Episode 078: Sleep, Stress and Hormones

Episode 078: Sleep, Stress and Hormones

“Sleep quality and duration should be considered a vital sign, as they are strong indicators of overall health and quality of life,”

As a society we’re sleeping less, in shorter durations, and it’s poor quality sleep. We’re dependent on sleep aides, now more than ever, which actually makes our sleep processed and artificial.

So why is this happening? Why are so many people not sleeping?

In this episode, you’ll hear me:

  • Share my personal struggles with sleep

  • Discuss all the ways poor sleep stresses our body

  • How poor sleep affects our hormones

  • List eight tips that help me get a better night’s sleep




Share the Episode:

Click Here to Read the Episode Transcript...

In the last episode, Episode 077, I was joined by James Swanwick for a conversation on bluelight and sleep. It’s clearly a hot topic because it garnered a lot of downloads right away and I heard from many of you who reached out to share your struggles with sleep.

And I 100% get you because sleep is something, as you know, I struggle with too.

So this week is Sleep Awareness Week so I wanted to continue the conversation on this all-too-important topic.

In fact, I feel sleep is so important, for some of my clients, that’s what we focus on first, before even addressing diet or anything else.

A quote that I really like comes from the National Sleep Foundation in America and it goes: “Sleep quality and duration should be considered a vital sign, as they are strong indicators of overall health and quality of life,”

These days, people are sleeping less and less; and not just sleeping in shorter durations, but also having poor quality of sleep more than ever before.

I read somewhere that it’s estimated that 70 million Americans suffer from insomnia and in fact, the National Institute of Health recently reported that:

⅓ of Americans get less than 7 hours of sleep per night 12-18 million Americans have sleep apnea ⅓ of adults are sleepy during daylight hours - on a daily basis

These stats are a significant rise in recent years and it’s resulted in an explosion in the sleep supplement and pharmaceutical markets.

As a society we’ve become dependent on sleep aides and I’ve learned that some of these aids actually reduces our quality of sleep because when we rely on these aides, our sleep becomes processed and artificial.

I mean in the last episode, I talked about how I’ve taken melatonin. I’ve also taken 5-HTP, Benadryl, Ambien, Lunesta and right now I’m taking CBD oil to help me with my sleep. So I get this completely

So why is this happening? Why are so many people not sleeping?

Well, for starters, these days sleep has become devalued.

We overextend ourselves and choose work or Netflix binging or social media scrolling over sleep. Pulling all-nighters hunched over a laptop has even become glorified. So if you’re always feeling run down, have trouble focusing and you’re quick to get angry for no apparent reason, then ask yourself, “Am I getting enough sleep?”

While, knock on wood, I don’t struggle with insomnia right now, I have before and it is brutal.

Insomnia happens when we’re locked in a state of hyperarousal from stress. Our HPA axis (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis) is activated and can’t turn off.

Our heart rate, core body temperature and night time cortisol (the primary stress hormone) levels rise, while our melatonin levels drop. This leaves us with the inability to go to sleep. This explains why insomnia is a key symptom of HPA axis dysfunction, which commonly known as “adrenal fatigue.”

Chronic insomnia and not getting enough good quality affects our bodies in a number of ways.

Besides feeling run down, not being able to focus, feeling short-tempered, impairing our ability to function and diminishing our quality of life, it also weakens our immune systems, affects our blood sugar, and our body’s ability to regulate leptin and ghrelin, which are hormones that control your appetite and influences your metabolism. It also affects other hormones like cortisol which I already mentioned, but also insulin, as well as your thyroid function too.

And we find ourselves sleepwalking through the day in a hazy, brain-fogged, almost hungover state. Many of us have become fully dependent on stimulants like coffee and high glycemic foods just to function.

But here’s the thing - our bodies do amazing things when we sleep:

  • Our internal organs are able to rest and recover
  • The tissues in our bodies get repaired, muscle growth is stimulated and this is when protein synthesizes.
  • Our liver is most active between 11 pm and 3 am. This is when our body’s natural detoxification system goes to work and removes all the excess toxins, excess hormones and other junk that has built up inside
  • Our brain consolidates everything that happened during the day and stores it into our memories, allowing new memories to be created. And this is critical for learning new things 

When we don’t get enough sleep, these things don’t happen.

And from personal experience, I can tell you that there is nothing more debilitating than the inability to get a good night’s sleep.

In addition to having to cope with a lack of sleep and all the deprivation that comes with it, when we feed our bodies poorly with diets full of sugar, hydrogenated oils, genetically modified foods; and not enough real, whole, nutrient-rich foods, as well as being over stimulated with caffeine. And while nutrition is critical, it is only one component.

