How to heal insomnia? You have difficult time to go to sleep? Wake up at 3 am or 4 am in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep?
Your adrenal hormones may be talking to you. People with Adrenal Fatigue or HPA Axis Dysregulation often have trouble with sleep—some wake at the same time every night for seemingly no reason why, while others wake every 2-3 hours; can’t fall asleep when it’s time to sleep; or get hungry in the middle of the night.
Day 38: How to Heal Insomnia in Adrenal Fatigue: 7 Solutions
Here’s what you need to know about insomnia and Adrenal Fatigue, plus 7 solutions to sleep through the night.
Sleep disorders, or insomnia, affect millions of Americans every year.
Nearly 1 in 3 people report having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep most nights; and nearly 70% of Americans struggle with sleep at least once a week, according to the 2016 Consumer Report: “Why Americans Can’t Sleep.” (1)
No wonder the same amount of people (1 in 3) are sleep deprived in the U.S.—getting less sleep than the recommended 7-9 hours each night, and suffering health consequences because of it—from blood sugar and metabolic disturbances, to poor exercise recovery, low immunity and increased disease risk (2)
Supplements, medications and tech gadgets—including sleep trackers and meditation apps—market promising results. However, when problems still continue, many people believe they just have to “deal with it”—accepting the fact that their poor sleep habits are “the way they are.” (3, 4)
Unfortunately, very few doctors, medication commercials and supplement labels tell you the real reason why many people cannot sleep.
Three words: HPA Axis Dysregulation. (a.k.a. “adrenal fatigue”).
The Adrenal Fatigue & Insomnia Connection
HPA Axis Dysregulation, or “Adrenal Fatigue,” is a condition in which your body’s stress and hormone management systems—namely your adrenal-pituitary-adrenal-(and often thyroid and gonad) glands—are out of whack, often due to stress (both physical and mental stress).
Your HPA Axis is the system in your body, responsible for making sure your hormones and bodily processes (from metabolism, to digestion, to breathing, to detoxing, to sleep and restoration) are working correctly.
If your HPA Axis is “off,” you can bet your bottom dollar that other aspects of your health will be off. For some people, this means insomnia—greatly due to imbalances in your cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline (“fight or flight” hormone).
HPA Axis Dysregulation Causes
How does your HPA Axis get “off” in the first place to disrupt your sleep?
Common stressors that wreak havoc on your body’s HPA Axis include:
- Bluelight screen exposure (long times on screens)
- Light at night time
- Less than 7 hours of sleep most nights
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Imbalanced exercise (i.e. doing HIIT or chronic cardio all the time without mixing it up)
- Exposure to chemicals in beauty, cleaning and hygiene products
- Plastic Tupperware/container use and other environmental toxins
- Mold exposure
- Stress over food/diet
- Shift work
- Lack of outdoor/nature and fresh air
- NSAID use (for headaches, etc.)
- Oral birth control and/or long term prescription medication use
- Disconnection from community/meaningful relationships
- High coffee/caffeine consumption (more than 1 cup quality coffee/day)
- Low water intake (less than half your bodyweight in ounces)
- Tap water (not filtered)
- Synthetic hormone use
- Jet lag
- Disrupted circadian rhythms for sleeping, eating, working and resting patterns
- Artificial sweeteners (most commercial stevia included)
- Eating packaged, refined or processed foods
- High alcohol consumption or smoking
- Frequent eating out (more than preparing/handling your food)
- Low fiber (Fermentable prebiotic fiber foods)
- Lack of greens in your diet
- Lack of quality protein (amino acids for your brain)
- Conventional meat and dairy consumption
- Grains and “gluten free” processed products (with gluten-cross contaminants)
- Binging/Purging and disordered eating habits
- Pain (joint, musculoskeletal)
- Infectious/bacterial disease
- Gut inflammation & Underlying gut conditions (SIBO, parasites, etc.)
