The body contains two adrenal glands, one sits on top of each kidney. These two small glands are responsible for producing a multitude of hormones. For the purposes of this discussion, we will be concentrating on the hormone called cortisol that is produced in the outer part of the adrenal gland known as the adrenal cortex. Cortisol helps to regulate metabolism and supports the body in times of stress.
So how does cortisol factor into sleep?
The body has a sleep regulating cycle called the circadian rhythm. During this cycle the hormone cortisol circulates on a 24-hour cycle, which is highest in the morning (around 8am), and then wanes during the day (lowest point between midnight and 4am). The rise in cortisol acts as a stimulant that readies the body to wake for the day, while the low levels of cortisol along with a rise in melatonin readies the body for sleep.
Both high and low levels of cortisol can interrupt sleep at night. The key is balance. Since the adrenal gland is responsible for the production of cortisol, it is important that this gland is in good working order. You may have heard the expression adrenal fatigue.
Stress causes the adrenals to secrete cortisol to increase awareness and ready the body to combat the stressor. The body cannot distinguish between being chased by a lion, or being late for work; the body will view each as stress and cortisol will be released.
When stress is frequent, the adrenals work overtime to produce cortisol. When the adrenals become fatigued, they no longer produce the hormone at an adequate level, which causes a disruption in the sleep cycle.
Cortisol also plays an important role in blood glucose regulation. During adrenal fatigue, if cortisol levels drop too low, glucose will not be adequately maintained and will cause a drop in blood sugar that can signal our bodies to wake up and refuel; another disruption on sleep.
Another cause of low nighttime blood sugar can be due to inadequate glycogen reserves in the liver. Glycogen is a form of glucose storage in the liver that can be used for energy when needed. Cortisol works to break down glycogen into glucose, which is the usable form of energy for the cells. If low cortisol and low glycogen happen at the same time, this may cause a drop in blood sugar resulting in sleep disruption.
“Waking between 1 AM and 3 AM may indicate low blood sugar resulting from inadequate glycogen reserves in the liver, low adrenal function and cortisol, or both. This is often the culprit when panic or anxiety attacks, nightmares, or fitful, restless sleep occur between 1 and 4 AM.” (1)
We at Simple Health have developed a comprehensive sleep program that gives practical advise on how nutrition can help us attain the restorative rest we need. The program goes into detail about supplementation and herbal remedies that can help adrenal function and support sleep.
If you suspect that low blood sugar may be interfering with sleep, it is important to support healthy adrenal function. This can be done with a combination of diet and lifestyle change that may include supplements, teas, and/or herbal remedies.
It is important to note that if you are diagnosed with type II diabetes or have an elevated hemoglobin A1c, the above-mentioned symptoms could indicate a serious progression of illness. Always consult a qualified health care professional before taking steps to self-treat.
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