The last post in the Sleep Series focused on several common reasons why cortisol, which should be low in the evening before sleep, can be high and decrease the quality of your sleep. Well, now we know that a sleep deficit, ruminating negative thoughts, a noisy environment, prolonged intense exercise in the evening, caffeine, and chronic undereating can all lead to elevated evening cortisol.
These causes of elevated evening cortisol are not always avoidable, but we still want to sleep well, so what can we do? This post will focus on some solutions! The solutions in this post will focus on effective ways to relax and have fun to bring down evening cortisol. Next post will present nutritional strategies for stress and evening cortisol reduction. Like last time, this is not an exhaustive list, but it is a great start.
6 Ways to Relax and Reduce Evening Cortisol
Coming home stressed and cranky? Cut loose, and by bedtime we’re fine. This is generally true, but relaxation in some forms is better than others. I know some people are thinking of certain fermented beverages (alcohol) right now, but the evidence points to alcohol actually increasing cortisol. I found this interesting as it is a common remedy for a stressful day, but hey, can’t argue with science. What are some better options?
Having a good ol’ laughing session reduces cortisol. Laughter comes from a variety of different situations. You can hang out with your friends and joke around, read a funny article or book, or you can watch a funny movie or TV show. Anything that gets you laughing and having fun will do it. If you opt for the TV show, perhaps less Game of Thrones, and more Archer or Fresh Prince. The latter two are more along the lines of what I’d choose if I was feeling stressed out…
Meditation refers to a variety of practices, but all of them include focus and some type of mind training. The human brain with its advanced neocortex, and in particular its highly pronounced frontal lobe, gives us the ability to reason at a high enough level to see specific situations from many different angles and to project back and forth through time. This is generally a good thing, but if not kept under control it can also lead to chronic emotional disturbance in certain circumstances. During a relatively stressful period of my life in 2011, I took up a form meditation I was taught at a local yoga studio in the hopes of improving my ability to cope with psychological stress. It was a successful undertaking that I still practice today.
The form of meditation I practice is simply sitting on the floor with good posture, hands on knees, eyes closed, and carefully and calmly breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. The goal is to focus entirely on the feeling of air entering and leaving your lungs through the your nasal passages and mouth and not allowing other thoughts to distract from that focus. Other thoughts inevitably occur, but the intention is to allow the thoughts to happen, but not dwell on them. Always back to the breath, and allow the thought to pass through without giving it any attention. For me, I do this 10-30 minutes a day, and have noticed that my focus has improved, and my ability to let go of ruminating thoughts has significantly improved. I’m not a master at this and I still occasionally let cyclical thoughts get the best of me, but my reactions to thoughts are different, less intense, and I have more control.
As far as cortisol goes, meditation definitely brings down cortisol levels. Over time, it puts space between stressful thoughts and your reactions to those thoughts and will improve your ability to stay calm even in the most stressful situations. For sleep, meditation before bed can calm down even the most frazzled mind which can lower cortisol levels and improve sleep quality. It’s a practice worth experimenting with, at the very least.
3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. It involves inducing tension in each muscle group separately, and then releasing this tension and noting the contrast between tension and relaxation. In a six month study of fourteen call centre agents, PMR during lunch breaks reduced evening cortisol as compared to agents who just engaged in a ‘small talk break’ during lunch. PMR reduced evening cortisol better than sitting quietly in another study. Admittedly, I have never tried PMR and only came across it while researching this article, but it has piqued my interest. It seems, in some ways, like an extension of #2 above (meditation). I will be looking for a self-guided program of sorts. Any suggestions?
Music is something I’ve used my whole life for fun and relaxation. I love to listen to great music, and also play guitar and sing. It definitely boosts my mood and relaxes me. And hey, science agrees: music stops the increase in cortisol after a psychological stressor. The same effect held true for patients who were told about a surgery the next day. Those who listened to music after the stressor saw cortisol go down quickly, while those who didn’t had their cortisol remain high for hours. Coming home stressed? Try cranking the tunes!
5. Touch and Massage
A welcome touch from a human being is generally very healthy and known to reduce cortisol levels. On top of basic human contact, massage therapy is very effective at reducing cortisol levels. So, hold your partner’s hand, give someone a hug, and/or get a massage. All will effectively bring down evening cortisol levels. I suspect sexual intercourse falls into this category as well. Have at it.
6. Moderate-Intensity Exercise
The previous post in this series discussed how prolonged intense exercise increases cortisol, and if it’s in the evening it can cut into sleep quality. That being said, being in good shape and having a high training status generally lowers cortisol and lowers cortisol secretion in response to stress. So, I’m all for intense exercise so as to be in great shape, but keep it ideally a few hours from bedtime.
Moderate-intensity exercise, on the other hand, is known to lower cortisol levels. Examples of moderate-intensity exercise include brisk-walking, easy cycling, easy swimming, yoga, and tai-chi. Bringing these types of moderate intensity activities into your life on a consistent basis is a great strategy for lowering stress levels in general, but when performed in the evening they can help you to lower cortisol and prepare for high quality sleep. Sitting around your apartment feeling anxious is not going to help – go for a walk or bike ride! Just be sure to take it easy, or your cortisol levels can go even higher. In general, if you’re huffing and puffing and feeling quite strained, you are going too hard to reduce cortisol and the opposite might occur.
Bonus points for making your moderate-intensity exercise a fun activity outside! Playing, which means engaging in activity just for fun, is known to lower cortisol levels. Doubly so when doing this in a more natural environment with grass and trees which will also result in a drop in stress. So, perhaps go toss a frisbee or kick a ball with a friend at the park? Sounds stress-relieving to me!
So, above are six ways to lower stress and cortisol in the evening to improve sleep quality and allow for greater recovery from stress. High quality sleep will also improve your ability to handle stress the next day. There are definitely more ways to go about it, but this list is a great start. Next post in this series will focus on nutritional strategies for stress management to improve sleep.
Readers – what do you do to relax in and unwind before sleep?