Can Cortisol Affect Sleep?

. 15 May 2018

Can Cortisol Affect Sleep?

Yes, cortisol can affect your sleep.  It can cause:

  • Insomnia
  • Waking in the night
  • Falling asleep before the sun sets
  • Cannot get up in the morning
  • Exhaustion during the day

Not to mention, poor sleep over time can negatively affect your waistline, immune function, and mood.

I am going to explain further why cortisol levels affect sleep.  First, I need to take a moment to explain a little about the magic of cortisol.  Bear with me, and I promise I’ll try not to bore you with the anatomy and physiology.

Cortisol comes from the adrenal cortex and is a glucocorticoid.  Your adrenal glands sit right above your kidneys and secrete a lot of hormones, cortisol being one of them.  Cortisol is necessary for life, and we cannot live without it. One of the primary functions of cortisol is to help us get from meal to meal.  

Cortisol raises your blood sugar to prevent hypoglycemia if we go through a prolonged amount of time without food.  Cortisol is also released along with adrenaline (norepinephrine/epinephrine) in times of stress. This helps us ‘fight or flight’ from whatever predator is attacking us.  

Now in our society, we are not going to be attacked by a tiger.  Unless you have an Asian tiger-mom as I do, then I suggest flight. Most definitely, flight would be the best option.  Also in our society, we are not going to starve. Food is plentiful. We do not need to go and hunt and gather our food.  I can sit on my butt and have someone deliver it so I can binge out on chicken korma and Handmaid’s Tale.

But while we are not running from The Predator and not living a version of Naked and Afraid, we still live in a state of perpetual stress.  The news, family crisis (aka drama), work, neverending emails and voicemails, traffic, time management, internet trolls.

Our adrenals cannot differentiate between Michael Myers brandishing a butcher knife and your critical bullish boss.  Now your boss is not going to kill you like Michael Myers, but your adrenals still respond the same way. Your adrenals secrete a load of adrenaline and cortisol when you have to deal with everyday crazy-deadlines and crazy-clients.  The same way it would if you saw your child’s American-Girl-Doll, Samantha’s head spin around on its own in the middle of the night.

Our chronic everyday stressors are what triggers cortisol to become released in a dysfunctional manner creating sleep issues. Okay, a little more physiology here.  Cortisol gets released from the adrenal glands in a diurnal fashion. In a perfect world, cortisol is secreted highest in the morning, so we wake fresh and bright-eyed.  It starts to reduce in the afternoon and drops significantly in the evening so we can fall asleep quickly and get a good night’s rest.

As mentioned above, stress from our life can cause this diurnal curve to get altered.  This change in cortisol secretion can dramatically affect our sleep, consequently disrupting how we feel in the day.

Dysfunctional secretion of cortisol from the adrenals is what affects our sleep.  In practice, I have seen three major patterns emerge. I refer to these three types, or patterns as The Vampire, The Ghost, and The Zombie.  I will reference these types often in other blogs. Because these types of adrenal fatigue have lots of symptoms ranging from sleep to weight gain, brain fog, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and more.  But for this blog, I am going to try and stick to how cortisol affects our sleep.

The Vampire:

The vampire had high cortisol in the evening and low cortisol in the morning and evening.  This is often referred to as a “Reverse Diurnal Curve.” As mentioned above, in a perfect world our cortisol is elevated in the morning and comes down at night.  In the case of the Vampire, they are the opposite of bright eyed and bushy tailed in the morning. Vampires are exhausted in the morning. They have to drag themselves to get up and get going for the day.  But come nighttime, they are awake and lively. Vampires cannot fall asleep at night and can stay up past midnight. Vampires can get stuck in the rut of taking sleeping pills and lots of coffee/soda/caffeine in the morning. A vampire’s cortisol is elevated at night, which is why they cannot fall asleep.  And their cortisol is low in the morning, which is why they have a hard time waking up.  And feel tired all morning and afternoon.

