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A human body is a very complex system. For it to run smoothly, everything needs to be regulated and in sync. The regulation of your body is a job for the Central Nervous System (CNS), that includes your brain and spinal cord. Via hormones and signaling messengers, CNS can control every part of your body, and make sure that everything is functioning correctly.
Melatonin and cortisol are hormones that play a huge part in determining your circadian rhythms and the quality of sleep in general. Their roles are entirely different, so here, you’ll learn about how they affect your body, and what can you do to help your body get the best possible rest at night.
What is Melatonin?
A lot of people have heard of melatonin, but what does it do in your body?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain, and it plays a central role in telling your body when is the time to go to sleep.
The production of melatonin starts in the evening, and it slowly prepares your body for resting. The pineal gland converts amino-acid tryptophan into serotonin and keeps it during the day. When the night comes, the body produces norepinephrine that signals the pineal gland cells that it is time to convert serotonin into melatonin. The enzymes of your body regulate all of these conversions. The melatonin then goes into your cerebrospinal fluid, and your bloodstream, where it gets attached to the protein called albumin, and transported throughout your body.
The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is pretty much your internal master clock, and it is also located in your brain. When the released melatonin gets attached to SCN, it signals that it is the time to slow down and initiate the sleep period.
Usually, the melatonin levels start to rise 14 to 16 hours after awakening. They then continue increasing throughout the night and peak at around 3 am. After that, the melatonin levels slowly start to fall and are very low before the awakening. They continue lowering and are at the lowest point somewhere in the afternoon. As the night approaches, pineal gland starts making melatonin again, and the cycle continues.
Melatonin and Sleep
A lot of people experience sleeping problems when their brain doesn’t produce the right amount of melatonin, or the circadian rhythms shift, and it isn’t created at the right time. Humans are diurnal beings, meaning that we are active during the day, and sleep during the night. Opposed to us, some nocturnal animals are active during the night, and melatonin plays a different role, as it is produced while they are engaged.
The lack of melatonin is often treated by adjusting your lifestyle or taking additional melatonin supplements.
Can you increase your melatonin through diet?
Even though some foods contain melatonin, there is currently no evidence that melatonin-rich diet can affect the levels of this hormone in your body. Some foods are rich in tryptophan; the amino acid used to create melatonin. Studies show that these foods can affect the production and levels of this hormone in your body. Some of the foods you can try are bananas, potatoes, tomatoes, oats, oranges, cherries, nuts, and pineapples. They are all rich in tryptophan and vitamins and can surely help you boost your melatonin levels.
Melatonin supplements are used for treating different kind of sleep disorders and disturbances. They are commonly used to treat insomnia, shift work sleep disorder, delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS), jet lag, irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder and many more. Melatonin is even successful in treating many conditions not related to sleep, including headaches, Alzheimer’s disease, gallbladder stones, high blood pressure and many more.Also, it is used to help with the treatment of cancer patients.
In the US and Canada, melatonin is labeled as a supplement, and it can be bought over the counter. In Europe, it is more regulated, and in most cases you need to get a prescription from your doctor or a specialist to get it. However, in countries like Hungary or Netherlands, melatonin supplements are available over-the-counter just like in the US.
The melatonin supplements are considered safe, but there are some precautions you should take before deciding to use them. We have covered in detail all the things you should know, what to consider, and how to use melatonin supplements for the best results, in another article.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by your adrenal glands – the triangle shaped organs located on top of your kidneys. It is your body’s primary stress hormone, and it works with different parts of your brain to control your mood, fear, and motivation.
It is primarily associated with ‘fight or flight’ instincts, but cortisol plays a vital role in the number of processes in your body:
- Increases your blood sugar
- Regulates your blood pressure
- Affects how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Keeps inflammation down
- Boosts your energy levels for you to overcome stressful situations
- Controls sleep/wake cycle
Disruptions in your cortisol levels can lead to depression and anxiety, headaches, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, memory and concentration problems, weight gain, problems with digestion and troubles sleeping. While too little cortisol can be treated by the supplements prescribed by your doctor, too much of it can usually be sorted by the adjustments to your lifestyle.
Contrary to melatonin, the cortisol starts secreting in the morning when you need to wake up. It proceeds to rise during the day, keeping you energized, and then it falls again during the evening when the melatonin secretion begins. This shows you how complex the human body is, everything is regulated by multiple things, and all of the hormones have numerous functions. That is why scientists are so fascinated with uncovering the way our bodies work.
What Can You Do to Keep Your Cortisol Levels Balanced?