Other factors to consider are mental and emotional pressures that make us moody and leave us feeling anxious, irritable, depressed, angry and sad, overexposure to blue light from our phones, tablets, televisions and other devices that disrupt our circadian rhythms (what we talked about in the last episode) and obesogens, also known as environmental toxins that we ingest, inhale and absorb through chemicals found in the air we breathe, water we drink, foods we eat and personal care and household products that we use on a daily basis (what we talked about in Episode 055), you can see how we have body stressors coming at us from all angles. It’s no wonder that as a population we are as sick as ever.

So let’s think about how this all shows up for us - we experience things like cravings, weight gain, brain fog, fatigue - more and while these may sound like common symptoms that everyone has, it’s not normal. Remember what I always say around here - common doesn’t mean normal.

And if these common symptoms aren’t addressed, it leads to more serious problems like obesity, infections, adrenal fatigue, digestive distress and inflammation, which then leads to even more serious issues like metabolic syndrome - diabetes, heart disease, and strokes, arthritis, autoimmune disease, neurological diseases, even cancer and a whole lot more!

On the other hand, when you are well rested, you have more energy to workout and make homecooked meals, your immune system is strong, you’re more focused, alert and productive where you actually get things done!

What it would feel like to wake up every morning feeling rested, refreshed, focused, and excited to move through your day?! I can tell you that whenever I get a really solid night’s sleep, I feel like a brand new person the next day!

So while still continues to be an on-again / off again struggle for me, I’ve collected some tips over the years that have really worked for me that I’m going to share with you. So let’s jump in:

#1 - Maintain a consistent sleeping schedule - included on the weekends!

I’m not a parent, but I’ve certainly heard many friends talk about having to sleep train their babies. Like babies, we as adults also have to train our bodies to prepare for rest. And when you’re training for anything, the most effective thing to do is to be consistent and the same goes for sleep.

My biggest current struggle with sleep is that I don’t have the ability to sleep in! I can fall asleep, no problem, which didn’t always used to be the case. I sleep through the night - no problem, which also wasn’t always the case.

These days, my problem is that I wake up at 4 am - without an alarm clock. It doesn’t matter what time I go to bed, my body wakes up at 4 am. No matter what. Even if I take a Melatonin, Benadryl - whatever - it doesn’t matter.

So its super important for me to go to bed at the same time every night, which is usually somewhere between 9:30 - 10:30 pm. I have to stick to this religiously, even on the weekends or else I definitely won’t get enough sleep to function.

#2 - Avoid processed foods with added sugar

A few years ago, my sleep was really disrupted. I would fall asleep but then, like clockwork, I would wake up at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning completely hungry - we’re talking STARVING. And it was so disruptive because I was so hungry, I couldn’t go back to sleep.

Turns out, it was a blood sugar issue. My blood sugar was on a roller coaster. So to correct this, I ate a bit of protein, like a slice of turkey or a hard boiled egg about an hour before bed, to balance my blood sugar. Eventually, as I overhauled my diet to quit processed foods and refined sugar, this problem resolved itself.

#3 - Exercise Consistently, but don’t overdo it

I won’t get into the details of my overtraining story, because I’ve done so many times in Episodes 001, 012 and I’m sure others but overtraining disrupted my cortisol and thus my sleeping patterns. So while exercise is super important, too much of it isn’t. So be consistent but don’t overdo it.

#4 - Reduce your daily caffeine intake

I’m not a coffee drinker, but I think we all know not to drink coffee after a certain time or else it’ll keep you awake. But it is a stimulant so if you’re dependent on it in order to function in the morning, then perhaps you might want to reevaluate your sleep, the quality of it and how much of it you’re getting.

#5 - Quiet your mind by meditating, journaling, gentle yoga, etc. before bedtime

When I have a lot going on, sometimes it’s hard to fall asleep because your mind just won’t shut off. While not a regular thing, it does happen to me from time-to-time. I’ve found that keeping a notebook next to my bed to write down to-do lists helps, but beyond that, journaling is extremely helpful - to get out thoughts and things that might be bothering me on paper is extremely therapeutic.

Stretching is helpful to relax my body and meditation is amazing for quieting my mind and allowing it to slowly shutdown and get ready for slumber. In fact, when I am having a hard time falling asleep, I’ll turn on a guided meditation, and there are ones made specifically for sleep, and without fail, it helps me to to peacefully fall into a deep, restful sleep.

#6 - Follow your circadian rhythm (rise and fall with the sun)

Our bodies are programmed to “rise with the sun,” meaning to get up at sunrise, go about our daily activities, then go to sleep when the sun goes down.

