The human body is designed to sleep based on circadian rhythms regulated by the sunrise and, in part, the sunset. However, these days our sleeping schedule is based on our lifestyles, leading to a culture of insomniacs trying to supplement their way to a decent night’s sleep.
Our circadian rhythm is based on two cycling hormones: cortisol and melatonin. Melatonin has one main job: to regulate circadian rhythm. It does have some additional antioxidant properties, specifically in the central nervous system, but mostly it is a sleep hormone. Cortisol, on the other hand, works all over the body in various ways. It works as our response to stress, it manages our blood sugar and our environmental awareness, and it dictates our waking response. Both cortisol and melatonin are essential for optimal sleep duration and quality.
Cortisol is meant to be lowest around midnight and highest when waking, between 7–9 am. Our environment largely influences our cortisol cycles because it is our stress hormone. When you are exposed to bright light or loud noises or stimulate your central nervous system with exercise or food, your cortisol level will rise. This evolutionary feature was designed as a protective strategy to avoid any potential dangers. Though our current environments posing far fewer potential threats, we sabotage our nervous system with chronic stressors that elevate our cortisol, like blue light, loud noises, late-night exercise, irregular eating habits, and chronic infection and inflammation—all of which will result in lousy sleeping habits.
Melatonin is the opposite. It is highest around sunset and lowest around sunrise. When we limit light exposure, our melatonin rises. Most people have sufficient melatonin, which is why supplementing additional melatonin rarely makes a significant impact. If it does, it comes with the consequence of hours of drowsiness the next day. Almost everyone has elevated cortisol levels due to stress and chronic inflammation, however, so instead of supplementing melatonin or another type of sleep aid, reducing cortisol is the best way to optimize sleep.
Lowering Cortisol Levels
Lowering cortisol can be done through supplements and lifestyle modifications. Supplements can provide safe, immediate sleeping improvements, but lifestyle modifications are the best way to repair and maintain circadian rhythms. Magnesium, L-theanine, GABA, glycine, chamomile, lavender, and magnolia can all help to lower cortisol, but I have found phosphatidylserine to be at the top of the list due to its ability to bind and reduce cortisol. The most effective supplementation is a combination that includes phosphatidylserine.
So, what’s the permanent fix? Essentially, don’t live an American lifestyle: avoid stimulants and major work stress in the afternoon. Exercise in the morning or midday instead of after work. Have your largest meal early in the day; don’t eat large meals or high-carb/sugary foods at night. Avoid blue light 1–2 hours before going to sleep to down-regulate your evening cortisol. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathing techniques, and hot Epsom baths can help reduce cortisol levels.
One of the best ways to regulate cortisol and circadian rhythms is to stimulate a rise in cortisol in the morning. You want to get sun exposure and increase your heart rate by going for a walk or exercising within the first 90 minutes of waking. This will help to reset your circadian rhythm.
Sleep is pretty easy when you understand it: Regulate your circadian rhythm and reduce cortisol for an optimal night’s sleep. If you find yourself doing everything right but not achieving regular sleeping habits, you should see a functional provider to help you identify an unknown cause, like chronic infections or environmental exposures, which can result in elevated cortisol.
Dr. Zach Moran of Roots Natural Medical Center is a board-certified and licensed naturopathic physician and has completed a medical residency program. He has an extensive research background and specializes in chronic infectious disease and environmental toxicity, which he believes to be at the core of most chronic diseases. Roots is a Naturopathic Medicinal Center that focuses on addressing foundational root causes of complex chronic diseases. The clinic aims to properly identify, diagnose, and treat patients with unexplained chronic illnesses. Our services are individualized and patient-focused, as medicine should be.