High cortisol levels signal your brain that you are in some dangerous situation, so it is hard to fall asleep during that time. As much as we have evolved, our mind still processes every stress like it is life or death situation. Even if you are stressing about work, your cortisol levels will rise, making changes on a physiological level. Here are a few tips on how to keep them down for you to get better sleep.
Try to sleep better
The cortisol levels affect sleep, but it works the opposite way as well. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule and maintaining good sleep hygiene can lower your cortisol levels in the long run. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time during more extended periods.
If you are working night shifts and sleeping during the day, that can affect your hormonal patterns as well. There are things you can try to do to optimize your sleep if that’s the case:
- Exercise and be active during waking hours
- Avoid drinking coffee and other caffeinated drinks at night
- Limit your exposure to bright light during the night
- Limit disruptions when going to bed by using white noise machines, earplugs and putting your phone away
- Take naps to reduce sleepiness and prevent sleep deficit
Intense exercises increase your cortisol level temporarily while lowering it in the long run. If you are going to have a heavy workout, better do it in the morning, so that it doesn’t affect your sleep.
Moderate exercise has the same benefit of lowering your cortisol levels at night, but it doesn’t rise them at first. Studies show that 40% to 60% of maximum intensity during a workout gives the best results for optimum hormonal levels.
Eat healthy foods
Eating healthily, along with good sleep and exercise, is one of the most important things for a healthy life. Consuming a lot of sugar is one of the most common triggers for cortisol release, and it is linked with high blood pressure and obesity. Sugar can also reduce the amount of cortisol released in stressful situations when the cortisol is needed.
There are a few specific foods that can benefit your cortisol levels: dark chocolate, fruits including pears and bananas, green and black tea, prebiotics and probiotics, and water.
Learn to recognize stressful thinking
There is nothing wrong about feeling bad; you need to address it adequately. Stressful thoughts are a common trigger for cortisol release. Learn how to recognize stressful thoughts and emotions, so you can observe them better and become more self-aware. Training yourself to see the first signs of tension, like your breathing and heart rate is a step towards handling the stress better, and becoming the master of your thoughts and emotions, instead of being a victim.
Learn to relax
You can practice various exercises that could help you relax better. Simple deep breathing exercises are excellent at reducing stress, and they can also lower your cortisol levels by 50%.
Massages have been proven to reduce cortisol levels in your blood as well. Treat yourself from time to time, as it has numerous benefits.
Try meditation, as it is one of the best ways of lowering stress.
There are some other things you can try like practicing yoga and listening to your favorite music. In one study, listening to music for 30 minutes, lowered cortisol levels, compared to sitting in silence or viewing a documentary.
Maintain healthy relationships
We all know how much friends and family contribute to the quality of life. But they can also be the very source of the stress you are experiencing. One study showed that children who grew up in a warm, supporting home have lower levels of cortisol compared to the children that grew up in homes with regular conflict.
Support of loved ones can also reduce cortisol levels in stressful situations. Keep that in mind, and work on your relationships. Recognize the good ones and nurture them, and think about cutting off the toxic people in your life.
Don’t forget to have fun
Do the things that make you happy, and don’t forget to laugh. This is one of the best ways to keep your cortisol levels down. Picking a hobby would be a great idea, as it is an excellent way for people to get rid of stress.
Starting a little garden in your backyard can be a good idea too, as one study showed that the veterans who took up gardening showed lower levels of cortisol and stress in general.
Outdoor activities are especially beneficial for lowering stress.
Get a pet
Animal companions can help you lower your cortisol levels as well. Some studies showed that having a dog can even have more benefits concerning cortisol levels, compared to talking to a friend. They are cute and can improve your life in many ways, so maybe it’s finally time to get that puppy you always wanted.
Try to think positive as much as you can
Feeling of guilt, shame, and inadequacy can lead to higher cortisol levels. Address those thoughts, try to find the reason behind them, and try to fix it. Trying to do good and be your best self will go a long way in lowering your cortisol levels.
Take supplements if needed
Some supplements like fish oil can help regulate your cortisol levels.
Hormones in your body are numerous and have very complex interactions. Learning about them can help you understand your body and its needs a little better. The general advice is to try and stick to a healthy diet, exercise at least three times a week, and it will help you get those hormones in balance, and help you sleep better as well. If you are worried that you are suffering from a particular sleep disorder, visit a doctor, he’ll recommend the right therapy and give you all the advice you need.
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Dusan is a biologist, a science enthusiast and a huge nature lover. He loves to keep up to date with all the new research and write accurate science-based articles. When he’s not writing or reading, you can find him in the kitchen, trying out new delicious recipes; out in the wild, enjoying the nature or sleeping in his bed.