The Ghost:

Ghosts are the people that have trouble staying asleep.  Ghosts report they have not problem falling asleep but cannot stay asleep. That is because their cortisol is high in the middle of the night and early morning.  This makes them have trouble staying asleep or wake up too early in the morning. Their cortisol plummets come early afternoon.  Once 1-3pm hits, Ghosts disappear because they are so tired.

There are two variants of The Ghost:

Ghoul: The Ghoul falls asleep easily for about 3-4 hours.  Then they wake up like it is morning. But it is only 2 am.  Ghouls will stay up for 1-3 hours in the middle of the night.  At 2 am you will find them roaming into the kitchen for a snack, reading, watching TV, looking at their phones, writing their thoughts on a piece of paper.  I call them Ghouls because of the scary, ghoulish dark thoughts that chatter in their brains in the middle of the night. The dark thoughts are random and uncontrollable, ‘did I pay that bill? Is that deadline coming up?, are my kids alright?, should I text them right now? Don’t forget about A-Z’.  Come morning, and those thoughts are not anywhere nearly as scary as they were in the middle of the night. For Ghoul, their cortisol levels will rise in the middle of the night. For some, it raises at 1 am, and then they are up for hours. Others it increases at 3 am and then never even get back to sleep.        

Poltergeist: The Poltergeist wakes up multiple times in the night.  Anywhere from 3-6 times a night. Like a mischievous little imp, just when you have fallen asleep, the Poltergeist wakes you right back up less than an hour later.  They fall asleep quickly and then wake up for no reason, ALL NIGHT LONG. And just like the naughty troublemakers’ Poltergeists are, just when you finally fall into a deep sleep, RRRINGGG! The alarm goes off, and it’s time to wake up for the day.  For the Poltergeist, their cortisol is bouncing up and down all night long. When the cortisol goes up, they wake. When it drops they sleep.

Whether you are of the Ghoul or Poltergeist variant, Ghosts usually feel reasonably well in the morning.  But once noon-time hits–they are ghosts of themselves. These are the people that call themselves, ‘morning people.’  Because if they do not get their work done before noon, it is not going to get done.

The Zombie:

Zombies are tired ALL THE TIME.  These are the people that say, they could sleep anytime.  Zombies can nap for hours in the middle of the day. Even after having slept 10 hours the night before.  Zombies have a hard time waking up in the morning and complain they never feel rested. The Vampires and The Ghosts at least feel good for a part of the day.  Vampires feel alive at night, and Ghosts feel pretty good in the mornings. But poor Zombies, say there is never a time they feel “awake.” They stumble and struggle their way through the day, resting as often as they are allowed.  No, they do not eat people or brains. Only, because that would take up too much energy. For Zombies, their cortisol is low all day and night. They do not have a diurnal cortisol curve; it is a straight, bottom flat line.

Can you identify with any of these patterns?

Has your pattern changed over time?

Insomnia and sleep troubles, in general, is one of the most common problems we see amongst our patients. Our lives are stressful. When we need sleep the most, we often sleep the worst. The detrimental role cortisol plays in sleep does not get discussed enough. We need to rest and recover on a consistent basis to maintain health. Proper sleep is such a fundamental aspect of overall wellness. Good quality sleep is essential for steady energy, weight management, and proper immune function.

Hopefully, you found this article helpful, or at least it gave you some insight into why you are having trouble sleeping. We created the Keto-Carb-Cycling Program (KCCP) specifically to help improve insulin and cortisol status. You can download our program for free, just click the link.

If you have questions, please leave a comment below or send an email to [email protected].


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Norma Scurlock

Hi I’m between two the ghoul and the poltergeist.. i use to sleep all night now I’m lucky to sleep from 9/12 1/2 Or 1/3 or 2/5 sometimes I’m up 4/5 night I’m 53 and take hormones sometimes I’m sooo tired from not sleeping through ..

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