s because your body is signalling that it needs to rest. You may not be able to rest if you are at work or looking after children, but try and keep going without the caffeine. The last thing you should do is load up on caffeine if you are a night waker . It’s as if your body is making the effort to communicate with you (which it is) and asking for assistance by requesting that you slow down. But you ignore this and just press the over-ride button because you think that the ironing pile is more important than your health or tomorrow’s energy levels…..it really isn’t.
6) GO TO BED when you are tired and before you get your “second wind” (night wakers tend to be exhausted from about 6pm onwards but get a second wind later in the evening).
7) SLOW DOWN: If you are a night waker, chances are you experience and react to stress more than your body is capable of dealing with. If you are truly serious about wanting to deal with it, change your state of mind, stop worrying about things that really don’t matter every single minute of the day and TAKE TIME OUT. This may be hard for you to do to start with as most night wakers feel guilty for relaxing, are always on the go, and never sit down. But that is why they are night wakers because they are struggling to produce all those stress hormones. Start doing something relaxing and make it habitual.
8) LEARN TO MEDITATE. It’s not hippy stuff. It’s empty, chilled-out kind of stuff. And it takes up 10 minutes a day. If you are a night waker, chances are you currently wont have a clue about how to “switch off”, and if you try it you wont manage more than 30 seconds. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest lifeskills you can learn – it’s your weapon against 21st century madness. Buy some meditation CDs, listen to youtube meditations with earphones. Even my 10 year old hyperactive son uses a meditation CD to help him sleep – it has worked wonders.
9) STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR WEIGHT – because if you are a night waker, your hormones will ensure you are a fat hoarder rather than a fat burner anyway regardless of your diet. Work on your stress and your sleep first and you will THEN find weight management much easier.
10) AVOID EXERCISE IN THE EVENING – this will kick start your adrenaline pathways at exactly the wrong time. You may want to exercise and perhaps only have the chance to do so in the evening but I refer you to point 9). All you are doing is continuing the viscious and frustrating cycle. JUST STOP – it’s only temporary. Start thinking long term change, not what suits you today or momentarily or how many calories you need to burn off from lunchtime.
Happy sleeping ;o)