You may have heard me talk several times on Instagram stories how taking a break from working out and slowing down made my sleep a million times better.
Of course, I also had to reduce stress in general. Life stress + workout stress + not eating as much as my body really needed = elevated cortisol levels, chronic stress and bad sleep.
My sleep problems started when I started working out hard, which was in my early 20s when I decided to lose weight. I joined Weight Watchers and started running every day, first thing in the morning, and usually fasted.
At first, everything felt okay. Just like Brittany and I discuss in this interview, overtraining doesn't feel bad at first. You have the energy, you're making gains, you're crushing it! But after a while, you start seeing negative side effects of it. For me, the most important ones were losing my period and losing my sleep.
For years, I didn't know that running long distances 6-7 days a week and eating too little (plus life stress from work and the relationship I was in back then) were exactly the reasons why I couldn't sleep. When you ask Google why you can't sleep, you find thousands of articles that all suggest you start working out as physical exercise improves sleep. However, in my case, that's all I did! I worked out like a machine, but I still didn't sleep.
Sometimes working out more isn't the answer.
I had better times and worse times, but during the worst nights I slept 3-4 hours. Things improved a bit when I stopped running so much and started lifting weights and doing HIIT instead. However, my sleep was still pretty bad because I was still training intensely 6 days a week, but just shorter time.
In 2016, I tracked my sleep and averaged about 5-6 hours per night. That's NOT enough for a physically active person like I was. We talk about it a lot with Cari Li. Despite that, I would still work out, no matter what. I would get up at 5:30 or 6 and hit the gym first thing in the morning, because I thought I have to, and if I don't, I'll gain weight and lose muscle…
In December 2016 I realized that I can no longer do it. I was getting really, really tired. I quit doing it all. No workouts. I wanted to get my period back and I wanted to feel better overall. My sleep got better quickly… I went from 5-6 hours to 7 hours most nights, but sometimes even 8 hours, which was HUGE for me
In August last year, we were on a vacation in Estonia and Finland. I was super relaxed the entire time. No stress, no exercise, although I did walk a lot a rode a bike occasionally but these were really for fun. And that was the month when I slept 8-9 hours every night and finally felt truly rested, more than ever in the last 10 years.
Are Your Cortisol Levels Chronically Elevated?
The reason why I couldn't sleep at night was just too much stress. The major reason why I was so stressed out was working out so much, but I was also very depressed back then. Constant stress causes chronically elevated cortisol levels, which was probably what I was dealing with. I'm saying probably because I didn't get my cortisol tested, however all the signs support the idea that that was exactly what was happening.
Cortisol is a stress hormones whose levels rise when we're working out. That's expected and normal reaction to physical stress. When we're healthy and everything works the way it should, cortisol levels rise when we work out and fall when we're done.
Short bursts of cortisol output happen during strength training or interval training, when we alternate the work phase and rest phase. Think doing 8 reps of shoulder presses and then resting, then repeating the same thing for one more round.
But more trouble may happen when cortisol stays elevated for longer time, which can happen during more steady state cardio type exercise. For example, when we're running or riding a bike fast for 40+ minutes, our cortisol stays elevated the entire time.
Chronic stress state which can be a result of working out too much also lowers women's female sex hormone levels. Low estrogen and progesterone can lead to hypothalamic amenorrhea and loss of bone density.
When cortisol levels stay elevated for longer time even after exercise, they can also start affecting our sleep. In addition, chronically elevated cortisol can lead to digestive issues, brain fog, memory problems and depression — all of which I definitely experienced when I was working out a ton.
How Chronically Elevated Cortisol Affects Your Sleep
A normal cortisol pattern looks approximately like this: The levels are high in the morning, to wake us up and get us ready for the day. Towards evening, the levels start to lower, and by midnight, they should be the lowest so we can sleep deeply. Towards morning, the levels start to rise again, reaching the peak around 8am again. The cycle starts again.
Things are different if your cortisol levels stay elevated for a long time, as a result of too much stress, and that includes working out. You may have trouble getting proper sleep. We need our cortisol levels to drop, in order to fall asleep. If they don't, sleep becomes difficult.
If our cortisol is out of balance, it may also peak earlier than what is normal (around 8am). And so we stare at the ceiling at 4am… That may happen because our cortisol levels aren't following the normal pattern.
High Cortisol + Low Calories = Even More Stress, Even Worse Sleep!
Many women who work out hard are also on very low calorie or low carb diets. Especially low carb diets may help them lean out and look awesome, but it's not unusual that their workouts suffer, they have frequent brain fog and and they lose their sleep and periods. Never measure the success of your diet in how much weight you lost. Measure it in its positive effects to your health, mood and in how you feel in general.
Elevated cortisol levels alone can lead to muscle breakdown. This effect is even more serious when our bodies don't get enough carbs. Please don't be afraid of carbs, especially if you work out! Yes, there are people for whom low carb diets work, but they're not for everyone. In general, women tend to be more sensitive to low carb diets than men.
Our bodies and brains need some carbs. I've seen many times how girls lose their periods on low carb diets and are able to recover once they add carbs back into their diets. Together with plenty of fats, of course, because our hormones love fat.
One thing that can help to sleep better is to have a snack before bed and make sure that it has carbs and fat in it. Just the other night, I had hard time falling asleep because I had taken a long nap during the day. After tossing and turning for a while, I had 1/2 of a banana with some nut butter, honey and chocolate chips. It was delicious and I was able to fall sleep quickly right after. Also, make sure you have carbs in your dinner and if your dinner is very early, like 5 or 6 pm, have a snack before you go to sleep.
Conclusion: Take Time Off, Rest, Recover, and Eat
It's obvious that elevated cortisol levels can mess up your sleep. The cure? Take time off and relax much more, and take care of your nutrition.
As I said earlier, I saw a huge difference in my sleep when I stopped working out for a while. It just allowed me to get rid of so much stress so I started sleeping better.
I believe giving up exercise (doing only very light exercise like yoga and walking or an occasional leisurely swimming or bike riding are fine) is necessary when you have lost your period or if your adrenals are burnt out.
If you aren't as burnt out as I was but still feel like you don't quite recover from your workouts, take a few more rest days a week. The world will not end. I know, I thought too that it will… 5 years ago, the thought of taking a rest day sounded like the most terrifying thing.
Now I wish I had done it. I probably would have avoided much more serious consequences and I definitely would have slept better.
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