You’ve got more work deadlines than you’ve had hot dinners in weeks. You have 26 – and counting – unread messages, but you’ve barely had time to glance at them. Yes, you’re exhausted. But you’re looking forward to a HL360 workout tonight, before catching up on those emails, collapsing in front of the TV then rolling into bed for a good sleep.
Except it never quite works out like that, does it?
Instead of falling straight into a deep, restorative slumber, you’re wide awake and worrying how you’re going to cope with the whole thing all over again tomorrow. And that’s because you’ve been unwittingly messing with your body’s natural cycle and stress response during the day. More specifically, you could well be suffering from adrenal fatigue.
‘Our adrenals are small glands on top of the kidneys, which release the stress hormone cortisol,’ explains nutritional therapist and naturopath Alexandra Neilan. ‘When we’re stressed, the adrenals pump out cortisol – and when the stressor is eradicated, the adrenals can rest. If we expose the body to constant stress, the adrenals start to become worn out, leaving us tired and wired. We’re surrounded by factors that put our bodies under strain and cause a stress response, even if we don’t realise this is happening. And our adrenals don’t know the difference between a real and perceived threat.’ So despite rushing headlong through the day, hoping to sleep soundly at the end of it, you could actually be priming your body to stay super-alert at night. And even some of the things you do in a bid to relax and de-stress may be exacerbating the problem
CULPRIT: YOUR FAVOURITE WORKOUT
Been upping the intensity of your workouts or hitting the gym more often? You might expect a gruelling workout to leave you dead to the world as soon as your head hits the pillow, but instead you lie awake, exhausted but unable to sleep. In fact, post-exercise insomnia is a recognised phenomenon. Exercise revs up your heart rate, raises your temperature and stimulates your nervous and hormonal systems. The tougher the exercise, the more stimulated your body becomes and, if the stress on your body is too high, elevated levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline can hang around in your body for up to 48 hours, disrupting your bodyclock and natural sleep/wake cycles.
Dehydration or caffeinated energy drinks can also raise your body temperature and heart rate, which is why you may lie awake with your heart pounding in your ears. If you habitually work off the stresses and strains of the day with a punishing lateevening gym session, it’s time for a rethink. Evening workouts can interfere with your internal body clocks and discourage fitful sleep. ‘Late-night exercise in a gym or on a treadmill can increase cortisol to morning levels and delay the nightly rise of [sleep hormone] melatonin,’ says Dr Satchin Panda, author of The Circadian Code (Vermilion. £12.99). ‘Intense exercise also raises body temperature and heart rate. All of these factors interfere with your ability to go to sleep. You may be resetting your clock by sending a signal that it’s earlier in the day. What’s more, if you do very intense exercise at night, the brain thinks it’s dusk, when we’re typically more active, so it delays melatonin production.’
THE SOLUTION: Take stock of your workouts – are you overtraining or going at it too hard? If so, reduce your training load and see if it helps. Ensure you have enough water and avoid caffeinated drinks. Aim to schedule any high-intensity exercise earlier in the day. Early morning is best as this will lift your mood and make you more alert before work. Or, if you really can’t miss that circuits class, at least take a shower before bedtime to help your body cool down ready for sleep. If you simply go to the gym to unwind, try a more gentle, low-impact class, such as yoga. Yoga nidra – a guided sleep meditation that reduces stress hormones – is particularly effective.
CULPRIT: YOUR DREAM JOB
Even in a job you love, pressure to perform is one of the key reasons why you can’t wind down and rest properly at night. ‘Being so driven leaves you stuck in “always-doing” mode, leaving no time for recovery and rebalance,’ says business psychologist Susan Scott. ‘This comes from over-activating the adrenals, so we’re stuck in “fight or flight” response. You may feel your only choice is to go with it but, if you don’t take better care of yourself, you’ll increase your susceptibility to burnout.’
THE SOLUTION: Take a five-minute break from work every hour to give your body time to recover and reset. Don’t make yourself available 24/7 – switch off work phones and never check emails out of hours. Learn to say no. A herbal remedy may also help. ‘By modifying the release of stress hormones, adaptogenic herbs, such as ginseng, ensure you’re expending and conserving energy in a manageable way that won’t leave you feeling frazzled,’ explains medical herbalist Katie Pande, PUkka’s senior herbal advisor. ‘Or ashwagandha is a strengthening adaptogen that helps calm a busy mind and reduce anxiety to aid restful sleep.’
CULPRIT: YOUR ‘HEALTHY’ DIET
You don’t need us to tell you that the busy woman’s fallback of takeaways, ready meals, caffeine and sugary snacks are a no-no if you want to work hard, play hard and sleep well. Indeed, you may pride yourself on your healthy, balanced diet. But it’s not just what you eat, but when you eat, that makes a difference. Eating your main meal late at night after a busy day will mean your body spends half the night digesting it. It can also severely impact your cognitive function, say University of California researchers. The result? You’re even more anxious and wired.
THE SOLUTION: Stick to regular mealtimes – and try to eat your main meal at lunchtime. Vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium are key to nourishing the adrenals and protecting the body under stress. ‘Magnesium is known as “nature’s
CULPRIT: YOUR DOWNTIME
So you’ve finally got time before bed to answer those social emails and catch up on Netflix? Just say no! ‘The blue light emitted from screens stimulates the pineal gland and tricks the brain into producing melanopsin, a chemical that keeps us awake,’ warns Alexandra Neilan.
THE SOLUTION: Avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime: read a book, meditate or have a warm bath instead.