Sleep, Hormone Regulation, and Health

I’m finally getting into a routine with sleep lately, and y’all it feels goooood. I’m typically pretty all over the place with the amount of sleep I need/quality of sleep I get, but one thing I’m focusing on lately is actionable steps that can help with both.

Before we dive in, I want to say (as someone who was fairly recently a student/intern): sleep is important for everybody. Even people who think they don’t have time for sleep. And even when your life truly limits the amount of time you can sleep (hi, mamas), there’s steps you can take to fall asleep faster, maximize that time, and sleep better. Isn’t that the best news?!

As per usual, let’s get into the physiology of sleep + how sleep deprivation affects us, then we’ll talk about those actionable steps.

sleep cycle

WHAT HAPPENS DURING SLEEP

If you’ve ever read about sleep before, you know that sleep happens in stages, in a cycle. You’re not getting deep sleep the whole time you’re out, but each kind of sleep/stage is important in different ways. In a nutshell, when you first fall asleep, you go through NREM1, 2, and 3, then REM. Sleep becomes deeper as you progress (NREM3 is deeper sleep than 1). REM sleep (rapid eye movement) is the stage at which dreams occur. As you’re asleep for longer, you spend more time in NREM3/REM, the deepest stages of sleep.

The whole cycle can take 90-120 minutes, with ~4-5 cycles in a night. This variation in cycle length is why some people feel better on less sleep than others – their sleep cycles are likely more “efficient” and take less time.

You’d think that our brains would “turn off” and enjoy the rest, but in reality it’s more like the brain is using the energy it would normally use to be conscious… and cleaning house/fine-tuning things. Here’s part of the brain’s to-do list while you’re snoozing:

  • Cementing new memories/cleaning out unused, unneeded ones
  • Your body relaxes and blood pressure/temperature drop
  • You make and release growth hormone
  • Hunger (leptin + ghrelin) hormones are regulated

That first line always makes me think of this scene from Inside Out:

INADEQUATE SLEEP + HORMONES

I almost think it’s easier to examine sleep from a perspective of what can happen when we don’t get enough, rather than what happens when we do. Primarily, there’s a lot of dysregulation of hormones that can cause a cascade of other symptoms.

IL-6

IL-6 (not a hormone, but something called a cytokine) is typically low during the day/high when we sleep. But without enough sleep, its daytime levels can increase + it stimulates our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This, in turn, leads to an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone). Bottom line: it’s physiologically stressful and inflammatory if we keep getting inadequate sleep.

Quick note on exercise: exercise is a positive stressor, meaning that it raises then lowers your cortisol in a way that’s overall helpful to your body. But if you don’t get enough sleep, your baseline cortisol is already high – and exercise becomes a negative stressor. Don’t work out if you don’t sleep well!

GROWTH HORMONE

Ready to hear something crazy? I already mentioned that growth hormone is produced/released during sleep… and one of the strangest (IMO) effects of interrupted or inadequate sleep is that children with sleep apnea have stunted growth. I’m not bringing this up to scare y’all, but rather to highlight that sleep is more powerful than our culture gives us credit for. In adults, growth hormone helps regulate metabolism – still important + worth prioritizing sleep!

HUNGER HORMONES

Sleep deprivation has been associated with low leptin (the fullness hormone) and high ghrelin (the hunger hormone), meaning that we’re more hungry if we don’t sleep a lot. I think about it as the body’s way of helping get enough energy (if we’re not getting it from sleep, we can compensate to a degree by eating more energy aka food). It may help explain why you need more food after days you don’t sleep well, and it can also explain why perpetual sleep deprivation can lead to us perpetually eating more than we’d want or need if we got enough sleep. Note: the takeaway is always still to tune into those hunger/fullness cues, but it’s important to be curious about things that may affect them.

WHEN YOU SLEEP BETTER, YOU DO BETTER

It wouldn’t be a Satisfy post without me saying “actionable steps”, so here’s some actionable steps to fall asleep faster and sleep better!

  • Invest in blackout curtains
  • Put cozy sheets on your bed
  • Charge your phone across the room (or outside of it) and use an old-fashioned alarm clock instead of your phone to wake you up
  • Create a quiet environment by picking up a white noise machine or putting in earplugs
  • Designate specific clothes/pajamas for sleeping
  • Only use your bed for sleep and sex
  • Turn off screens/blue lights at least 30 minutes before bed
  • Avoid caffeine after 2pm
  • Try a sleep-centered guided meditation (I like this app)
  • If you’re restless and don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and read/do another calming activity, then try again so your brain doesn’t associate bedtime with restlessness
  • Diffuse lavender (or roll it on in a roller ball) // note: did you know that essential oils can be toxic to cats? I just found this out + now I opt to roll on oils instead of diffusing them to protect Pascal!
  • Check out this podcast where a soothing voice reads you nonsense bedtime stories
  • Create a bedtime/wind-down routine to help signal your body and mind every night that it’s time to rest

How do you prioritize sleep in your life? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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ABUNDANTLY ENOUGH

This post is part of the Abundantly Enough blog series, where my girl Amy Shen and I chat about all things HAES, intuitive eating, and wellness. Join us in our Facebook group for more discussion + weekly videos!

Other Abundantly Enough posts:

sleep hormone regulation and health

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