- Type A personality—and difficulty listening to your body over your schedule
- Relationship stress
- Financial stress/pressures
- Endlessly Google searching answers to your health questions
- Not talking about your stress (bottling it up)
- Lack of play/fun
- Serotonin suppression (“feel good” brain chemicals)
- Social Media comparison/endless scrolling
- Lack of control
- Not doing things you love
- Trying to be all things to all people/people pleasing
- FOMO (lack of downtime for yourself)
- Burning a candle at both ends
- News binging
Although your body is pretty good at dealing with stress—if stress mounts, without relief—eventually it takes a BIGGER toll on your total health (sort of like if you were to train for a marathon, and attempt to run an entire marathon every day…eventually your body would give out).
Cortisol, Adrenaline & Insomnia
Cortisol and Adrenaline are the shining superstars hormones in insomnia and other energy and sleep disturbances associated with HPA Axis Dysfunction such as:
- Random 3 or 4 a.m. wakeups in the middle of the night
- Feeling wired and tired at night
- Getting a second wind around 10 pm
- Difficulty getting out of bed—even on the nights you do sleep
- Needing caffeine, sugar or snacks to function
Cortisol is your body’s natural stress hormone—designed to help you combat tough exercise, public speeches and bears chasing you in the woods. Adrenaline is another stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, that serves as cortisol’s “backup ammunition.” It is the second line of defense when cortisol reserves begin to poop out—especially in conditions of stress, increasing rates of blood circulation, breathing, and carbohydrate metabolism and preparing muscles for exertion.
What this means for insomnia? If your cortisol production is OFF or your adrenaline is in “high gear,” then insomnia is more likely.
Why You Wakeup at 4 am: 3 Underlying Causes
Ideally, cortisol is typically highest in the morning and decreases as the day goes on, producing the lowest levels at night. For some people though, this does not happen. That’s the reason they want to heal insomnia.
Three common underlying causes of insomnia at night may include:
High Cortisol at Night.
Cortisol production may be high at night —leading to a continued steady increase toward the end of the sleep cycle, triggering a person to wake up.
In others, cortisol production may be SUPER LOW—nearly crashing and burning at the end of the day. When this happens, another hormone—adrenaline—kicks into high gear—nearly causing you to shoot out of bed, on high alert.
Low Blood Sugar.
For many, the underlying issue at play isn’t just about cortisol alone—but also blood sugar regulation. Cortisol plays an important role in maintaining blood sugar (glucose) levels. Although blood glucose is normally low in the early morning hours (i.e. when your body is fasting as you sleep), if you have adrenal fatigue, cortisol levels may not stay high enough to adequately sustain your blood sugar. Since blood sugar (glucose) is the main fuel for every single cell—including brain cells— if this happens, your low blood sugar signals an internal alarm (that disrupts your sleep) to “protect you,” so you can wake up and refuel.
Low nighttime blood sugar can also result from inadequate glycogen (stored glucose) reserves in the liver. If cortisol is high or imbalanced day-to-day, it causes these glycogen reserves to be broken down into more glucose so it is then available to the cells. However, when BOTH low cortisol and low glycogen reserves occur, your blood sugar is more likely to drop. The result? Disrupted sleep.In short: Waking in the middle of the night (between 1 and 4 am) may indicate low blood sugar resulting from low glycogen reserves in the liver, low adrenal function and cortisol, or all three.
The Good News
The good news? You can heal insomnia naturally!
No matter what stress conundrum is at play in your body, there are several steps you can take to kick insomnia to the curb. Check out these top 7 insomnia and adrenal fatigue solutions below to help your sleep through the night naturally.
7 Solutions to Heal Insomnia
1. Identify the Root Causes of your Adrenal Fatigue.
Stress is the #1 driver of adrenal fatigue. Not just mental stress, but physical stress as well: From blue light at night, to high coffee consumption, lack of sleep, low fiber diets (no greens), overtraining, under-eating and more. Check out the list above and tally up what stressors have become “norms” that may be root causes behind your condition.
