Adrenal Alarm Response (Sleeplessness & Irritability)

In today’s fast paced society most people are under a siege of constant stressors ranging from long work hours to long commutes, buzzing cell phones and sleep deprivation. While the initial “fight or flight” stress response is key to survival, prolonged chronic stress increases risk of various physical and psychological health conditions. Chronic stress requires the adrenal glands to adapt and try to re-build themselves in order to continue coping with ongoing stress. This process is exhausting and leads to sleeplessness and irritability.

To say that stress can affect proper sleep patterns seems obvious but new research has found that sleep disturbances are directly related to increased sensitivity to arousal-producing stress hormones such as cortisol. Researchers compared patients with insomnia to those without sleep disturbances and they found that insomniacs with the highest degrees of sleep disturbance secreted the highest amount of cortisol, particularly in the evening and nighttime hours.

Cortisol is excitatory; it arouses us, wakes us up and leaves us primed for action long after the trigger stressor has been subdued. But, when as a result of prolonged stress, cortisol levels get stuck at higher levels, never coming down and giving the  adrenal gland a chance to recharge for the next stress alarm response. Chronically high cortisol from overloaded adrenals is bad news for a good night’s sleep.

What happens when you don’t get a good night’s sleep? Perhaps you’ll be okay if it’s just one night but many nights in a week quickly pile up and throw off our delicate Circadian rhythm that is intertwined with our cortisol, serotonin and melatonin levels. Serotonin and melatonin govern are appetite and our mood . If fluctuations in our sleep cycle cause us to overeat (which cortisol is known to do) or eat at erratic times, keeping a level head becomes difficult.

Our mood rises and falls with drastic dips in blood sugar, followed by sugar or fat binges. Poor eating habits, an additional stress on adrenal glands, perpetuate the adrenal alarm response encouraging cortisol levels to stay high. This, of course, gets us right back to that restless, keyed up feeling at bedtime. 

While it may feel like you’re caught in a vicious cycle of stress, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition and mood swings, it is possible to break free of the cycle at any of its check points. For example, make a point to eat a nutritious breakfast every morning at the same time and include protein to prevent blood sugar dips later in the day.

If you have a habit of watching the news before bed, create a new routine and opt for a relaxing bath or series of yoga stretches to help your mind and body relax before you turn in. Stress is a fact of life, but it does not have to rule your life.


Julie Daniluk’s Adrenal Connection Book.

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