10 top tips for better sleep + happier hormones in your 40s
How’s your sleep these days? Do you get a good night’s uninterrupted sleep and fall asleep pretty easily when you hit the pillow? Do you wake up feeling refreshed?
If you answered no to any of those questions then this post is for you. Sleep plays a FUNDAMENTAL role in our overall health and wellbeing, and your hormone balance can really suffer when your sleep is off.
Annoyingly, it can be a bit of a vicious cycle where sleep issues can exacerbate hormone symptoms, such as PMS and hot flashes, and hormone symptoms/imbalance can cause sleep issues - sigh.
In this blog I’m going to explain what your circadian rhythm is and why it’s such an important rhythm to support as much as you can, for good sleep and happier hormones, and a better experience of perimenopause (if you're in your 40s I’m talking to you!)
So, what exactly is the ‘circadian rhythm’?
Also known as your internal body clock, the circadian rhythm is a natural, internal biological process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. It regulates endocrine (hormone) and metabolism rhythms within the body, which means it has a significant impact on your hormone and metabolism health.
The hormone cortisol, mostly known as the ‘stress hormone’, is an important hormone in the timing regulation of the circadian rhythm.
And so keeping cortisol in balance is a key way to keep your circadian rhythm/internal body clock regulated. In practical terms, this means that chronic stress, such as the day to day pressures of the modern world and a pandemic, can disrupt your circadian rhythm, and cause sleep issues. This is because cortisol is a hormone released in response to any sort of stressor, and because cortisol plays such a key role in the circadian rhythm, if it's out of whack due to stress, it will impact your circadian rhythm. And once our sleep falls out of whack we start to struggle to get going in the mornings, experience energy dips throughout the day, mood issues, cravings for sugar and carbs, and worsened PMS.
Understanding the natural cortisol rhythm
The timing of your cortisol release is KEY when it comes to keeping your circadian rhythm healthy and promoting good sleep. Within the circadian rhythm, if cortisol doesn't rise when it should and drop when it should, you’ll feel and see the effects (as per what I’ve mentioned above).
Cortisol should follow a coordinated, timed release (controlled by a tiny part of your brain in the hypothalamus and released by your adrenal glands) across every 24 hours. It should peak to its highest early in the morning (within 30-60 minutes of waking), taper off throughout the day, and be at its lowest at bedtime (when your sleep hormone melatonin should be near to its highest) to facilitate a good night's sleep.
Apart from stress, what else causes your circadian rhythm to go out of whack?
Misaligned daylight and darkness cues disrupt your body clock, resulting in cortisol being low in the morning and high at night - the opposite of what it should be - and a recipe for trouble falling asleep at night and/or staying asleep, and waking up in the morning feeling unrefreshed.
Do you need a coffee to get going in the mornings? Do you feel ‘tired but wired’ at night and struggle to fall asleep? Constantly hungry and reaching for something sugary mid-morning or afternoon to keep you going?
Maybe you have achy muscles or joints after a bad night's sleep, or see a flare up of autoimmune symptoms? This is due to the increased inflammation caused by low morning cortisol production.
So, what can you do? It’s all about your CAR!!
What on earth does this mean? Your CAR is your cortisol-awakening response, which is a lovely spike in cortisol within 30-60 minutes of waking up. A good CAR not only helps us feel alert and awake in the morning, but it’s also important for regulating our immune system and keeping inflammation at bay.
Supporting a robust CAR is a sure fire way to a better sleep, more energy, better mood, happier hormones, and better metabolism and weight management (and SO much more!)
Here are my top 10 tips for improving your CAR (cortisol-awakening response) and balance of cortisol for the rest of the day, everyday:
1) Honour light and dark.
Expose your eyes to full spectrum light, as soon as you open your eyes in the morning, and encourage darkness during the evening and closer to bedtime.
As close to when you wake as possible, get day/sunlight exposure, which can come from the sky or a full-spectrum light box, for AT LEAST 10 minutes. Getting outside is ideal but simply getting to a window is better than nothing – whether it’s cloudy or not, you’re simply looking to expose your eyes to daylight as soon as possible after waking.
Then once the evening hits you want to minimize ‘blue light’ as much as you can. Blue wavelength light comes from all artificial lighting in the home, TV screens, and computer, tablet and phone screens, and exposure to blue light at night time disrupts your cortisol rhythm by encouraging it to be high when it should be low. So dim the brightness on your screens and dim the lighting all around your home from early evening onwards, and you can also try wearing blue light-blocking glasses.
2) Encourage blood flow to your brain in the morning.
Your brain is the chief regulator of your cortisol output and any type of exercise or movement will spur blood flow to your brain and in turn encourage cortisol production at a time when it's supposed to be high. So, you can do your daily workout first thing in the morning or just start each day with some sort of movement whether that’s going for a walk, doing some body weight squats, some downward dogs and yoga sun salutations, a few pushups, some Tai Chi or Qi Gong, or a quick 10 minute workout.
3) Take a few deep breaths and a moment for gratitude.
Most of us rush out of bed in the morning and into the shower and head straight to work or the computer without taking the time to just be present and acknowledge a new day, even just for a few minutes, and the rest of the day tends to remain busy. This isn’t helpful for your nervous system and circadian rhythm! Try breathing in through your nose and belly for a count of 4 seconds and out through your nose or mouth for a count of 8, repeated 3-4 times. You can also do this any time you feel stressed or agitated during the day!
Getting outside for a walk as soon as you wake up is a triple whammy of benefits; daylight exposure, blood circulation, and you can think about all the things you are grateful whilst out on your walk, and if you can do that walk through some nature or green space then EVEN better!
DURING THE DAY:
4) Avoid caffeine after midday (stick to 1-2 cups MAX during the morning)
5) Eat to keep your blood sugar balanced.
Healthy blood sugar regulation is key for helping to keep cortisol in its natural rhythm, because cortisol ALSO plays a role in regulating your blood sugar levels, alongside insulin. And if you're eating in a way that causes blood sugar spikes then you're giving cortisol more work to do outside of regulating your circadian rhythm. Protein in the KEY nutrient for keeping blood sugar levels stable, so, eat a breakfast that’s protein-rich, providing 25-35g of protein, plus some good fats and fibre. Then aim to get 25-35g of protein again with lunch and dinner. Load half your plate with fibrous vegetables and ensure you get a portion of good fats, and a fist size portion of slow-releasing starchy carbohydrate. Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates as these quickly disrupt your blood sugar.
DURING THE EVENING:
6) Avoid stimulating TV and film, news, and any stressful, heated or stimulating conversation – basically avoid anything that can get you wound up after 6pm! And have a good hour completely away from all screens before going to bed.
7) Keep bedtime as consistent as possible 7 days a week and gradually bring bedtime forward if needed, e.g. in 15 minute increments over time, until you are consistently getting to bed at a better time.
8) Try soaking in a warm bath with Epsom salts, or a warm shower, an hour or 2 before bed as this can improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. It works by temporarily raising body temperature then allowing it to drop again, which can make you feel sleepy. A bath in the afternoon can also help to normalise circadian rhythm and improve mood!
9) Keep your bedroom cool and dark and free of screens and wear an eye mask if light pollution is a problem for you e.g. street lamps outside.
10) Try a body scan lying-down meditation.
Also known as Yoga Nidra meditation. This can help you to tune into your body and out of your mind, helping you to relax and let go. I use the Insight Timer (free) app and this is one one of my favourites Yoga Nidra meditations.
Do you currently sleep well? Do you know you could prioritise your sleep a little more? Either way I hope these tips have inspired you to take action to start improving your sleep from today! Your health and hormones will REALLY thank you for it.
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