The Sleep-Stress Link

Sleep can be hard to come by for some. When you try your best to fall asleep at night, but lie awake anxious for hours, that’s a horrible situation to find yourself. Want an Optimal Sleep instead? Check your metabolism.

I can tell, I’ve had the same problem. A long time ago. Most common advice on sleep give precious little insight into the reasons that we can’t fall asleep. Mostly, what you’ll find online is just unrelated tactics. After you try them all, you give up and say to yourself you’re incurable.

I believe that isn’t true. I believe you CAN get better. But you may have overlooked something. Something very crucial. So let me give you an insight into one very important marker of good sleep: Metabolic Health.

What is Metabolism, and Why Should You Care?

Most people know of the metabolism in the context of weight loss. Diet gurus often tell you a high metabolism can improve fat loss, which is true. Then they advise you to drink coffee or use stimulants, because these substances supposedly increase metabolic rate and increase fat loss.

But – there is a fatal flaw in that reasoning.

You see, first and foremost, metabolic rate is not so much an indicator of fat loss, as it is of health. The metabolic rate is in fact the amount of energy that the cells are able to produce at a given time. When you eat a meal, your body turns the food into usable substances like glucose, fatty acids and amino acids. It then uses these nutrients to power your cells’ energy production. The cells in turn contain little parts called the mitochondria, which convert nutrients into ATP. ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate. This little molecule is what the cells use to power themselves and to function properly.

The thyroid, in turn, regulates the rate at which cells produce energy. It produces thyroid hormone to signal to the cells that they can generate energy.

If the cells can produce a lot of energy, that means metabolic rate is high, and in that case, all is well. With a high metabolic rate, you feel healthy and totally disease free, have a great mood, feel wonderful, have tons of energy and drive, and on top of that a high libido, so you can go and make some babies.

However, it’s possible that your metabolic rate lowers. This usually happens over many years, as we get older, and undergo the wear and tear of living. That’s also part of the reason that it’s harder to lose weight when you’re fifty years old than it was in your teens. A low metabolic rate stalls your fat loss and causes a whole host of health problems. What’s more, because of the lowered metabolic rate, your backup energy production system needs to chip in more often, to compromise for the lack of natural cellular energy production.

That’s where all the trouble with sleep starts.

Here’s How Stress Hormones Wreck Your Sleep

Sleepy young woman trying kill alarm clock while bury face in pillow. Early wake up not getting enough sleep getting work concept. Female stretching hand to ringing alarm willing turn it off
Credit: Body Ecology
A low metabolic rate causes stress hormone levels to rise. These hormones, like cortisol and adrenalin generate backup energy by breaking down your own tissue, like muscle and fat. these hormones also increase your heart rate and make you feel anxious and stressed out.

However, most of the time, even with lowered metabolic rate, we don’t notice that these hormones are elevated. Their effect can be quite subtle during the day. Until metabolic rate naturally drops in the evening. When that happens, that’s when the effect of stress hormones becomes really prevalent. You’ll notice and elevated heart rate, paired with anxious thoughts and a racing mind. Not a great physiological environment for restful sleep, wouldn’t you agree?

There’s a good reason these stress hormone levels rise. You see, because our cells are unable to produce adequate energy, our ‘backup system’ generates extra energy to help our blood sugar levels remain stable. It releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin to accomplish this. This comes at a cost. Because of the high sympathetic nervous system activation, we are now chronically wired and anxious.

So when people say that coffee increases metabolic rate, know that that is only partly true. Coffee increases fat burning through activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which breaks you down. It generates energy through increased levels of stress hormones, which is a bad thing.

When the body undergoes a high load of stress on a daily basis, it lowers the metabolic rate over time. It does this to help you survive. Chronic stress loads signal to your body that its survival is threatened. As a result, it will try to lower energy use. This allows you to survive longer on the same amount of food. Unfortunately, this causes chronically elevated levels of stress hormones. This in turn causes you to feel anxious, depressed and wired. This is a major cause of sleep loss.

Cortisol and Melatonin – the iDynamic Duo of Circadian Rhythm

In a normal person, the circadian rhythm, the daily cycle of hormonal patterns, causes cortisol to rise in the morning. This wakes you up. You could see it as your body’s own internal cup of morning coffee. When daytime passes, cortisol is supposed to lower, being at its lowest point in the evening. This allows you to fall asleep again.

In people with metabolic problems or people who are just overstressed, cortisol levels are high all the time. This is like giving your body the signal that it’s daytime all the time. At the same time, cortisol inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone which is supposed to signal to your brain that it’s nighttime. So when metabolic rate is low, stress hormones are chronically elevated, which causes sleep deprivation.

