If You’re Sleeping Poorly, It Could Mean Your Estrogen Is Off
How imbalanced hormones can make you toss and turn.
Ask anyone: When you don’t get enough sleep, you can feel literally ill the next day.
When you’re staying up late after a marathon Netflix session…well, you know who to blame. But it’s an especially frustrating set of affairs when you’re doing everything “right,” and yet when the lights go out, your conscious brain does not.
After all, you’re eating well. You’re avoiding too much caffeine and alcohol. You’re even exercising, because you know that fitness helps sleep hygiene. So, what gives with the unwanted wakefulness?
If you are one of the millions of women who suffer from insomnia, then imbalanced estrogen levels could be at the root of the problem.
Often, this is due to a drop-off in a woman’s progesterone production, which is affected both by age and stress levels. Helping to soothe your nervous system and lessen anxiety, progesterone is your calming hormone; when its levels start to fall, estrogen levels begin to rise. This is what we call “estrogen dominance,” an internal state marked by a variety of not-so-desirable symptoms – including insomnia. As the National Sleep Foundation notes:
“During the course of perimenopause through menopause, a woman’s ovaries gradually decrease production of estrogen and progesterone, a sleep-promoting hormone. The shifting of ratios of hormones can be an unsettling process, sometimes contributing to the inability to fall asleep.”
To put a finer point on it: a 2006 study published in Current Medical Chemistry noted that “progesterone exerts a sleep induction or hypnotic effect and is a potent respiratory stimulant that has been associated to a decrease in the number of central and obstructive sleep apnea episodes.” In other words, progesterone doesn’t just help you fall asleep; it helps you breathe while you sleep.
But off-kilter estrogen levels can result in more than wakefulness, pointing to the lack of progesterone in a woman’s body. They can prompt hot flashes: surges of adrenaline that can make you sweat, and toss off the sheets in a fit of discomfort. When this happens, it can take time for adrenaline levels to recede, leaving you staring up into the dark, totally unable to fall back into slumber.
Now, let’s talk about an additional factor compounding your lack of sleep: generalized fatigue.
Isn’t it ironic when you can’t fall (or stay) asleep, even when you’ve been walking around in a foggy, fatigued daze all day?
Fatigue is a serious health issue with a variety of causes, but if you’re an otherwise healthy woman, then here again: low progesterone levels (and potentially too-high estrogen levels) could be a factor. Progesterone in women is responsible for nearly all the mental and physical traits associated with youth and vitality in a younger woman, impacting nearly all cells of a woman’s body. This key hormone has multiple effects and functions, including serotonin production, memory, bone strength, and conversion of stored fat to energy. When it’s depleted, fatigue can result. But as the Institute of Endocrinology and Preventative Medicine notes, disorders of thyroid hormone, testosterone, cortisol, and growth hormone can also all cause sleep disorders – so if insomnia and fatigue plague you, it may not be a bad idea to see an endocrinologist for testing.
Another note here on fatigue and insomnia: even if you’re able to power through the day with a cup of coffee and a smile (as so many women do!), it’s worth pointing out that over time, sleep deprivation has a cascade effect on your health and other hormones. As Vanessa Bennington writes for Breaking Muscle:
“Sleep deprivation has been shown to lower leptin (an appetite-suppressing hormone produced by fat cells, which is normally produced in abundance at night) and increase ghrelin, (a hormone released by the stomach that stimulates hunger, which is also secreted at night but normally in lesser amounts). Research subjects were found to have an increased sense of hunger and tended to reach for carbohydrate-dense, sweet, and salty foods when sleep deprived.”
This helps explain why sleep deprivation – which statistically affects women more than men – is linked to decreased glucose tolerance (i.e. how easily your body’s cells can recognize glucose in your blood and gobble it up for themselves, where it will fuel activity), and in some cases, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In fact, the latest research now tells us that study subjects who slept less than 5-6 hours per night were, shockingly, twice as likely to develop diabetes. You probably also won’t be surprised to hear that the double-whammy of fatigue and insomnia is also associated with weight gain: research shows that sleep-wise, the greatest risk for obesity is among those getting only 2-4 hours of sleep a night.
But before full-blown diabetes and obesity enter the picture, you probably have a keen sense of the everyday, less-obvious-but-still-debilitating symptoms of sleep deprivation if you’re a sufferer. When hormones are out of balance, and you’re not getting the sleep you need, irritability and anger are a lot more hair-trigger. Relationships and productivity can suffer. These interpersonal dynamics become a lot more dramatic when you’re chronically underslept, especially when progesterone and estrogen are out of whack, and your hormone levels are already not working in your favor.
The most important effects of properly balanced progesterone in women include reduction of mood swings, improvement of brain functioning, (especially memory and thought development processes), maintenance of vascular and cardiovascular health, lower risk of endometrial cancer, increased strength and resilience of bones to help reduce risk of osteoporosis, reduced risk of gallbladder disease and promotion of a healthy digestive tract, a healthier immune system and better conversion of stored fat into energy – and, yes, better sleep. What’s more: healthy levels of progesterone help yield healthy estrogen levels, which are critical for getting a good night’s rest.
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