2. Drink 1 Cup of Bone or Meat Broth Before Bed
Protein (amino acids) in bone broth are a super weapon against blood sugar and cortisol imbalances (Adrenal Fatigue) that promote “stability” for your up-and-down blood sugar balance.
Protein is especially helpful if your cortisol, blood sugar and glycogen stores tend to run low at night—as is common in waking up in the middle of the night—since protein has a super-ability to convert into glucose in the face of glucose depletion (5). Given that Adrenal Fatigue triggers insulin sensitivity and can cause blood sugar crashes, a moderate-low carb diet, combined with adequate protein and healthy fats is generally best tolerated by Adrenal Fatigue sufferers (6).
Bone broth also contains the amino acid glycine, which acts as an inhibitor that protects against stress and can also help improve the quality of sleep by reducing core body temperature. It is also a rich source of minerals and amino acids (from the bones themselves), making it a powerhouse support for strengthening that immune system. One of the best natural ways to heal insomnia for good.
Lastly, given that bone broth is a liquid, it is super easy to digest. In adrenal fatigue, the body often loses its capacity to digest efficiently, which is why many Adrenal Fatigue sufferers also experience digestive difficulties (bloating, IBS, constipation, poor detoxification). You can make your own broth or order it here.
3. De-Screen & Reset Your Circadian Rhythms
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s built-in clock. If you’re waking up in the middle of the night, chances are, your circadian rhythm is OFF (since your body is ideally meant to be sleeping at night). Several stressors can affect your circadian rhythms—not just lack of sleep itself, but also artificial light exposure during the day, jet lag, lack of nature and fresh air, eating at “off” times, or staring at screens.
In fact, light and screen exposure may be bigger culprits than you think affecting your circadian rhythms AND ability to sleep through the night. The brightness of a television, computer screen or artificial lights may interfere with melatonin (sleep hormone) release, because release occurs only under dark conditions.
In short: Humans are most sensitive to light stimuli during the night, and far less sensitive to light in the middle of the biological day (7).
For instance, researchers have found that even if our sleep-wake cycle is “normal” (i.e. we sleep at night, not during the day), that our circadian clock can still be “off” from a brain function and homeostasis perspective (such as core body temperature) if we are exposed to too much artificial light at night, especially at night (7).
Another study (8) by Harvard researchers compared the effects on sleep patterns when people were exposed 6.5 hours to blue light (screens) versus green light (dimmer lights in lamps) of similar brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).
Although it may seem you’re NOT in control of your body’s sporadic wake times, there are several things you can do to set your body up for success throughout the day to prep for sleep as well as get your circadian rhythm back “on line.” Here are a few keys:
- Candle down at night. Dim the lights, and refrain from bright artificial light in the evening hours when the sun goes down.
- Use orange-tinted (blue light blocking) glasses when using the computer or other screens, and aim to shut off screens at least 1-2 hours before bed.
- During the day, aim to get at least 60-120 minutes of natural sun exposure—working by a window, taking a walk, turning off overhead lights, etc.
- Eat meals at ideal digestive times (Breakfast: 6-8 am, Lunch: 12-2 pm, Dinner: 6-8 pm, and snacks as needed, Mid-Morning: 9-11 am, Afternoon: 3-5 pm, Before Bed: Broth or other easy-digesting protein: Within 30 minutes to 2 hours before bed)
- Use black out curtains in the bedroom and/or wear an eye sleep mask when you sleep at night to help heal insomnia the natural way.
- Use orange-tinted (blue light blocking) glasses when using the computer or other screens, and aim to shut off screens at least 1-2 hours before bed.