This is what is our “natural circadian rhythm.”

A circadian rhythm is a 24-hour clock that your physical, mental and behavioral processes follow. It responds to lightness and darkness.

Your circadian rhythm influences your sleep/wake cycles, how your hormones functions and body temperature.

So a disrupted circadian rhythm is believed to be associated with things like obesity, diabetes, depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and a whole lot more.

When we’re aligned with our circadian rhythms, our cortisol levels (remember, cortisol being a primary stress hormone) rise when we when up. This is normal and what we want to happen because cortisol is what helps us to be alert and energized during the day.

Then, as the day ends, and the sun sets, our cortisol levels lower, as does our energy levels, which prepares us for sleep.

For many people who are “tired but wired and stressed,” who struggle with HPA Axis dysregulation, or what’s commonly called “adrenal fatigue” - their cortisol curves don’t look like this.

Because remember, when hormone is out of balance, it’s likely that other hormones will be too, as they function in a fine-tuned system that works harmoniously with each other. This is why it’s all too common that people, particularly women, who suffer from adrenal fatigue also have other hormone imbalances too.

So if you’re not sleeping well, think about if you’re body is aligned with your circadian rhythms. If it’s out of sync with your circadian rhythm, you can reset it by simply, following the sun.

Go to sleep when it gets dark and wake up when the sun rises. When was the last time you did that?

Now, this is a lot easier to do during the winter, when it gets darker earlier, but what I do is, when the starts to go down and the day shifts to night, I dimmed the lights in my home. There’s no glaring overhead lights. I have dim lamps, even himalayan salt lamps. Everything has a soft glow and I’ll only have on what’s essential for what I’m doing in that moment.

During the winter, I go to bed earlier than the summer, just naturally following my circadian rhythm. Give it a try and see what happens!

Get up when the sun rises, then at the end of the day, when it gets dark, prepare your body for sleep by dimming the lights in your home and go to bed at a decent hour. See what happens and if this helps you get a better night’s sleep.

#7 - Turn off all screens two hours before bed (phones, tablets, laptops, televisions)

I won’t get into this one too much because we did in depth in the last Episode, Episode 077. But one tip that I like to do is that I have a bedtime set on my phone. So an hour beforehand an alarm goes off notifying me that it’s time for bed.

So what I’ll do is then set a timer for about 10-minutes where I’ll just pick up and clean up any messes around the house. Anything I can get done in 10-minutes. Then I’ll shut off my phone and start my bedtime routine - washing my face, brushing my teeth, journaling, stretching and then meditating. Now this routine doesn’t always happen EVERY night, but when it does, my sleep is noticeably more restful!

#8 - Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet

This is everything for me. I don’t have central air or air conditioning, as most people in the San Francisco Bay Area don’t. So on rare summer nights when its super hot, I have the hardest time sleeping. Even during the winter, my bedroom has to be on the cooler side and quiet.

I don’t have a TV in my room, and I try not to bring my laptop into it. In fact, other than a himalayan lamp, I don’t really have any electronics in my bedroom - not even a clock. The quieter with less light, the better.

And while I don’t have blackout curtains, as I know some people prefer, I do sleep with an eye mask to block out all light.

I’ve been using an eye mask to bed for about the past 8 years. I had taken a red eye to New York City on Jet Blue. Usually I NEVER sleep on red eyes, but on Jet Blue, I don’t know if they still do this, but back then, they gave each person an eye mask, a blanket and ear plugs, and I kid you not - I had some of my best sleep, not just on a plane, but all time, using that eye mask. So ever since then I’ve been hooked. I can’t sleep without it.

So there you have it - a little bit on how poor sleep, stress and hormonal function is connected. If you want to go deeper and learn more about this, then you’ll want to get on the waitlist for my group coaching program, Beautiful Skin for Life because I we go deep on this very topic because stress, sleep, hormones is intricately connected to the health of your skin!

I’ll include a link in the show notes where you can sign up to get on the wait list for the next session of that program that will open again in June. In the meantime, give these tips a try and then come over to Instagram, you can find me at @naomijnakamura and let me know which tips you’ve tried and how they’re working out for you!

That’s it for this week, thanks so much for tuning in and I’ll see you right back here again next week!


Naomi Nakamura is a Functional Nutrition Health Coach. Through her weekly show, The Live FAB Live Podcast, programs, coaching services and safer skincare solutions, she helps people with chronic skin issues clear up their skin by teaching them where food meets physiology and how food, gut health, stress, and toxins are intricately connected to the health and appearance of our skin. Naomi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can often be found romping around the city with her puppy girl, Coco Pop!
Connect with Naomi at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest