The Balanced Dance of Cortisol and Melatonin
The balance between the hormones cortisol and melatonin is critical for normal functioning of the body. Learn what happens when these hormones are disrupted and how you can bring them back into their natural rhythms.
In any effort to understand how our body’s natural rhythms can be thrown out of balance by fatigue, it is important to focus on more than just cortisol. All too often, much of the emphasis of these discussions about adrenal issues tends to remain so tightly focused on that one hormone that other key components of the process are completely overlooked. One such component involves the role of melatonin, and its place within the natural circadian rhythm of the human body.
What is Melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone that is generated by a number of tissues throughout the body, but the largest concentration is created by the brain’s pineal gland. Melatonin production and delivery to every area of the body is regulated by the body’s internal clock, and acts as a messaging system to signify the arrival of night. The hormone’s production schedule is controlled by the suprachiasmatic nuclei, which helps to ensure that higher levels of melatonin are produced several hours before bedtime, with those levels then declining as you sleep. This occurs at night due to the role norepinephrine plays in melatonin production. Since norepinephrine is vital for creating melatonin and is only released during conditions of darkness, it is only natural that most people sleep at night.
While melatonin is not technically necessary for human sleep, studies have indicated that we do sleep much better when this hormone is being secreted at normal levels.
Even more important for adrenal fatigue sufferers, however, is the connection between cortisol and melatonin. In normal, healthy people, these two hormones engage in an intricate dance over the course of each twenty-four hour period. During those periods when cortisol is rising, melatonin declines. As melatonin levels increase, cortisol levels fall. That dance is part of the circadian rhythm too, and is normally tied closely to the sleep/wake cycle that governs most people’s lives.
What Happens When the Melatonin - Cortisol Balance is Disrupted
Those two dance partners can become estranged from one another for a variety of health reasons. One of those reasons, as you might expect, can involve disruptions of the sleep cycle – the very type of disruptions that can be both a cause and an effect of fatigue. And regardless of whether your lack of sleep is a symptom of your adrenal fatigue or a contributing factor that is helping to make you exhausted, the end result is the same: your melatonin production gets disrupted, creating a serious imbalance in your vital hormone production patterns.
To make matters worse, there are a multitude of factors that can contribute to this disruption. Any absence of the darkness needed for epinephrine release will necessary prevent normal production of the melatonin you need. Even the bright lights present in a well-lit room or emanating from a television or computer screen can inhibit the release of epinephrine. And, as noted before, without epinephrine’s release there can be no melatonin creation.
When your melatonin levels are disrupted in that way, getting to sleep can be a challenge. That can lead to a disruption in your REM sleep patterns, prevent you from dreaming, and ultimately place pressure on even your mental state. The lack of quality REM sleep can also throw your immune system out of balance, which can lead to a higher frequency of illness.
And, as if all of that weren’t bad enough, those lower levels of melatonin do nothing to inhibit the levels of cortisol flowing through your body. That means that the imbalance tilts in the favor of cortisol – and that can have disastrous effects for nearly every aspect of your health and well-being. While cortisol is an invaluable component of good health, its impact on the immune system and every other bodily system can become a net negative when it is not kept in check by the body’s natural hormonal balance.
So, what can happen as melatonin drops and cortisol is given free rein? Well, you have only to look at the other benefits melatonin provides to understand what its absence might mean for your body’s health. Melatonin has antioxidant properties and is a known enhancement to the normal functioning of the immune system. It also works to increase inflammation where necessary. Cortisol, on the other hand, actively suppresses immunity and inflammation. These two chemicals actually need one another to maintain the overall balance necessary for ideal health.
The worst part about this imbalance is the way in which it can lead to prolonged periods of sleep disruption, and the type of hormonal issues that can lead directly to adrenal stress and fatigue. Without its circadian rhythm dance partner, cortisol levels can become even more erratic throughout the day. This leads to even more rollercoaster highs and lows, which many patients try to resolve with caffeine, sugar, and other substances – all of which only tend to further stress the adrenal glands, further disrupt the sleep/wake cycle, and increase the imbalance in the body’s hormonal levels.
Supplementing Your Melatonin
If you’ve searched for an answer to your own sleep difficulties, you’ve no doubt encountered literature and advertisements heralding various hormonal cures that promise to return your melatonin levels to normal. These supplements usually involve the introduction of new sources of melatonin into your body, with the underlying idea being that those supplements can help to reregulate and reestablish the natural circadian balance you need for good health.
Hormonal Supplements? Learn About Their Side Effects!
While many melatonin supplement products will, in fact, introduce a new influx of melatonin into your system, that will not actually provide you with the relief you need. Here’s why:
- Melatonin supplements can prevent the brain from producing its own melatonin
- Any externally-introduced melatonin can disrupt pituitary function
- These supplements will do nothing to reestablish the normal circadian rhythm, but will instead further exacerbate the current imbalance as they impede the restoration of normal hormone production
There is, however, a solution – and it involves helping your body to make its own melatonin. This is necessary if you want to effectively reestablish the natural hormonal cycle that is so necessary for both the sleep/wake cycle and overall sound health. Here are a few of the key components of a useful supplement strategy designed to stimulate the body’s own melatonin production capabilities:
- Vitamin B6 and B12 – both of which are needed for the conversion process that produces melatonin
- Magnesium supplementation can help aid the sleeping process. It won’t actually increase melatonin, but it can help to get you to sleep so that your body can get back to work on the hormone’s production.
Even more valuable for most patients, however, is a committed effort to lifestyle alterations designed to regain control over the level of melatonin your body to restore its natural balance with cortisol. There are some clear steps that you can take to regain that control, but altering your sleep habits and focusing on certain dietary habits and environmental factors.
Steps to Protect and Encourage Melatonin Production
- Develop a consistent sleep pattern that has you in bed at an appropriate time. Try to be in bed at that time each and every night.
- Focus on somewhere between seven and eight hours of sleep daily. Some people need a little less, of course, but seven or eight is usually necessary for most people – and especially those who suffer from adrenal fatigue.
- Turn off anything with a screen at least an hour prior to bedtime. This includes television sets and computers, tablets, and phones. The light from the screen can disrupt melatonin production.
- Avoid electric appliances in your sleeping area. They emit electromagnetic frequencies that can disrupt the sleep cycle and contribute to a hormonal imbalance and fatigue
- Remove caffeine from your diet, if at all possible. If you must have a cup of coffee, tea, or a soda, try not to have it any time after the morning ends.
- Watch your blood sugar. Low energy is usually indicative of low blood sugar levels, and that can signify higher than normal cortisol levels. To counter that problem, eat something with protein in it as your bedtime approaches.
- Work continuously to minimize the stressors in your life, while focusing on your response to events and situations outside your control.
- Try to keep your environment at around 75 degrees or higher during the daylight hours and 65 degrees or lower at night. These temperatures can actually impact the regularity of your circadian rhythms.
- Get active! Physical activity has been proven to be tremendously supportive of normal melatonin production.
- Don’t neglect cortisol or the adrenals. Remember, you need everything in balance to ensure the type of recovery you want and deserve!
The Last Word
The circadian rhythm may govern our lives in many ways, but it is not a flawless system. Like every other aspect of human health, it can be influenced and even disrupted by a variety of outside stimuli and internal health issues. During periods of exhaustion, that entire cycle gets disrupted in ways that can make fatigue patients’ lives all but unbearable.
To maintain and enjoy the proper balance between cortisol and melatonin, you need to be constantly vigilant to signs that your body’s natural rhythm is behaving the way it should. As you develop a greater understanding of this cycle and how cortisol and melatonin levels can impact it, you’ll have yet another critical alarm system that can alert you to potential trouble. More importantly, you will have the insight you need to support your body’s circadian rhythm and ensure that the dance between these two hormones remains harmonious.
You might also be interested in:
- Melatonin. http://www.yourhormones.info/Hormones/Melatonin.aspx
- Regulating Circadian Rhythm (and why that’s important). http://www.thepaleomom.com/2014/02/regulating-circadian-rhythm.html
- Why What You Eat Before Bed Affects Your Sleep. http://bodyecology.com/articles/eat-before-bed
- So Tired... So Why Can't I Sleep? http://www.adrenalfatiguefocus.org/so-tired.html
- Are Your Stress Hormones Out Of Control? http://www.embracinghealthblog.com/2012/05/26/are-your-stress-hormones-out-of-control/