Health: The Insomnia/Cortisol Connection

by Stephen Kelly

For most people getting eight hours of sleep a night is no problem, and they’re out like a light as soon as their heads hit the pillow. But for 35 percent of the world’s population, nighttime can become a nightmare as sleep eludes them, and they spend a good portion of the night lying awake. This is the world of the insomniac.

Insomnia is the condition where one has trouble falling or staying asleep. Restful sleep, of course, is one of the most vital components of good health, important for maintaining heart health, reducing stress, improving memory, strengthening the immune system, and controlling body weight.

For the insomniac, however, sleep is often no more than a series of non-restorative naps, punctuated by long periods of wakefulness. The chronic insomniac lives in a world of constant fatigue, muscle soreness, compromised focus, slower reaction time, memory loss and irritability, symptoms not unlike those of depression. Worse, recent studies show that those who get less than six hours of sleep a night are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, hypertension and elevated resting heart rate,

Insomnia also places a burden on society and employers, and conservative estimates put the annual cost of insomnia at $92 to $107 billion. Insomnia has been blamed for increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, depression, alcohol consumption and increased incidences of traffic accidents. Indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, fatigued drivers cause 200,000 car accidents a year, killing more people than drunk drivers.

The Cortisol Factor

While there is no single cause for insomnia, recent studies suggest stress and the body’s inability to control the adrenal hormone cortisol may be a major contributor. Cortisol is a trigger of the stress response, and is accountable for the ‘fight or flight’ feeling we have during stressful situations. Cortisol plays many positive roles in the body, but it also arouses us and wakes us up, and blood levels of cortisol rise between 50 to 160 percent within the first thirty minutes of waking.

For the insomniac, however, blood levels of cortisol remain stuck on high and build up in the body instead of being regulated by restful sleep. So the insomniac’s brain is in a constant state of arousal, the result being fragmented, restless sleep, trouble falling asleep and more frequent awakenings during the course of the night.

Ways To Lower Cortisol Levels

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire cure for insomnia. Sleep medications can be addictive, and herbal remedies can be hit or miss. But for the chronic insomniac there are natural ways to regulate cortisol levels that don’t involve medication.

Eat Sleep-friendly Foods: The effects of cortisol can be countered by eating foods that contain sleep-inducing tryptophan, melatonin and seratonin. These include poultry, whole grains, soy products, dairy, lentils, sunflower seeds and hummus. When it comes to eating, remember the old adage, “Don’t dine after nine.” If you must snack in the evening, eat complex carbohydrates and protein; peanut butter on crackers and milk is perfect.

Take B Vitamins: A deficiency of Vitamin B could result in insomnia, so get your B from oral supplements, or food sources like salmon, bran, oats, avocado and bananas. A daily vitamin that includes magnesium, calcium, zinc and chromium is also suggested, as these antioxidants are known to help the body offset stress.

Limit sugar intake: Cut back on or eliminate refined sugars like sucrose (table sugar), dextrose (corn sugar), and high-fructose corn syrup, and refined carbohydrates such as white bead or rice. Refined sugars do a number on your body, and contribute to a compromised immune system, anxiety, hyperactivity and depression. Get your sweeteners from natural sources like honey.

Fat In The Diet: Those dieting often make the mistake of eliminating all fat from their diet. But a deficiency of fatty Omega-3 acids can lead to insomnia. Omega-3 can be found in fatty fish like salmon, or in beans, seeds, nuts, strawberries, broccoli and collard greens. An added bonus is that Omega-3 fatty acids also lower “bad” cholesterol and high blood pressure levels.

Body Relaxing Activities: Mind/body activities such as exercise, yoga, meditation and hobbies are stress-relievers that both increase the amount of seratonin and dopamine your brain releases while reducing elevated cortisol levels. An hour a day is recommended.

There may be no magic bullet to cure insomnia, but following these tips and living a healthy lifestyle can at least alleviate some of the symptoms of this insidious condition.

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