1 – Oestrogen
Oestrogen is a hormone that can be found in both men and women. It’s usually associated with reproductive health, playing a key role in the menstrual cycle; however, oestrogen also has a number of other different functions. There are oestrogen receptors all over your body as this particular hormone allows your body to utilise serotonin, an important feel-good neurotransmitter, it increases bone formation and even helps to support your skin.
When do problems occur?
As you progress through life, your levels of oestrogen can fluctuate, particularly during the menstrual cycle if you’re a woman. However, as you approach menopause, your levels of this hormone can plummet which brings about a number of tell-tale symptoms, such as irregular periods, hot flushes, mood swings and muscle and joint pain.
Unsurprisingly, these symptoms in and of themselves can impact your sleep pattern as night flushes disturb your sleep and mood swings make it difficult to unwind before bed. It doesn’t help that oestrogen also affects how your body utilises magnesium, a pivotal mineral for sleep!
Fortunately, here at A.Vogel we have plenty of information about how you can combat these pesky menopause symptoms and our Menopause Expert Eileen goes into plenty of detail on the subject over at A.Vogel Talks Menopause.
2 – Progesterone
If I’m going to mention oestrogen then it seems only right I give some attention to its main partner in crime, progesterone. Similar to oestrogen, progesterone is best known as a female sex hormone – its name is literally derived from ‘promoting gestation.’ It helps to sustain the lining of your uterus in case of a pregnancy, which is why women experience high progesterone levels after ovulating, before they eventually decline.
Progesterone is also very important for healthy brain function sometimes being classed as a neurosteroid. It has a natural anti-anxiety effect as it helps to metabolise the metabolite allopregnanolone, which can produce a calming effect.1 It’s believed progesterone can help you to fall asleep faster and to experience fewer sleep disruptions.
When do problems occur?
Similar to oestrogen, when progesterone levels start to fall, whether due to menstruation or menopause, it can cause problems with your sleep. In the case of menopause, it might be worth taking a supplement like Menopause Support to help correct this imbalance. However, if you suffer from low progesterone levels during menstruation, it can sometimes hint that your levels of oestrogen are too high, in which case you may start to experience symptoms such as mood swings, fluid retention and cramping.
If you suspect that your period symptoms may be oestrogen dominant, I’d check out our Women’s Health Advisor Emma’s blog, ‘Understanding your period and hormone imbalance,’ which may be able to shed more light on the issue and how to go about tackling your symptoms.
3 – Testosterone
To round off my discussion about sex hormones and sleep, here I’ll be taking a look at the male sex hormone testosterone. Just as with oestrogen, testosterone isn’t just exclusive to men and also plays an important role in female health too. In both sexes, testosterone works to support reproductive health and in men, it also helps to regulate muscle and bone mass too!
When do problems occur?
Unlike women though, men don’t usually experience a sharp fall in testosterone. Instead, it gradually declines over a period of years. Nevertheless, low levels of testosterone can be associated with sleep problems. For example, testosterone levels often fluctuate throughout the day and it’s been shown that levels are at their highest during REM sleep.
If you already suffer from sleep related issues, a vicious cycle can emerge. If you’re not getting the REM sleep you need, it can impact your levels of testosterone. If you’re levels of testosterone dip, it can sometimes be linked to insomnia symptoms and so the cycle continues!2
But what can you do if you find yourself lacking in testosterone? I speak a little bit more about sleep deprivation and testosterone in my blog ‘What does sleep deprivation do to your hormones?’ so you may find some useful information there. Lifestyle and dietary factors are crucial though – some studies have shown that certain types of exercise can increase your testosterone levels while foods that are rich in zinc and vitamin D may also be a good option!3
4 – Insulin
Most of you are probably familiar with insulin and the role it plays in regulating your blood sugar levels. This essential hormone is produced in your pancreas and it helps your body to utilise the sugar, or glucose, derived from your food.
Glucose is a major source of energy for your body but, if you have too much in your bloodstream, it can be detrimental to your health which is why insulin is often secreted when your blood glucose levels become too high, helping to store glucose in your liver so it can be used at a later date.4
When do problems occur?
When your blood glucose levels become elevated on a regular basis, your body can become less sensitive to insulin. This means your body needs to produce more and more insulin to have the same impact, which can sometimes progress into diabetes.
