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Cortisol can Interfere with Your Sleep!


One of the most common complaints brought to health care practitioners these days is poor sleep, and cortisol is major culprit.

What Factors Contribute to Sleep?

Not getting to sleep or not staying asleep throughout the night – or both, can interfere with your ability to manage your health—and your life! It can contribute to memory loss, fluctuations in blood sugar, fatigue, inflammation and difficulties in weight management.[1],[2]

In seeking solutions to help with sleep, we often find a common cause—an adrenal hormone called cortisol that rises when we feel stressed.

Cortisol and Sleep

Cortisol is normally released in a circadian rhythm throughout the day, with highest levels in the morning and lowest levels at around midnight.

During stressful times, cortisol rises higher and may not drop when it should toward the end of the day. Your HPA axis (your Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal system) is turned on. This activation increases heart rate and blood pressure, releases energy stores, and sharpens the senses.

All of these functions are imperative during times of danger to initiate the “fight or flight” response.

Today, however, we are exposed to stress more frequently. Day in and day out, we often meet multiple stressors. The adrenal glands are forced to be always on alert – constantly producing extra cortisol to meet those stressors. This can interfere with sleep.

Night Owl? Early Riser?

If cortisol does not fall, as it should, in the evening, you become a night owl. Sleep eludes you and you sit at the computer till the wee hours of the night. Or, maybe cortisol falls properly in the evening but rises too early in the morning, awakening you at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. Your mind kicks in and gets busy planning your day or worrying over some issue. You lose sleep.

If the cortisol level is high during the night, you will have disrupted rapid eye movement (REM) sleep [3] and will wake up non-refreshed, no matter how many hours of sleep you appear to have. REM-disrupted sleep may be one of the reasons that some individuals can have a full eight hours or more of rest but still wake up exhausted.

Cortisol Levels and Food Intake (Glycemic Index)

According to Dr. Pauline Harding, MD, cortisol levels are also rapidly responsive to our food intake during the day.[4]

She explains that the glycemic index of a meal affects the cortisol level for approximately five hours. Worse than having a high glycemic meal is having no meal at all. Any time during the day that one does not eat within five hours of the previous meal or snack, the cortisol level tends to rise. A rise above the normal range during the day almost guarantees that the nighttime cortisol will be high and thus disrupt REM sleep.

The bottom line here is to minimize your carbohydrate intake, avoid high-glycemic carbs altogether and eat 3 meals a day which all include a good protein food (best is animal-source protein) at each meal. This sort of eating will stabilize blood sugar and help minimize cortisol excess.

Salivary Adrenal Testing for Cortisol

To evaluate a patient’s cortisol levels, salivary adrenal testing is useful.

NeuroLab’s AH profile (which also included in HPA profile) consists of 4 cortisol readings and 2 of DHEA, spread over the day.

Salivary testing has been shown to accurately correlate with plasma levels of free cortisol and free DHEA. If you know where your cortisol levels are imbalanced, you can then intervene to balance them out – promoting healthy sleep.

Other Natural and Lifestyle Remedies for Regulating Cortisol Production

Meanwhile, for night-owls, you can experiment with timed-release melatonin or phosphorylated serine after dinner to help you get to sleep and stay asleep. Use L-theanine to calm the mind, and institute stress-reduction practices such as exercise earlier in the day and meditation later. Sleeping deeply for 7 – 9 hours can restore everything about you – enhancing your life experience and making you smile!



[1] McEwen BS. (2006). Sleep deprivation as a neurobiologic and physiologic stressor: Allostasis and allostatic load. Metabolism. Oct;55(10 Suppl 2):S20-3.

[2] McEwen BS, Karatsoreos IN. (2015). Sleep Deprivation and Circadian Disruption: Stress, Allostasis, and Allostatic Load. Sleep Med Clin. Mar;10(1):1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2014.11.007.

[3] Gemignani A, Piarulli A, Menicucci D, et al. (2014). How stressful are 105 days of isolation? Sleep EEG patterns and tonic cortisol in healthy volunteers simulating manned flight to Mars. Int J Psychophysiol. Aug;93(2):211-9.

[4] Harding Pauline. (2005). Eat your Way to Better Sleep. Nutrition Digest, 38:1. Retrieved from



Ramona Richard, MS, NC

Ramona Richard, MS, NC

Ramona Richard graduated with honors from the University of California with a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology and graduated summa cum laude with a Master’s Degree in Health and Nutrition Education. She also holds a Standard Designated Teaching Credential from the State of California, is a California state-certified Nutrition Consultant and a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.

Ramona has participated in nutrition education in both public and private venues, including high school and college presentations, radio and public speaking for the past 20 years. She is the owner of Radiance, a nutrition consulting company, the Director of Education for Sanesco International, and a medical technical writer.

Disclaimer: The information provided is only intended to be general educational information to the public. It does not constitute medical advice. If you have specific questions about any medical matter or if you are suffering from any medical condition, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

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