In New York, being a “night owl” is often a blessing.  People who can’t sleep are effortlessly celebrating life all over town. For those who don’t need to wake up early in the morning, it works.  But what makes some of us want to stay up all night?

Well, one piece of the puzzle lies in our cortisol levels.  Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, which look like two little hats sitting on top of our kidneys. Cortisol has a wide range of effects on the body, the sum of which, gives us that calm energy to deal with life’s daily stressers.  

adrenal glandNormally, our adrenals secrete higher amounts of cortisol in the morning and then lower it at night.  That higher morning cortisol helps people feel energized when they wake up. The low cortisol levels at night allow for a deep and restful sleep.  When we measure a person’s cortisol levels, the normal results might look like this:


cortisol levels

A healthy cortisol level should fall in between the two heavy dashed lines, with highest levels around 8 or 9 am, and slowly declining after that.  Lowest levels should be during our deepest sleep, around midnight.  

However in New York, stress is part of daily life, so, there is a greater need for cortisol.  At first, the body can keep up with demand for cortisol.  Cortisol levels in the blood elevate.  These people are the energizer bunny types. People with elevated levels of cortisol will tell you that they feel invigorated by the hustle and bustle of the city.  They seem to never get tired.  They can go, go, go and are the envy of all their friends.  People wonder how they get so much done in a day, how they are still up at night. They are blessed with juicy adrenals that can produce cortisol like nobody’s business.  They never catch colds. They are super producers that get so very rewarded in a city like New York. Their cortisol levels might look like this:

cortisol levels

However, as every adult knows, there’s always a downside.  If anything, these people might have a little bit of trouble turning off.  By midnight, their cortisol levels are still too high for restful sleep. They’ll be up at night even when they don’t want to be.  They might find everyone around them to be “so boring” because they sleep. They’ll be the light sleepers.  Forget yoga classes for these types. They just can’t slow down. They are also usually short tempered and a bit more irritable and impatient than their normal cortisol counterparts.  People with a variation on this stage start to feel anxious with the elevated cortisol.

After working or partying hard for a few years, the body just can’t do it anymore.  Cortisol levels start to drop at some point.  Depending on when the dip occurs, you’ll feel different things.  If the cortisol dip happens in the afternoon, you get that afternoon crash.  If it happens in the morning, you’ll have a hard time getting out of bed. The coffee goes from small to a large, just to get the day started. Or even worse, coffee stops working. Instead, you start to crave sweets or salt, or both (hello, popularity of salted caramel).

At this stage, some people may also experience an increase in their nighttime cortisol levels.  They’ll say they got their “second wind.”  When I hear that, I know that almost always, before the second wind, there was a moment in the day when they felt the cortisol crash.  They felt exhausted. This is the second wind of the exhausted person. The cortisol curve starts to look like this:

cortisol levels
Around now, people usually start to have some other small health issues. These people usually have some blood sugar problems. They crave sugar to get through tasks of the day. They might be pre-diabetic.  They get the middle age belly.  When they drink coffee, their hands might swell. They can’t drink water or they pee all the time. They may suffer from hemorrhoids or headaches when they’re tired. They may start to get varicose veins. They may start to feel dizzy spells when they stand up too quickly. They might suffer from low back pain.

If you find yourself exhausted in the morning, struggling to get out of bed, and then crashing at some point during the day, only to find your second wind after 10pm.  Chances are, you’re not a night owl, you’re actually exhausted, and your body is trying to tell you that there’s something wrong.

People in the next stage of the process of adrenal exhaustion never get an elevated cortisol during the day. These people find it hard to get out of bed at all. They catch colds all the time, and they can’t get over their colds. There are definitely other health issues and this situation can feel dire.

cortisol levels

The good news is that something can be done to rescue a person from that kind of existence.  You really don’t need to be so very tired all day.  Checking cortisol levels is a really simple test. In requires one to spit into a little test tube four times during the course of one day.   When results come back,  a plan can be made for getting a person back on track to feeling energetic during the day and sleeping at night.

There are many approaches that can be helpful, including diet and lifestyle changes, acupuncture, or herbs and supplements.  Specific recommendations will depend on the physical, mental, spiritual, and lifestyle needs of each individual.  In the end, however, it all boils down to a simple equation: lower the stress that the adrenals need to deal with, and increase the ability of your glands to secrete cortisol.  In the meantime, enjoy that salted caramel.

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