I never worried about sleep, ever. That was until I got into my 40’s. My internal clock was always on point. When the sun came up I would wake up, even if my alarm was set for later, and when the sun went down you would be hard pressed to find me awake after 9:30-10pm. This never made for a very conducive partying lifestyle, but that’s the way my body worked so I just accepted it.
Fast forward to turning 40 years old. My wife and I had a baby, my soft tissue therapy business was taking off, I renovated my entire house, and then finally when I thought life would settle down a bit the coronavirus was introduced to the world. The way you should read that last part is: stress, led to more stress, which led to more stress, which led to more stress...
As I pushed my body to the limit, I started waking up earlier and earlier, finding myself more and more tired throughout the day. Then I started having more and more difficulty falling asleep at night, in conjunction with waking up earlier. Finally, it got to the point where I would lay in bed awake all night before I finally fell asleep around 4 am, only to have my alarm go off at 5:30. Sound familiar to anyone?
I was in denial for quite some time, thinking my body would just snap out of this weird phase it was in, but that just wasn’t the case. I was a fit guy, I ate well, and had near perfect blood results. Why, and how was this happening to me? As I started to research and dig more and more into the why and how, I found out that I had literally broken my HPA axis.
Why you might not be sleeping
Stress affects us all, and these days it can be seemingly infinite. The way our body deals with stress, however unfortunate, is finite because it is controlled by something called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis.
The HPA Axis includes a group of hormone secreting glands from the nervous and endocrine system. The hypothalamus is a small neuroendocrine structure that controls the release of hormones from the pituitary gland. Theses hormones can then reach a variety of target points within the body, but most importantly stimulate the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
Image credit: nature.com
Whenever we experience stress, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin releasing hormone which then stimulates the pituitary to release adrenocorticotropic hormone, which then travels down to the adrenal glands and tells it to release cortisol. Cortisol then helps to mobilize energy factors like glucose, which in theory should help provide us with the energy needed for the stressful event we are experiencing. Then, when cortisol levels in the blood get high, the stress response is shut off in the hypothalamus and things should return to normal.
The problem with this system is that it is becoming outdated. Back when humans were evolving we would encounter maybe one stressor a week - which usually constituted something along the lines of us fighting for survival. After that event occurred, the system could down regulate the stress response and then go back to a more calm and normal way of living. In today’s world, it can seem like almost everything is a stressor. The screaming child is a stressor. The lack of sleep is a stressor. Traffic is a stressor. The bills are a stressor. That 6th cup of coffee is definitely a stressor (yes, too much caffeine will raise cortisol). The board meeting with your boss and his bosses is a stressor. Bright lights, computer screens, noisy phones, lines in the airport, first dates, alcohol, sugar, and the scary movie you’re watching - all stressors. In fact I probably just stressed you out just reading that. Please forgive me!
When the HPA axis never turns off, it is like having a constant drip of adrenaline coursing through your veins. You become irritable, tired, then over caffeinate just to stay awake. Next your sleep gets disrupted. You either can’t fall asleep at all, or when you do it’s not a deep enough sleep, so you wake up just as tired and start the cycle all over with more and more stimulants, and more and more stressors. As a result of this breakage in your sleeping pattern you can then disrupt your circadian rhythm, which can lead to some really not so fun things like insomnia.
The word circadian comes from the Latin word Circa Diem, which means “approximately a day.” It is affected by many things, but the primary driver is sunlight. Every living organism on the planet has a circadian rhythm. In humans it controls everything from sleep, to bowel movements, to stress hormone and sex hormone release. Where things get interesting is that the main regulator of our circadian rhythm is found in the hypothalamus. Yes, the hypothalamus of the HPA axis - that part of you that is constantly stressed the f*** out.
A dense group of sensitive neurons inside of the hypothalamus called the surpachiasmatic nucleus are connected directly to the optic nerve, which then senses whether it is light or dark out. When our circadian rhythm gets disrupted we can experience a host of other health issues besides insomnia. They can be diabetes, obesity, depression, and even dementia. To make matters worse, it is believed that up to 15% of our genes are regulated by our circadian rhythm as well.
Our circadian rhythm not only gets disrupted by stress and light, but also by food. Studies show that the body needs at least a 12 hour break from food for our circadian rhythm to function optimally, and we should have at least a 3 hour period before we go to bed where we do not eat anything. This means that we have about a 10 hour window during the day for when we should be eating. Unfortunately nobody is ever taught this so we have late night snacks, or drinks, and then an early morning breakfast after only 4-5 hours of actual sleep.
When human beings were evolving, we were very rarely, if ever, exposed to light at night. In today’s day and age we are exposed to more light than ever. TV’s, LED lights, tablets, phones, lamps - you name it. We have light on demand where ever, when ever we want it (and sometimes even when we don’t). The thing about light is that it tricks our brain into thinking that it is still daytime. Inside of our pineal gland there is a waterfall of melatonin just waiting to be released for you to go to sleep. By exposing yourself to light, more specifically blue light, you are going to delay the release of melatonin in the brain by up to two hours, and reduce the overall release of melatonin by up to 15%. Think of it this way, melatonin promotes sleep, but sleep does not promote melatonin.
Melatonin is not just indigenous to human beings. All animals/mammals produce melatonin. Rats do. Cockroaches and insects do. Single celled organisms like bacteria produce it; even plants make their own melatonin. To date, in fact, there has been no species on Earth that has been identified as not making melatonin. Do you think that points to the importance of this hormone? ...IT SURE DOES!
An article in Science News in 2006 stated that “melatonin depleted blood by light, at night, enhances the growth of several forms of cancer. Studies have shown that tumors grow during the day, and stop growing at night. This is because of melatonin being released into the blood at night! If you are sleeping in even a little bit of a lit up room, or if you go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and turn on the light, or have a night light, tumor growth can run wild! Now you might be saying to yourself “I only have my alarm clock shining light, or when I wake up in the middle of the night I just glance at my phone for a second to see what time it is. It doesn’t matter. Your brain is not stupid. Light is light, is light. There are no exceptions.
Interestingly enough, it’s as though the Universe already knew all of this about us, because moon light is yellow/red wavelengths, which do not disrupt melatonin production. More on that later...
Dr. Russel Reiter says, “Right now melatonin in your blood is preventing the oxidation of bad LDL cholesterol. The melatonin in your brain is safeguarding your irreplaceable neurons from free radical attack. Melatonin in the fluid of your eyes is helping to prevent cataracts, and melatonin in your gut is reducing the risk of ulcers.
Melatonin has also been studied to:
- Reduce the risk of cognitive decline by improving sleep and slowing down the progression of cognitive impairment.
- Decrease the risk certain types of mutant cell growth and proliferation.
- Protect against the oxidation stress and toxicity of heavy metals.
- Help diminish the symptoms of mood and seasonal depressive disorders.
- Serve as a massive free radical scavenger helping to combat inflammation.
- Shown to extend life by up to 20%
- Remove Beta Amyloid Plaque in the brain by assisting the lymphatic system while you are sleeping.
The truly amazing thing to understand is that this is just a beginners list..!
Melatonin has also been shown to have extreme anti-viral properties and research has shown an interesting relationship between viral death rates and age. Here is the believed timeline of natural melatonin decline in the human body according to researchers:
Table credit: askdrray.com
And here is the death rate by age from viral illnesses:
See any correlation? Melatonin is THE master antioxidant in not only the human body, but all living organisms. Period.
Now that we’ve covered all of the physiology, we can turn our attention to four specific reasons we aren’t sleeping, and what we can do to fix it!