Let’s begin with one of the most essential lessons when it comes to sleep: The sleep hormone melatonin. It affects your sleep quality to a great extent: It makes you feel tired and helps you to fall asleep quicker and deeper — which is essential for high quality sleep. One of its counterparts is cortisol which is a much more sophisticated and well-known hormone. Cortisol got its fame mostly for being released during periods of stress, but as with most famous things there’s much more to it. For you to get a better understanding of how both of these hormones work and interact, have a look at the following graph:
A first observation is that when cortisol is up, melatonin is usually down and the other way round. This is called anti-cyclical behaviour of hormones. Yes, hormones do influence each other, and some hormones suppress others as is the case with melatonin and cortisol.
A second observation is that cortisol peaks in the morning while melatonin peaks in the middle of the night. Melatonin starts kicking in before we go to bed and falls to its base level when we get up in the morning.
Knowing that melatonin makes us feel tired and increases both sleep quality and ease of falling asleep, we want to make sure that our melatonin level is high and our cortisol level is low in the evening before we go to bed. How? You might want to do the following:
This can’t be highlighted enough. We are constantly stressed — consciously or unconsciously — by social media, work and entertainment. Yes, entertainment can be stressful for our body. Stress, in turn, triggers our body to release cortisol, which lowers our blood level of melatonin. Hence, the last hour before we go to bed should be one in which we calm down. Take a warm shower if that relaxes you, turn your phone to flight mode, dim your lights and calm down. This will allow your body to produce melatonin. Consequently, not only will you fall asleep faster and sleep better, you will feel fit, alert and fantastic during the next day. You can also take GABA as a natural supplement to help reduce mental stress, if things are really severe. More details on supplements and their pros and cons from a scientific angle will be covered in one of our upcoming articles.
Testosterone and adrenaline are hormones that suppress melatonin. After a heavy workout, your testosterone levels and adrenaline levels will be up and subsequently inhibit your melatonin secretion. Although workouts during the day are a fantastic means of regulating your melatonin and improving its secretion, be careful with working out in the later evening or even at night. Doing so will disturb your hormone cycle and negatively impact your sleep quality.
When you eat carbs, especially short carbs such as sugary food, pizza, bread, etc. your blood sugar level will rise. Your pancreas will try to get that blood sugar back to normal and hence increases insulin levels to swamp that blood sugar out. Yet, amino acids essential for melatonin secretion are swamped out, too, as a by-product and your sleep will suffer. Hence, do not eat carbs before going to bed — in the best case even try to eat nothing three hours before winding down. The graph below perfectly illustrates this phenomenon.
First of all, opposed to what many believe, drinking coffee in general does not have significant negative effects on your overall health. Up to a range of 4 cups a day, coffee has in fact mostly positive effects on your body: It boosts physical performance, burns fats, lowers risk of stroke, heart diseases and even reduces risk of suicide. In a lengthy meta-analysis of current findings, however, it became apparent that drinking coffee up to 10 hours before going to bed increases time you need to fall asleep, decreases sleep efficiency and worsened perceived sleep quality. In scientific terms, the half-life period of coffee is on average 5 hours. That means, after approximately 5 hours, our system has gotten rid of 50% of the caffeine we consumed. Only after our body got rid of at least 75% of the caffeine, i.e. after 10 hours, do the effects on sleep deprivation become insignificant. Further studies back this and indicate that melatonin secretion, the hormone you should now be very familiar with, was inhibited when drinking coffee.
I have to emphasize the positive effects of coffee. By any means, given the current state of research on coffee, it would be a delict not to. However, if you want to improve your sleep consider to stop drinking coffee after 1 pm if you go to bed at 11 pm. Have as many as four cups of coffee until then without having to worry about any health risk. If your sleep quality is very bad, consider not drinking any coffee at all and relying on green tea instead as the tannins in it will bind the caffeine. We also recommend doing so if you are prone to stress. Coffee stresses your adrenal glands, which are helping you to cope with stress. If your adrenal glands are overworking trying to help you destress, it is not a smart idea to give them additional work. Another last myth buster: Very often do we hear statements such as ‘I can drink three cups of coffee in the evening and perfectly fall asleep’. This is fantastic, but ease of falling asleep does not equal sleep quality. If you drink 3 cups of coffee before going to bed we can guarantee that your sleep quality will be worse, even if you fall asleep quickly. In fact, falling asleep easily after drinking coffee is often a sign of sleep deprivation.