Low Cortisol

Strategies for sleep


Sleep: We know it’s important, but what happens to your hormones when we don’t get enough? Or how about when you do?!

Sleep is important to everything we do. Everything we do can be improved by getting adequate, quality sleep for our body’s needs — from fighting illness or cancer to building relationships, to our performance at our favorite activities or at work. That also goes for keeping our hormones in harmony. Numerous hormones are regulated by your sleep, just as there are hormones that you need to help you sleep.

I’ll start by covering this fab seven:

  • Melatonin
  • Cortisol
  • Insulin
  • Human growth hormone
  • Ghrelin
  • Leptin
  • Progesterone

When these hormones are off their game, you’ll notice things like:

  • Sleep trouble
  • Cravings for or dependence on carbs
  • Unstable energy or energy dips
  • Changes in appetite
  • Trouble with stress
  • Mood changes, such as irritability, depression, or anxiety
  • Weight changes or changes in the distribution of weight
  • Muscle loss
  • Frequent infections, illness or allergies
  • Trouble recovering from exercise, stressful events, or illness
  • Shifts or imbalances in other hormones

Which hormone type are you?

Learn to finally ditch the fatigue, cravings, moodiness, brain fog, skin woes, overwhelm — & more — by discovering your personal blueprint to optimized health & hormones.

Melatonin & Cortisol

The hormones melatonin and cortisol help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Melatonin rises with a reduction of light and continues to rise until the early morning. Cortisol drops to its lowest levels in the evening at bedtime, preparing you for rest.

They follow a diurnal pattern, as do many other important hormones. After a good night’s sleep, cortisol rises in the morning, waking you up and helping you feel alert.

Insulin & Growth Hormone

Important for our metabolism, blood sugar balance, and sleep, insulin will rise to help manage increasing blood sugar levels, often after eating or when under stress. In the evening after dinner, it declines to allow its opposing hormone, growth hormone, to increase. When insulin — as well as our blood sugar levels — fluctuate throughout the night, or when we’ve had a late meal or drinks that cause insulin to work late, this will not only impact your sleep but can affect other hormonal patterns as well.

Cortisol and growth hormone are two of the hormones affected. Growth hormone helps growth and repair — growth of new cells, and repair of damaged ones.It’s important for our immune system, healthy aging, and helps with recovery from the load of the day.

When we lack sleep, or when it’s interrupted by insulin or dysregulated blood sugar levels at night, growth hormone will decline, as will our body’s ability to fully recover, renew and repair.

Ghrelin & Leptin

Ghrelin stimulates your appetite while leptin decreases it. Leptin is produced in our adipose tissue (fat cells) and helps regulate our appetite, metabolism, and calorie burning by inhibiting hunger when we have enough fat stores for energy.

Lack of sleep is associated with increased ghrelin and reduced leptin, causing an increase in appetite and a reduction in fat burning.


Progesterone is calming, supports sleep, and helps regulate body temperature. Drops in progesterone just before a woman’s period, or later in life as progesterone begins to slow down, can affect sleep, especially if out of balance with estrogen.

Low Cortisol

How much sleep do we actually need?

The amount of sleep you or anyone needs depends on the person and your:

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • Overall health
  • Current hormone status
  • Diet & Lifestyle (does it support stress or add to it?)
  • Fitness & activity level (the more demanding, the more you need)
  • Total stress load (the higher the levels the more you need)
  • You’re overall resilience
  • And there’s likely something I left off…

Different phases of our life, stressful events, fighting off illnesses or recovering all require a shift in sleep. Too often though, we’re not in the habit of syncing our sleep to our needs day by day.

How about you? In my years of working in fitness, I often noticed a trend: the bigger the stress load or ability to cope with said stress, the less sleep one gets. Perhaps you’ve witnessed this too? Regardless of the amount we need, getting to sleep and staying asleep can be a challeng for many of us.

If you’re currently struggling with sleep or it could be improved, here are some hormone-supportive suggestions:

  • Give yourself permission to rest. Driven women that get things done often have a hard time resting and may even feel guilty about getting to sleep early, sleeping in, or taking extra hours out of the day for sleep. Guilt leads to stress and then reduces the quality of the sleep you do get. Great sleep starts with permission to get the quality and quantity of sleep you need and deserve to feel and show up your best.
  • Aim for a similar sleep time each night and wake time each morning, this helps regulate cortisol’s diurnal pattern.
  • Dim lights 2 hours or more before and refrain from using devices with blue light, this helps boost melatonin before bed.
  • Sleep in a quiet, cool, dark room and cover any ambient light. Melatonin is regulated by the light we pick up through our retinas. Even with lids closed, melatonin can be disrupted.
  • Wear quality blue-light blocking glasses if you must be on a blue-light device at night,recommended only occasionally. (I get mine from my optician.)
  • Choose activities that help you relax and wind down in the hours leading up to bedtime. And skip high (often even moderate) intensity exercise in the afternoon. This helps keep cortisol at the lower evening and nighttime levels.
  • Eat dinner at least 3 or 4 hours before bed to reduce insulin release near or during sleep and increase growth hormone.
  • Introduce sleep supportive herbs like lemon balm, chamomile, milky oat, valerian, hops, passionflower, magnolia, and kava kava. This could be in a tea, tincture, or capsule. One person may respond differently from another. Find one that works for you and follow the indications on the package. With longstanding sleep issues, it may take some time and patience. Check with your primary health care practitioner about your unique situation before starting herbs.
  • Introduce sleep-supportive nutritional supplements such as magnesium or B6. Follow indications on the package and ideally, work with a knowledgeable practitioner who can support and suggest others that could be helpful to your body’s unique needs.
  • Limit or skip alcohol, especially close to bedtime.
  • Swap out or reduce coffee or other caffeinated beverages, especially after 11 am.
  • Eat progesterone supportive foods 7 to 10 days before your period, if you have one. Progesterone is calming and can help improve sleep. Not sure where to start? Check out this post!
  • Get outside in the natural light in the early morning – preferably in the first 30 minutes of the day. Getting natural light in your eyes (not via a window) helps to reset your natural circadian rhythm and supports bettersleep.
  • Incorporate daily stress balancing tools to help better manage insulin, cortisol, and progesterone, amongst others, at nighttime. Ideas include:
    • calming baths,
    • walks in nature,
    • listening to music,
    • meditation,
    • gentle yoga,
    • singing,
    • breathwork,
    • Heartmath,
    • cuddling a pet,
    • naps,
    • fun games with friends or family,
    • reading an enjoyable book

We’re all unique in our sleep needs and what works for optimizing our sleep may not work for another. Try some of these out for size and see what works for you. With a bit of trial and error, my hope is that you’ll notice some shifts in your sleep.

Further Reading:

Sleep, health and hormones with Amisha Klawonn 

Matthew Walker (2017), Why we sleep – The new science of sleep and dreams

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, manage, or treat disease or serious conditions. Always check with your doctor before making any changes. It’s important to consult a well-informed health practitioner for personal advice about your situation before relying on general information we’re all wonderfully unique.

Laurie Villarreal, FNLP, CHWC, FNS, LMC, CPT, RYT

Hi, I'm Laurie, a functional nutritionist and board certified health coach, athlete, dog-mom, and biohacking adventure-lover. After having struggled for years to find lasting solutions for my own debilitating hormone-related symptoms, I created my online practice to begin helping other active, driven women get the support they need. I now help  women around the world elevate their health, energy, business and life by optimizing their hormones with personalized nutrition and lifestyle tweaks. Together, we discover new tools and strategies that keep you showing up at your best so you can play even bigger in your life and work.

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