We all know that I am big on recovery, so naturally I have to bring up the king of recovery- sleep. It is simply the ultimate form of recovery for the mind and body. Although setting boundaries and being intentional about consistency is important, this isn’t necessarily the whole picture. For real, true, quality sleep, it is actually more of a hormonal conversation. The rhythm of your hormones during the day impacts the rhythm of your hormones at night, and vice versa. The two main hormones driving this are cortisol and melatonin, and I believe it is so important that we understand them.
What is melatonin?
Most of us think of melatonin as a sleep aid, but few understand what it really is and does. Melatonin is known as the “hormone of darkness”, aka it is really impacted by light exposure. It is secreted by the pineal gland, so yes, it is naturally produced by the body. A few points that I usually bring up with this:
What is cortisol?
Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone”, and rises when there are mental and physical stressors. It follows a diurnal pattern, ideally increasing in the morning and slowly tapering off throughout the day. Cortisol is not bad, and its purpose is to make us alert and energized. That said, it is important to know the relationship between cortisol and melatonin, which is actually an inverse relationship. This means that when cortisol is low at night, melatonin is high, which is a supportive environment for quality sleep. A few points that I usually bring up with this:
So, what do we do with our nutrition?
Let’s first not overlook balanced, regular eating patterns. All in all, this helps us give some love to our blood sugar levels. Highs and lows for blood sugar, especially at night, are one of the most common problems I see with sleep and nutrition. Ensure that all meals have quality carbohydrates, proteins and fats. This can also be individualized, so it is helpful to work with someone to get those blood sugar levels on track. Two nutrients I emphasize especially at night are magnesium and tryptophan, to support healthy levels of both melatonin and cortisol. Magnesium sources can be found in avocados, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans and more. Tryptophan sources most famously include poultry, but also are in fish and other proteins, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, bananas, and potatoes.
Putting It All Together
Let’s remember that hormones can be finicky, and although I am bringing up the two main hormones that are associated with sleep, imbalances in these hormones can impact other hormones such as insulin, thyroid hormones, sex hormones and more. All in all, I want you to think of your body and metabolism as a whole, instead of a series of segmented systems. Also, sleep influences BOTH the mind and body. Getting in a deep sleep can really help you physically recover, but REM sleep helps your brain recover, detoxify, and can support long term memory storage. If you are aiming to prioritize sleep, it is important to also prioritize light exposure, tryptophan, magnesium, and balanced blood sugar.