Having to drag yourself out of bed even after a good seven hours means something’s off. Your hormones may be the culprit. Find out how to reset them.
You got plenty of sleep, and yet it takes Herculean effort to move from the mattress. If this is a typical morning for you, don’t blame it on laziness. Studies have recently conﬁrmed the physiological reason behind your morning exhaustion: Your cortisol levels are out of whack.
While we usually think of cortisol as affecting stress, it’s also responsible for making you feel alert and awake. Normally, as morning approaches, cortisol levels in the body begin to rise; gradually at ﬁrst, to draw you out of the deeper phases of sleep, and then more dramatically, to help you pry your eyes open. This boost, known as the cortisol awakening response (CAR), is like a shot of espresso. Besides giving you mental energy, it also gets your body primed and ready for the day ahead by stimulating your digestive, central nervous, and cardiovascular systems , all of which power down at night, says Katarina Dedovic, a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University in Canada. Within a half hour of your alarm going off, your cortisol level will have risen by roughly 50 per cent, and you’ll be ready to dive into your morning routine .
That is, unless your hormone response has gone haywire. Factors like chronic stress, nutritional shortfalls, bad bedtime habits, and even your body clock can mess with your CAR, explains Shawn Talbott, author of The Cortisol Connection. “Cortisol normally follows a pattern of being high in the morning and subsiding over the course of the day, with temporary spikes in response to stressful events,” Shawn explains. If you’re always stressed, though, the hormone is released more frequently, and its level remains high when it shouldn’t be. One of the ways your body compensates for excess cortisol is by suppressing your CAR, Katarina explains. As a result, you wake up feeling sluggish and exhausted.
Cortisol is also closely connected to our individual circadian rhythms. Some people’s internal clocks are hardwired to kick in later in the morning. If you’re a night owl, it’s possible that your CAR is occurring a few hours after your alarm goes off, which is the reason it’s so hard for you to get up.
The good news is that there are things you can do to reset your CAR and make it more powerful and effective. Try the following simple science-backed strategies and you should notice an improvement in your morning energy levels within six weeks.
Leave work where it belongs: at work
When researchers at the University of Surrey in the UK looked at the behaviours of teachers, they found that those who obsessed over their classroom problems before going to sleep were found to have a suppressed CAR the following morning. That’s probably because when cortisol levels are con sistently high at night, the body compensates by releasing less of the hormone at wake-up time, Katarina says. “Spend an hour or two before bed doing relaxing activities that take your mind off work and other tense situations you may be dealing with,” she recommends. First order of business: Quit checking your work e-mail. And if exercise is your go-to stress buster, stick with relaxing workouts like yoga in the three hours before bedtime. Vigorous workouts bump up your cortisol level and hence may disrupt your sleep, Katarina says.
Make your mornings more important
People have a stronger CAR on workdays than on weekends, according to research in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. Another study revealed that ballroom dancers experienced bigger boosts on the day of a major tournament. Why? When you know you have a busy day ahead, you start anticipating everything there is to do before you’re even fully awake. And that increases your body’s production of cortisol, leading to a more pronounced morning spike. To rev up your CAR every day, schedule morning activities that you can get excited about. Sign up for a challenging early workout class, go a few miles with a morning running buddy, or meet up with a friend for breakfast instead of your usual post-work drinks.
Another smart tactic to help you get out of bed: Make your mornings as easy and automatic as possible, advises Dr Shalini Paruthi, a sleep doctor at Saint Louis University in the US. Get a coffee machine with a timer so you can wake up to a freshly brewed mug, place a cosy robe and slippers within arm’s reach, and have an outﬁt for the day picked out and your purse packed and ready. The less work you have to do to get going, the greater the likelihood that you won’t keep snoozing.
Let in the light
Use a dawn-simulating alarm clock, which gradually brightens the room and eases your body out of sleep. Check your phone and throw open the blinds. The more light you expose yourself to in the morning, the easier waking up will be, says Phil Gehrman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the US. “When light hits your eyes, certain receptors send signals to an area of your brain known as the hypothalamus,” he says. This almond-size spot affects your body’s production of cortisol. Both early-morning rays and phone or tablet backlight give off similar bluish short-wavelength beams that boost cortisol levels while lowering the production of drowsiness-inducing melatonin. But many lightbulbs emit a yellow-tinged light that may not have the same impact on your CAR, so don’t rely solely on switching on your bedside lamp.
Eat the right energising foods
Berries, citrus, and certain teas are rich in ﬂavonoids. These plant compounds have been shown to reduce excess cortisol during the day and, as a result, set you up for a bigger, more energising boost the following morning, Shawn says. He suggests eating half a cup of berries and drinking two to four cups of brewed green, oolong, or black tea daily. Other good sources of ﬂavonoids include red onions, black beans, and wine.