So what exactly does this have to do with your sleep patterns? Well, similar to testosterone, sleep and insulin can sometimes exist in a vicious cycle. You see, sleep deprivation can raise your blood sugar levels and encourage unhealthy eating habits (for more information, please read my blog, ‘Is your lack of sleep making you to overeat?’) which will then trigger the release of more insulin and potentially cause further sleep problems as your blood glucose levels fluctuate during the night.
This is why I don’t recommend binging on sugar snacks before bedtime. Not only will you find it more difficult to sleep while your blood sugar levels are high, but when you inevitably experience the sugar ‘crash’ it can sometimes shift you out of deep sleep and into a lighter sleep phase where you are more prone to disturbances. If you want to read a bit more about specific foods that can support your sleep patterns, please check out my blog, ‘What foods can I eat to help me fall asleep?’
5 – Cortisol & melatonin
Okay, so I’ve covered insulin and sex hormones but the next entrants on this list has a more direct impact on your sleep cycle and they’re so interlinked on the subject, that it would be impossible to mention one without the other. Cortisol and melatonin are the two main hormones that regulate your sleep pattern.
Cortisol is often known as a ‘stress hormone’ and it’s produced by your adrenal glands. It helps to regulate your metabolism and reduce inflammation and, when cortisol is released, it raises your blood sugar levels and blood pressure in preparation for physical activity. As part of your circadian rhythm, there is usually a cortisol spike in the early hours of the morning that helps you to wake up feeling refreshed. As the day progresses, your levels of cortisol will gradually decline as more melatonin is released in the hours before you go to bed.
Melatonin, or the sleep hormone, is made by your pineal gland and works with cortisol. When your optic nerves detect natural light diminishing, they will send a message to your hypothalamus, which will the trigger the release of melatonin to help you relax and feel drowsy in preparation for sleep. Generally, as melatonin levels increase, cortisol levels decrease and vice-versa.
What happens when this balance is interrupted?
Unfortunately, it’s extremely easy to interrupt this delicate cycle of hormones and usually, elevated levels of cortisol are to blame. If you suffer from stress, for example, you may struggle to get to sleep as this particular emotion can act as a catalyst for your flight-or-fight responses, which in turn triggers the release of cortisol, lowering your levels of melatonin. If you do find that anxiety strikes before bed, it might be worth trying a herbal remedy like Dormeasan, which contains a combination of valerian and hops to gently relax your nervous system, allowing you to unwind into a deep, natural sleep.
Stress isn’t the only issue that can stimulate cortisol – as I’ve just mentioned, sugary snacks before bedtime can take a toll on your sleep patterns and increase your demand for insulin, but they also increase your levels of cortisol too, as this hormone also plays a role in regulating your blood sugar levels.
Finally, certain devices can suppress your production of melatonin. If you remember, melatonin is usually produced as a response to a lack of natural light. Night-time encourages you to think of sleep but, if your optic nerves detect lightwaves that are similar to UV light, it can trick your hypothalamus into believing that it’s still daylight outside, and therefore you should be awake. Unfortunately, most computers, televisions, tablets and smartphones emit a blue light wave that has this particular effect so, binging on Netflix or trawling through social media on your smartphone before bed can lead to insomnia!
6 – Thyroid
Your thyroid gland is located just below the larynx and produces two hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine. These two hormones help to regulate your metabolic rate as well as digestive function and brain development so, in the grand scheme of things, they’re both pretty important, especially when it comes to your mood.
When do problems occur?
Problems tend to occur with your thyroid when your thyroid gland is either too active (hyperthyroidism) or not active enough (hypothyroidism). Both conditions come with their own extensive list of side effects and both, oddly enough, are linked to poor sleep.
Let’s start with hyperthyroidism. If you suffer from hyperthyroidism you can start to display symptoms of nervousness or irritability and experience bouts of sweating and heart palpitations. The increased production of thyroid hormones in some sufferers, can act almost as a stimulant for the nervous system, making you feel restless and as a consequence, you may find it difficult to get to sleep or to stay asleep.
Hypothyroidism, on the other hand, is often associated with feelings of fatigue and lethargy. Your body isn’t producing enough thyroid hormones and as a result, your metabolism can start to become sluggish. Now, you might think that feelings of fatigue may make sleep more attainable but this isn’t the case, as hypothyroidism can sometimes increase your risk of suffering from a sleep disorder - for example, it’s estimated that around 30% of those with hypothyroidism suffer from sleep apnoea!5
If you suspect you suffer from a thyroid imbalance, it’s really important that you speak to your doctor. They will be able to diagnose you and discuss further treatment options which may help to ease any associated sleep problems.