In this day and age, it seems like everyone is running around yelling about how “stressed” they are and that “stress is a part of life, get over it.” In fact, we have even gone so far as to even glorify stress and mock those who don’t feel stressed calling them the lazy ones.” But what if we have this all ass backwards? What if, stay with me here, stress is really the thing making us fatter, sicker and more depressed and medicated than ever before in human history??
I’ve decided to write a four-part series on stress simply because there are approximately four areas of context that influence our stress response, or in technical terms, our Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis). We usually consider stress in terms of “perceived stress” or mental and emotional upset. However, what most people don’t realize is that there are three other highly important variables that also influence these pathways and can cause just as much metabolic damage as worrying about having your in-laws over at Christmas time does.
The four areas of stress that lead to disruption of normal HPA Axis function include:
1. Perceived Stress – mental or emotional distress.
2. Circadian Rhythm Disruption – Sleep deprivation, both chronic and acute
3. Blood Sugar Regulation – Insulin sensitivity and your ability to hold your blood sugar stable with/without food
4. Physical Stress – Internal inflammation, including chronic, low-grade
Now, at this point, these may or may not mean anything to you, and that is A – Ok. We’ll get there. At the end of the next four blogs, you will have a fantastic grasp on what causes stress to your body and what you can do about it. But considering the beautiful spring weather and changes in daylight, I think sleep patterns, or Circadian Rhythm Disruption is a great place to jump in. However, before we can successfully talk about Circadian Rhythms, it might be helpful to know what they are.
A circadian rhythm is the internal clock of any living being, including plants, animals and microbes. It runs on a 24 hr. rotation and influences the timing of behaviors such as sleep patterns and hormone release. It is mostly influenced by the body’s perception of light and dark. In other words, your body is on a schedule that keeps it functioning optimally and the purpose of this blog post is to discuss the things that act as roadblocks to this ideal situation. One of the most important roles of your circadian rhythm is to modulate the stimulation and release of the anti-inflammatory hormone Cortisol in your body. Cortisol is often looked at as the “stress hormone,” but it is responsible for many other processes that keep your body in balance. Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system and, during stress, helps to keep blood sugar levels steady by metabolizing carbs, fats and proteins, suppresses the immune system and acts as an anti-inflammatory compound in your body. In acutely stressful situations, (I’ll be cliché and use a the ol’ run-in with a tiger), cortisol is actually very helpful in maintaining bodily processes while you use up extra energy. However, long term and frequent activation of cortisol (like in long term stress) eventually begins to altar normal circadian rhythms and wear down the body leading to chronic illnesses and a reduced ability to handle stress.
In a happy, healthy circadian rhythm, Cortisol will be at it’s peak around 8-9 AM and will taper off throughout the day until it reaches its lowest point at 12 AM. From there, it will hang out at this low point for a couple hours and then begin its steady rise at about 2-3 AM and rise steadily back to it’s peak. Ideally, you should feel most awake during your cortisol peak, and as darkness begins to set in at night, you should begin to feel tired as it drops. Unfortunately, there are lots of ways we can disrupt this normal function and do so on a daily basis. A few of the most common include:
1. Artificial light disruption – Circadian rhythms depend on light and dark. When are stimulating our brains with artificial lights into the dark hours of night, we don’t allow for the switch to take place between producing cortisol and melatonin (our sleep hormone).
2. Perceived emotional or mental stress – Although lack of sleep is a stress on our body, perceived emotional stress actually causes cortisol to rise again disrupting the balance between it and melatonin. It’s sort of a full circle, wherein stress raises cortisol, which then disrupts sleep and raises stress which then …. raises cortisol. Stress management may be more effective for the healing of chronic illnesses than any other treatment.
3. Caffeine consumption – Caffeine is an interesting topic because it does affect people differently and, therefore, may have a varying effect on levels of cortisol. However, regardless of whether you’re a slow or fast metabolizer of caffeine, having caffeine later in the day (past noon generally speaking) is going to negatively influence those sleep pathways because caffeine raises both adrenaline and cortisol in the body.
4. Electronic Light – Blue light from electronics has been shown to impact cortisol levels by interfering with the release of sleep-inducing melatonin. Similar to artificial lights (lightbulbs, etc..), electronic light confuses your natural circadian rhythms, since they do in fact, rely on light and dark.
5. Calorie deficiency – Cortisol is partially responsible for maintaining a stable blood glucose level during times of fasting. Normally, the liver will kick into gear when you are sleeping and metabolize stored glycogen to feed your body while you sleep. However, if you are consistently taking in less calories than you need to support your metabolic processes, your liver wont be able to do that job by itself, and will then call upon cortisol to help. Cortisol responds to low blood sugar with a process called gluconeogenesis where it transforms fats and proteins into usable glucose. However, if your blood sugar drops at night and cortisol kicks in, this can also wake you up since cortisol also keeps us alert. You will usually see this occur around 2-3 AM wakeups.
6. Late bedtimes – As discussed previously, a normal cortisol rhythm will gradually begin to taper off as the day wears on. It usually reaches its lowest point around midnight and then gives you a couple hours of “cortisol free” time before beginning to peak again. Assuming you are able to go to sleep around 9:30-10 PM this will give you several solid hours of sleep where cortisol is both dropping and quiescent – thumbs up. However, heading to bed just a couple hours later around midnight or 1 AM leaves you with roughly 1-2 hours of sleep that is uninterrupted by the rise of cortisol. The old wisdom of heading to bed before midnight really does have its roots in biological science.
