In continuing my series on hormones, we are going to tackle the hormone Cortisol in this article. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released by the adrenal glands. The pituitary is the master gland in the brain that controls the activity of most other hormone-secreting glands and tells the adrenal glands to release cortisol when the body goes into stress. It is your built-in alarm system.
Insulin is a hormone at the heart of some of our most common chronic health conditions, and a huge contributor to the rise in obesity.
It is a hormone that is connected to what and how we eat, sleep and move. Insulin works to control our blood sugar levels by providing fuel for all cells in the body so they can do their work. However, the role it plays in fat storage is one that maybe unfamiliar.
In this sleep series we have discussed habits, your sleeping environment and now in part 3, we will take a deep look at the physiology of sleep and medical conditions that are related to sleep patterns.
A friend once told me that in their opinion, sleep was a waste of time and there would be plenty of time for that when they were dead. This friend suffers from serious FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and this perspective is literally putting that friend at health risk. After reading this article you will understand why your life might depend on the sleep you get.
In our last article we discussed how our habits affect sleep, but we often give little thought to our sleeping environment. Basically, if there is a bed, we plop down onto it when bedtime rolls around, maybe turn on a TV and wait for sleep to come. For some, it may be a long wait.
I consider sleep, much like eating, a sacred act because it is literally life-giving! Perhaps it’s time to bring a new awareness and new intention to the space in which we sleep. Let’s explore the often-overlooked issue of your sleeping environment.
Let’s just start off this 3-part sleep series with a simple truth. Sleep is complicated!
Sleep is something that is often overlooked as a foundational part or our health and wellness. Anyone who misses a good night’s sleep can attest to that! I decided to write a series of articles on this topic for my readers because good quality sleep is not a nice-to-have experience, but literally one that can profoundly affect your health and even your life, no exaggeration, you’ll learn why in this series.
Sleep has emerged as one of the most fascinating and important factors affecting our health and wellness. There is some old-school common-sense pieces we all know, like if you don’t get enough sleep, you are going to wake up tired and feel tired for the whole day. It turns out that “feeling tired” is just the tip of the ice-berg, lack of sleep can actually wreak havoc on your system in a number of ways.
Here are 3 key areas of concern emerging from the latest scientific research:
1. Losing sleep makes us eat more and gain weight.
One of the reasons that happens is due to an increase in our hunger hormone called “Ghrelin”. Not only do we get hungrier, apparently we tend to be hungry for the types of foods that contribute to easy weight gain, things like potato chips and sweets. Our brains seem to struggle with our impulse control, making it hard to say “no!”.
Brain researchers found that the loss of sleep affected a part of the brain that runs our motivation to eat, it’s that part of the brain where we make rational decisions and are able to understand the consequences. This area showed diminished activity.
Don’t let this tidbit keep you awake, but losing just a few hours of sleep a few nights in a row can result in an increase of two pounds!!
2. It messes with your hormones.
Not just the hunger hormone, ghrelin. Another is cortisol, a stress hormone whose levels are supposed to be highest in the morning to help wake us up, and the lowest at night during sleep.
But cortisol can spike up when we are pretending to be night-owls and not getting to sleep until about midnight. We have all experienced that feeling of “a second wind”. It is very familiar to college students pulling “all-nighters”, to new mom’s with wakeful infants, and to men and women who wait for the “quiet time” when everyone is asleep to “catch-up” on whatever they feel they are behind on. You know who you are!
So what’s the big deal? Turns out cortisol is not just a stress hormone, it is also a fat-storage hormone. So you can eat a perfectly healthy, energy appropriate amount of food during the day – but stay up late surfing the internet, watching TV, or engaging in the other examples given of staying up late, and you become an efficient, mean, fat-storage machine.
3. It contributes to the development of chronic health conditions.
These include: Hypertension, Insulin Resistance, Type 2 Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome to name a few. The increased fat is part of that problem, but there is a second culprit, systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation is thought to be the root cause of many life-style and nutrition-related chronic diseases today.
There is much more to be explored on this topic but what steps can you take now to improve your sleep?
I recently had a difficult first-hand reminder of how profoundly sleep deprivation affects us. There is a possum involved in this story and how I wish it had been playing possum, but read on to find out why.
Sleep is one of those non-negotiable elements of good health and for good reason. Without a good night’s sleep our bodies cannot take care of the business of repairing and growing tissue, releasing certain hormones, and restoring our energy. In a way it is similar to eating, for without it we literally cannot function or thrive. Lack of sleep results in waking up tired and groggy. We tend to go into caffeine mode to “power up” for the day, only to find ourselves crashing later and feeling even more tired. It impairs our ability to remember, to think clearly and we struggle with “brain fog” throughout the day. Reflexes are slowed and emotions may get a little testy. Chronic loss of sleep is also a key factor in the development and worsening of all types of chronic diseases and conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, cancer, depression and more.
Trust me. I work very intentionally to ensure a good night’s sleep for myself. There are no electronic devices at bedtime for me. No television, tablets or cell phones with their blue-light brain-waking effect that interfere with deep sleep. I have created a sleep oasis to lull me into relaxation. To wind-down I do this “old-school” thing called reading a book – the kind with actual paper pages. This acts almost like taking a tranquilizer for me and often the last sound I hear is the thud of the book falling onto the floor.
So I was not happy to be woken from a deep delicious dream by the sound that seemed to be coming from one of the outside walls of my bedroom.
I'm Carmina McGee, MS, RDN, and my mission is to support women to live their happiest, healthiest lives and THRIVE!