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Blog: Blog2

About a month ago I put a post on instagram asking if people found themselves regularly waking up at 2am.

I know this is a common problem. But I was still surprised by the amount of people who reached out to me directly to talk about it.

These 2am wake ups can be a sign of high cortisol levels. In my last blog on the topic I explained how cortisol levels can rise when we don’t manage our stress. 

You can click here to read it. You'll also learn 3 fast and easy exercises to reset your nervous system and release stress.

But while stress is a key component of the cortisol picture, there’s more to the story.

Cortisol is a hormone, and our hormones are governed in large part by our circadian rhythm.


Your circadian rhythm is an internal body clock. It’s aligned to the natural rhythm of day and night and is also sometimes called the sleep-wake cycle.

It covers many aspects of the functioning of your body. From your temperature to blood pressure, hormone secretion, co-ordination, strength, reaction time, as well as memory and digestive function.

Ever wondered why being in the dark makes you feel sleepy, while exposure to bright light wakes you up?

That’s thanks to your circadian rhythm. 

Melatonin is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. It’s produced by the pineal gland in your brain in response to darkness.

But when you’re exposed to bright light your body assumes you need to be awake (fair call really). Your brain will suppress production of melatonin, and you’ll produce cortisol instead. 

Cortisol and melatonin are like yin and yang.

In a healthy functioning circadian rhythm, cortisol peaks at 8am. Its at its lowest around midnight to 2am when we’re in our deepest sleep.

But sometimes your circadian rhythm gets out of whack. And this can interfere with your normal cortisol and melatonin levels. 

You’ll find your sleep and wake times go haywire. Suddenly, you’re wide awake in the middle of the night, falling asleep right before the alarm goes off. Then you're barely able to drag yourself out of bed.

What can cause your circadian rhythm to get thrown off?

Your environment.

Your body is a primal thing adapting for life in a modern world. You are not designed to spend your days indoors. Sitting in one place. Only thinking and never moving. Staring at a computer or a phone. Eating while you work.

Only to race home and rush to get the kids to activities and all the household chores completed. Then collapsing exhausted on the couch at 9pm snacking on BBQ Kettle chips. Staring at a TV screen or scrolling your phone. Or, let’s be perfectly honest, doing both. 

The likelihood is that you spend very little time in nature. You get very little downtime, eat on the run, and go to bed too late. You spend the majority of your waking hours surrounded by artificial light.

Combine this with a healthy pinch of the stresses of modern life, and you have the perfect storm for a disrupted circadian rhythm.

So what’s a girl to do?

It's simple: Go outside and expose yourself to morning sunlight viewing early in the day.

Assuming you wake up as the sun is coming up or shortly after, get outside within the first 5 minutes of waking up. If that’s not possible for you make sure you’re outside within the first hour of waking.

Once outside, look in the direction of the sun. If the sun is low enough on the horizon you’ll be able to look more directly at it. But if it’s already started to get higher in the sky avoid looking straight at it.

Don’t wear sunglasses. It's OK to wear your seeing glasses or contact lenses. These will focus the light into your eye, even if they have a UV protection on them.

The amount of light viewing will vary person to person. It depends on individual biology and/or geographic location. But some general rules are:

  • At least 5 minutes on a clear day

  • At least 10 mins on a cloudy day

  • At least 20-30 mins of sunlight on rainy or densely overcast days

*It’s particularly important to get outside on cloudy days.

If you wake before the sun comes up you can start by turning on the lights in your house. But once the sun has risen you’ll still need to get outside. Artificial lights are not strong enough to turn on the “wake up” mechanism of your circadian rhythm.

The bad news is that they ARE bright enough to mess with your "going to sleep" mechanism. Especially if you look at them too late into the night, or in the middle of the night. 

Try to minimise your screen usage during the day. (I realise this is completely impractical for some people). If you can, take a lunch break and get outside for a walk. Even if it’s cold (cold exposure is good for you … but thermogenesis is a topic for another day 🙈).

After the sun goes down:

  • Turn off most of the lights in your house. 

  • Use soy or beeswax candles with natural wicks instead of electric lights. 

  • Get some blue light blocking glasses from BlueBlox or EMR-Tek and wear them after dark. 

  • Have a few evenings a week where you don’t watch television and read or listen to music instead.

  • The gold standard is no screens 2 hours before bed, but bare minimum is 45 minutes.

  •  If you wake up in the middle of the night DO NOT REACH FOR YOUR PHONE. (Click here to download my free Sleep Guide and learn what to do instead).

What if it’s not cortisol? 

If none of this sounds like you, maybe it’s not cortisol that’s waking you up at 2am…

It could be hypoglycaemia - low blood sugar. 

You might wake up if you suffer from insulin resistance. Or if you’re not eating in a way that supports healthy, stable blood sugar levels.

Do you need to snack every couple of hours during the day? Do you eat? a lot of sweets or carbohydrates?

If so, you may not be able to make it through the night without your blood sugar dipping too low.

Our body has inbuilt mechanisms to regulate our blood sugar. One of these is to produce adrenaline when it senses our circulating blood sugars are low. 

Adrenalin gives the body a surge of energy . If your body is releasing adrenaline at 3am to counter low blood sugar, that can cause you to wake suddenly. You'll also find you feel very alert.

Physical exercise - too much or not enough?

Are you getting enough exercise? The current research tells us that in a week we need 150-180 minutes of zone 2 cardio. Broken up into various activities throughout the week. 

How to tell if you're in Zone 2 Cardio - The Talking Test: If you're out of breath, but can still hold a conversation while performing the activity, you're in zone 2.

(You also need to do strength training. You can’t get away from resistance training … much like death and taxes).

Then again, you might be moving too much. If you're waking up after 4-5 hours of going to bed and you can't get back to sleep, this could be a sign that you're overtraining. As my favourite saying goes:

“Everything is either medicine or poison, it depends on the dose.”

You may need to look at optimising your training and recovery. Switch up your workouts and take sufficient rest days.

So now you know how to manage your daytime environment to support your cortisol levels. But if you want to start getting great sleep, your nighttime environment matters too. 

To find out how to optimise your sleep, click here to download my free Sleep Guide. It’s full of science backed, expert tips to help you get the best sleep of your life - starting tonight!


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