7. Alcohol – Most people think of alcohol as something that helps them to sleep because of its sedating effects. However, alcohol is also considered toxin to your body and, as this is physically stressful, stimulates the release of cortisol in order to mitigate the effects and keep blood sugar steady. Ever wonder why you wake up in the middle of the night wide awake? This is usually due to a spike in cortisol as we try to maintain homeostasis.
8. Not enough exposure to natural light – Again, we come back around to light and light exposure times. Just as artificial light blocks melatonin, so does natural light during the day, as it’s supposed to. If we are stuck indoors all day with no way of regulating our natural rhythms, our diurnal patterns can easily be thrown off.
9. Late night exercise – Cortisol gets a lot of shit, but overall it is both a positive and necessary hormone when released in appropriate amounts. One instance where cortisol is highly helpful is when exercise induces internal inflammation as muscles are microscopically torn in order to rebuild. Cortisol, being the anti-inflammatory that it is, will raise in order to repair the “injury” caused by exercise. However, if cortisol management is already a problem, raises nighttime levels can lead to interrupted sleep cycles.
10. Hormonal Imbalance – Overall, your circadian rhythms are influenced by your hormone regulation. Hormonal balance is an entirely different beast, but maintaining healthy hormones will be key in regulating sleep and getting good sleep will be key in regulating hormones.
So, at this point, we’ve discussed what kinds of things disrupt normal sleeping patterns but why is this important to you? Well, one of the reasons that tends to perk people up is that lack of sleep and interrupted sleep activate the HPA-Axis and stimulate the hormones responsible for awakening the appetite by up to 28%. Ever feel hungrier on days you’re tired? This is partly because your circadian rhythms have been thrown off and your appetite suppressing hormones are lowered on these days. Hyper-activation of the HPA-Axis has also directly affects your hormones, mood, immune system, sleep quality, ability to lose weight and build muscle, energy levels, digestive function and much, much more. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to begin clearing up any chronic illnesses from asthma to thyroiditis without properly treating the HPA-Axis. That being said, what can you do to begin working this particular arm of HPA health?
1. Minimize exposure to both artificial light and electronic blue light at night. This could mean that you switch out light bulbs for pink lights. Avoid screen time for at least an hour prior to bed by turning off tv’s, computers and phones. If you do need to be in front of a screen, try using some blue-light blocking amber glasses. Turn lights down to a minimum in the house at night.
2. Work on your perceived emotional stressors. Mindfulness practices have been helping people for thousands of years to deal with the many variables life throws at us. Being present in the moment allows us to see what IS and takes us out of worrying what will be. Since all emotional and mental stress is relative, working on perception and reframing can be a powerful tool. I highly recommend the book/audiobook The Myth of Stress by Andrew Bernstein for help with this concept.
3. Limit your caffeine consumption to 1-2 cups a day earlier in the morning. If you feel that you NEED caffeine to survive, this is probably an invitation from your body to look a little deeper into your fatigue. Quite honestly, caffeine should be a bonus on top of natural energy levels, not a replacement for getting out of bed.
4. Eat! Too often we get stuck in patterns of restriction and yo-yo dieting which can wreak havoc on our hormonal balance. The body relies on your consistent and mindful approach to fueling it properly. Every cell in your body relies on the nutrients you supply it with via your food choices and volume. Without food, your body can’t do what it needs to do. Simple as that. Restrictive dieting can only work for so long before you’re no longer able to run on fumes.
5. Go to bed before 10 PM. In order to benefit the most from those low-cortisol times, hitting the hay earlier is your best bet. Remember, cortisol is lowest around midnight and then begins to climb soon after. If you have a hard time falling asleep, try beginning a consistent bedtime routine about an hour before bed that will trigger familiarity in your brain. Turning down lights, getting ready for bed, reading a book, drinking some tea, and gentle stretching are all helpful.
6. Limit alcohol consumption to a couple times a week and forgo your regular nightcaps for some tea or sparkling water. If you do imbibe, try doing it with dinner instead so that it has a chance to wear off before bedtime.
7. Switch up exercise to earlier in the day if possible or make sure that you give yourself adequate cool down time if later at night. Some stretching, yoga or even deep breathing after intense exercise can help to mitigate the stress response in your body to minimal amounts. If you are struggling with symptoms of insomnia, you may want to take a break from intense or heavy exercise for a while until you are able to recalibrate.
8. Go camping! One of the best ways to get your body back on track with natural light and dark rhythms is to forgo artificial light for a few days. Plus, you get the added stress reducing benefit of being outside in nature. Winning all around.
9. Maintain hormonal balance by eating a nutrient-dense, real foods diet full of healthy fats, organic proteins and fresh vegetables and fruits.
10. RELAX. If you have a hard time sleeping, often it’s easy to get into patterns of stress about falling asleep and staying asleep. Try reminding yourself that eventually you will fall asleep and, for now, you’re going to take the time to rest in bed. Horizontal rest is extremely powerful for down-regulating the stress response in the body and will still be beneficial even if you’re not fully in a state of sleep. Be patient, you will get there in time. Until then, treating yourself with kindness and understanding will go further than any other suggestion in this post.
So, hopefully at this point you have a decent grasp on the importance of sleep in a healthy HPA-axis. Remember, sleep is just ONE of the contexts we look through to begin healing, but nonetheless an important one. Next week, we will take a look into the physical side of stress. Until then, wishing you sweet dreams!