Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands and its job is to metabolise fat, protein and carbs and to help you manage your response to stress.
In quick, short bursts, cortisol does its job effectively. However, constant higher levels of cortisol, brought on by every day stresses such as deadlines, ‘busyness’, relationship issues, bad nutrition, lack of exercise and more are damaging to your body.
Some side effects of chronic high levels of cortisol are your cravings for sugary, high fat foods, weight gain especially in the abdominal area, trouble with falling or staying asleep and a massive increase in the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Not good news!
Your body produces different chemicals during the day and night that control your sleep, energy and mood. The natural rhythm of this cycle is known as the Circadian Rhythm, and cortisol is a key player.
Under normal circumstances, your body produces cortisol in amounts largely determined by the clock. Levels tend to be higher in morning—triggered by the emerging daylight–giving you a boost of energy to jumpstart your day.
As the day wears on, cortisol levels should drop, helping to prepare you for a good night’s sleep. Likewise, Melatonin (another hormone that affects your energy and sleep habits) levels should be lower in the morning but as the daylight fades, they should increase, helping you to begin relaxing and preparing for sleep.
However, if you are under constant stress or if your adrenal glands are not functioning properly, your cortisol level may not drop off during the day. Instead, Cortisol may actually rise and stay at a dangerously high level. By the time bedtime rolls around, you will not feel sleepy. You will feel “tired but wired,” and be unable to relax and fall asleep or if you do fall asleep, you may keep waking and not have good quality sleep.
How to Reset Your Circadian Clock
If you suspect that your natural, circadian rhythm is disrupted, don’t despair. There are several things you can do to reset your clock so you can start sleeping better at night and waking up more refreshed in the morning.
Try the following tips:
Reduce stress. Easier said than done, I know. But many times our stress levels are correlated to our response to stressful situations. Learning how to cope with stress more effectively may be all it takes to balance your cortisol.
Be consistent. Going to bed and getting at the same time each day will help to regulate your circadian rhythm. Practice this habit to slowly coax your body into a schedule.
Use light wisely. Since your circadian rhythm is partially controlled by light, darken your room well when you go to bed, and flood it with light when it is time to get up.
Avoid naps. If your circadian clock is off, you may find that you get very sleepy in the afternoon. However, taking a nap may make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. Try to resist naps at least until you have gotten yourself into a better sleep routine.
Eat most of your calories early. If you can eat the bulk of your daily calories earlier in the day as opposed to later in the day, you may find that you can recalibrate your circadian rhythms more easily. So eat more lightly at tea time, always still including protein and low energy carbs in your meal.
Exercise. Exercising daily helps to lower cortisol levels as long as you are recovering properly between training sessions. Getting enough sleep and fuelling your body properly will ensure that exercise helps to lower your levels of stress and not increase them. Too much exercise is detrimental to your cortisol levels and will increase the likelihood of you storing excess body fat!