4. Establish a Bedtime Routine
As a kid you probably had a bed time routine—you took a bath, read books, maybe drank some water or ate a small bedtime snack, brushed your teeth, and got tucked in—all in efforts to help you sleep well. Then you grew up, and bedtime routines did no longer happened. If you struggle to fall, or stay, asleep at night, there’s nothing like a bedtime routine to get you “back on the bandwagon.” Consider establishing an adult bedtime routine for yourself to help your body and brain prep for sleep, such as:
- Turn the screens off several hours before bed
- Sip herbal tea or bone broth
- Read a book, journal, create or connect to a loved one—no screens necessary
- Avoid hard conversations or stressors before bed (finances, news, etc.)
- Take a warm shower or bath
- Cool the room down to ideally below 70-degrees
- Listen to soothing music
5. Keep Water + Sea Salt by Your Bed
Sea salt, added to water, is a natural electrolyte and “stress balancer”—particularly since cortisol and adrenal function soaks up your sodium stores in times of stress. Sodium levels tend to drop in the face of adrenal stress, and thus a pinch of sea salt is a natural remedy to get your adrenals “back online.” Add a pinch of sea salt to water, PLUS a squeeze of lemon for extra liver love—the organ also responsible for glycogen storage and glucose production in the middle of the night.
6. Lather On Essential Oils
If you find yourself bolting out of bed at 3 a.m., reach for some essential oil calmness to balance the internal stress. Dab a spot of lavender oil or peppermint oil behind your ears and pulse points to signal to the body: “I’m ok!”
Also consider Apex Energetics AdrenaCalm— a cream you can put on pulse points as well.
7. Supplement Smart
There’s hundreds of supplements marketed to poor sleep sufferers, often promising results, but with formulas that actually may be counterproductive to your overall health, hormones and desires for sleep. In the case of Adrenal Fatigue, your body is particularly sensitive to supplemental formulas and different herbal blends.
Additionally, if you don’t take into consideration the medications or other supplements you may be taking, OR poor gut health (i.e. lack of absorption of supplements in the first place), then these supplements could be more harmful. As with most supplements, it’s always best to consult a healthcare practitioner who “gets it” and can point you—and your body—in the right direction for what formulas may be most effective for you. A couple of my favorite blends for encouraging sleep, to check in with your provider and health plan, include:
- Vital Plan: HPA Balance &/or Adaptogen Recovery OR Gaia HPA Sleep Cycle
- Calm with Magnesium Citrate-Calcium Blend
- Adrena Calm by Apex Energetics
- Gut Love!!! (Including a Daily Probiotic, Prebiotic & Short Chain Fatty Acids)
- Consumer Reports. 2016. Why Americans Can’t Sleep. https://www.consumerreports.org/sleep/why-americans-cant-sleep/.
- American Sleep Association. 2018. Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics. https://www.sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/sleep-statistics/
- Chong Y, Fryar CD, Gu Q. Prescription sleep aid use among adults: United States, 2005 – 2010. NCHS data brief, no 127. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013.
- Gu Q, Dillon CF, Burt VL. Prescription drug use continues to increase: U.S. prescription drug data for 2007-2008. NCHS data brief, no 42. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2010.
- Franz, M. 1997. Protein: Metabolism and Effect on Blood Glucose Levels.The Diabetes Educator. 23: 6; 643-651. https://doi.org 10.1177%2F014572179702300603
- Jens Juel Christiansen, Christian B. Djurhuus, Claus H. Gravholt, Per Iversen, Jens Sandahl Christiansen, Ole Schmitz, Jørgen Weeke, Jens Otto Lunde Jørgensen, Niels Møller; Effects of Cortisol on Carbohydrate, Lipid, and Protein Metabolism: Studies of Acute Cortisol Withdrawal in Adrenocortical Failure, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 92, Issue 9, 1 September 2007, Pages 3553–3559, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2007-0445
- Duffy, J. F., & Czeisler, C. A. (2009). Effect of Light on Human Circadian Physiology. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 4(2), 165–177. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2009.01.004
- Gooley, J. Et al. (2013). Spectral Responses of the Human Circadian System Depend on the Irradiance and Duration of Exposure to Light. Science Translational Medicine. 2: 31; 31-33. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.300074. http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/2/31/31ra33