Busy counting sheep instead of going to sleep? Then we don’t have to tell you: it’s downright miserable to be awake when everyone else is blissfully conked out.
Insomnia can be caused by a number of things, but hormones are key players in your ability to sleep well—whether you’re in menopause, perimenopause (the years leading up to menopause), or even in your twenties or thirties. If you can’t quite pin down what’s keeping you up, read on for answers that’ll help you get some much-needed rest.
Estrogen does more than regulate our monthly cycles. It helps us maintain a healthy weight and adequate bone density and also keeps us mentally sharp. But, if estrogen levels aren’t optimal, side effects like insomnia can crop up.
In menopause and perimenopause, estrogen swings wildly and can bring on hot flashes, waking you up in the middle of the night and making it difficult to get back to sleep. If you’re between the ages of 35 and 50 and experiencing symptoms of erratic estrogen (anxiety, mood swings, weight gain, insomnia, and more), talk with your doctor about a blood test. Estrogen replacement might ease your insomnia and other symptoms if your levels are below normal.
High estrogen levels can make it harder to get a good’s night rest, too. Estrogen is an excitatory hormone because it stimulates the nervous system. Without adequate progesterone to balance its effects, it’s hard to feel calm enough for sleep. Though high estrogen isn’t common in menopause and perimenopause, many women in their thirties have issues with estrogen dominance, or estrogen that’s not in balance with progesterone.
Progesterone comes with a lot of positives, and sleep is no exception. However, like estrogen, progesterone levels decline in menopause, perimenopause, and, sometimes, even much earlier (in a woman’s thirties).
Progesterone, a steroid sex hormone, aids sleep because it boosts the amount of GABA in your brain. Short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, GABA is an amino acid that acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. In other words, it slows down communications throughout your nervous system (but in a good way!).
GABA has a hand in many important processes—think metabolism, mood, muscle tone, and more—but it also supports an overall calming effect. Many of us struggle with shutting down thoughts at the end of the day. GABA helps. It encourages you to turn off your to-do list, relax, and let go of anxiety, so you can fall asleep.
Your body makes GABA and other neurotransmitters naturally. Research is still emerging on how effectively we use it from outside sources; however, you can find GABA as a supplement and in foods. Almonds, fish, citrus, beans, and potatoes may help boost your levels.
Two things to keep in mind: GABA itself isn’t considered a treatment for insomnia, and neither is progesterone replacement (if not otherwise indicated). However, because they can raise GABA levels and promote quality sleep, they can be a part of a well-rounded approach to dealing with insomnia.
Though it’s best known as a stress hormone, cortisol also helps regulate circadian rhythm. Levels should be at their lowest around midnight, so we can catch some ZZZs. Around 3 a.m., cortisol starts to rise. By 7 to 9 a.m., it’s at its peak and serves as a natural alarm clock. From there, it decreases throughout the day and allows us to feel tired and ready for sleep at bedtime.
The problem with high cortisol
Chronic stress causes high levels of cortisol, which makes it hard to settle down and sleep. Then, a catch-22 occurs: to deal with the stress of insomnia, the body raises cortisol again and keeps it elevated for the next 24 hours. The cycle repeats.
Reducing cortisol and associated insomnia starts with a nighttime routine, or good sleep hygiene, so your body knows it’s time for bed. If you have trouble letting thoughts go, plan to journal in the evening—and leave your thoughts in the computer or notebook. Also, try deep breathing exercises, stretches, or gentle yoga. Wrap up your routine with a warm bath, which raises body temperature and promotes relaxation and sleepiness.
The issue with low cortisol
If high cortisol equals insomnia, low levels should mean quality shut-eye, right? But that’s not always true. In healthy amounts, cortisol helps maintain even and stable blood sugar. When we don’t have enough, our blood sugar drops.
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is no friend to sleep. To protect itself, the body wakes you when it senses your blood sugar is bottoming out. But this is preventable. Have a light snack before bed. Go for whole foods with both protein and fat, like a boiled egg or peanut butter.
Melatonin, made by the pineal gland, facilitates drowsiness and helps you fall asleep. But having enough of this all-important hormone is linked to your habits. Here’s why: darkness cues melatonin production. Even the glow from devices or the TV can interfere with your ability to make it. But don’t stress and raise your cortisol. You can help your body make it and still catch your favorite nighttime show. Just sit at least five feet away from the screen and be sure to flip the light switches off about two hours before bed.
Studies are still being done on whether melatonin is an effective treatment for insomnia. Supplements are readily available anywhere vitamins are sold and generally regarded as safe in doses of 5mg or fewer. You’ll want to bring it up with your healthcare provider first, though. He or she can help you decide if it’s right for you and what amount to start with. Pregnant, nursing, or on high blood pressure meds? You’ll definitely need to pass.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and a hormone, and it’s produced in the digestive tract and in small amounts in the brain. Along with promoting even mood and feelings, it has a role in bone health and even helps cuts clot and scab over. Serotonin packs a lot of benefits for sleep, too: it’s a precursor to melatonin, makes it easier to nod off, and facilitates REM sleep, which is important to mental and emotional regulation.
Getting regular aerobic exercise (cardio) can boost serotonin levels, and so can bright light exposure. Knock both off your list by going for a walk or jog during your lunch break.
Diet also plays a part in serotonin levels. An amino acid called L-tryptophan is needed to make serotonin. Because our bodies can’t produce L-tryptophan, it’s important to eat a variety of food. Some great sources of L-tryptophan include nuts, salmon, eggs, chicken, and soy. Another tip? Make sure you’re eating carbs, so the L-tryptophan from food can make it from your belly to your brain and become serotonin.