Once metabolic troubles are relieved, cortisol cycles return to normal and your body will be able to release melatonin again. This is a great thing, because once melatonin is properly flooding your brain, you will have no more sleeping problems. Quite the contrary: if previously you were unable to sleep, now you’ll be unable to stay awake. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Do You Have A Slow Metabolism? Let’s Find Out!

Now, you might wonder: how do I know if my metabolism is low? And that’s a very good question. Well, next to feeling crappy and anxious and depressed, which are good cues by themselves, you might also want to check for a more objective marker, like your body temperature.

Body temperature is a key marker of metabolic health. It’s usually the first thing to drop when metabolic rate goes down. Remember that your body tries to conserve energy, and staying warm is basically a huge drain on your energy requirements. Lowering your body temperature would be the logical thing to do when you want to conserve energy.

Normally, your oral body temperature should be 37 degrees Celsius or 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Of course, this fluctuates during the day. Body temperature is usually relatively low in the morning and the evening. If you have a significantly lower body temperature at the peak of day, however, that’s a very strong indicator of metabolic problems.

Now, the logical next question to ask would be: what is ‘significant’?

Well, say you only have a body temperature of 36.8 Celsisus or 98.4 Fahrenheit, that might be an indicator that things are problematic. Go further beyond that, say 36.7 Celsius or 98 Fahrenheit, that’s definitely too far below what it should be. If your temperature varies wildly during the day, and it seems that it’s going on a rollercoaster ride, that is also an indication of an overtaxed nervous system. This also means metabolic trouble, because it means the supply of energy is poorly regulated and blood sugar levels are wildly unstable. This is what people commonly call ‘adrenal fatigue’, although this actually has little to do with the adrenals themselves. It is your nervous system that is functioning poorly due to chronic inflammation. A better way to call it would be hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA axis) dysfunction.

Other good indicators of metabolic health are heart rate and heart rate variability. If your resting heart rate is far below 70 beats per minute, that means you have a low metabolism. Heart rate variability in turn is a good measure of the condition of your sympathetic nervous system. If heart rate variability is low, that means your nervous system is working in overdrive.

From Diagnosis To Cure – Best Nutritional Practices To Get Better Sleep

Food with unsaturated fats
Credit: Healthista
So, once you’ve established that you might have metabolic problems, there’s the question of what to do.

Most importantly, you need to ensure a stable supply of energy to your cells. If you do that, that means that they will be able to supply adequate energy for your daily needs. This allows your body to lessen the need of energy generation through stress hormones. In that way, stress hormone levels will drop and you’ll feel a whole lot better. You’ll have less anxiety, feel less wired, and in turn sleep a whole lot better.

So, what do you do to ensure a stable supply of energy to my cells? Well, for starters, eat balanced meals with enough protein and carbohydrates. Eating carbs allows your cells to produce adequate ATP. Adding protein to your meal allows those carbohydrates to be taken up more steadily. This allows a stable supply of glucose to the cells. This way, your cells can produce adequate energy at any given time.

For some more specific ideas on what to eat, a couple of boiled eggs and a fruit salad are a wonderful meal to fill you up and provide you with energy, while keeping blood sugar levels stable.

Next to getting adequate food, be sure to incorportate enough low intensity movement, like standing and walking, into your day. This improves the cells’ ability to take in nutrients and produce energy. If you eat food, but the cells can’t take it in, then they won’t be able to produce energy anyway, no matter how much you eat. You would just get fatter.

When you supply your body with adequate nutrients, and your cells are able to take those nutrients in, you teach your body that food is plentiful. Combine that with reducing stress, so your body can recuperate. Do that, and it will increase your metabolic rate again, to allow you to thrive instead of merely survive. This in turn will lower your elevated stress hormone levels, allowing you to sleep easy again.

Some Final Words…

Insomnia can be a real pain in the ass. To get better, you need to optimize your lifestyle in tune with your genetic blueprint. The first step in doing so is stabilizing blood sugar levels, so your cells can adequately produce the energy they need to function properly. I know, that if you do this, you WILL be able to sleep better again. This in turn will massively increase your quality of life. No more bad mood, no more low energy, and no more anxiety over sleepless nights. It takes some work, but you can get there.

I hope this article taught you some valuable information, and I hope you’ll soon be able to sleep well again. Sleep well, and be happy.
Have trouble sleeping? Tell me about your insomnia in the comments section. I’d like to hear your story.


Tom Peeters is a former insomniac who did some digging and finally got rid of his sleeping problems. Today, he helps other people overcome their insomnia. Check out his blog The Sleep Strategy to find out how to sleep better.


*Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Zensorium.




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