How sleep impacts your hormones

Breaking down how the quality of our rest affects our bodies on a chemical level.

How sleep impacts your hormones

By now you’re probably well aware that sleep – specifically, good quality sleep – is a crucial part of your health and wellness. You may already know that good sleep can help you lose weight, improve your heart and mental health, and help you concentrate better, but did you know it can also affect your hormones?

“Sleep is essential to humans because it is the time that the body releases hormones to our bloodstreams such as ADH [antidiuretic hormone], growth hormone, prolactin and oxytocin,” says Chris Norris, certified sleep science coach and founder at SleepStandards.com.

“Because hormones are secreted while we sleep, lack of sleep will result in hormonal imbalance. For instance, decreased secretion for growth hormones may lead to serious developmental problems for children, while for adults it can cause fatigue, dry skin, anxiety, and decreased muscle strength.”

“Both inadequate amounts of sleep and poor quality sleep can affect our hormones,” adds licensed naturopathic physician Dr. Janelle Louis, ND.

So, you want to make sure you’re 1) not skimping on sleep, and 2) getting good quality sleep.

Though sleep plays a role in the production and regulation of a number of hormones, three of the big ones are cortisol, the stress hormone; leptin, which tells your body you’re not hungry; and ghrelin, which tells your body you are hungry.

Here’s how it works:

Hunger

“The hunger and satiety hormones are influenced by sleep,” explains Trista Best, registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements. “These hormones are responsible for regulating food intake, which can impact nutrition quality.”

The microbiome (digestive bacteria located in the gut) is also linked to sleep quality, she adds. “A bad night’s sleep can interrupt the body’s circadian rhythm and the microbiome’s rhythm as well. When sleep disturbances occur, the gut becomes imbalanced because [it] depend[s] on the body’s night and day schedule.”

“Leptin is a hormone that communicates satiety, meaning that it tells our brains that we’re not hungry,” says Louis. When we aren’t getting enough sleep, we have lower levels of leptin, she says, leading to us feeling hungrier, eating more and, in many cases, gaining weight.

And just as enough good quality sleep can potentially help you lose weight, the opposite can do, well, the opposite. A 2010 study determined that lack of sleep was a potential factor causing obesity, and the reasons have to do with these kinds of hormone imbalances. The researchers examined studies “indicating that sleep restriction results in metabolic and endocrine alterations, including decreased glucose tolerance, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased evening concentrations of cortisol, increased levels of ghrelin, decreased levels of leptin and increased hunger and appetite.”

Stress

Sleep is also a critical tool for managing stress, and not getting enough good sleep can actually make you more stressed out.

“Poor sleep leads to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” Louis says. “If our cortisol levels are elevated for prolonged periods of time, it can lead to weight gain, especially in the abdominal region.”

“When cortisol is imbalanced, symptoms can include brain fog, fatigue, interrupted sleep or bouts of insomnia, weight gain in the midsection, blood sugar imbalances and imbalances in progesterone, estrogen and testosterone,” adds Melissa Gallagher, naturopath (ND), nutritionist and medical advisor to Sovereign Laboratories. “Over time, overall adrenal gland function can even decrease and cause additional symptoms like extreme fatigue, sleep disturbances, nervousness, anxiety, low blood pressure, allergies, salt/sugar cravings and imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA [Gamma aminobutyric acid].”

High cortisol levels can also increase our risk for multiple chronic diseases, Louis says, including hypertension, insulin resistance and diabetes, depression, and other chronic physical and mental health concerns.

For tips on getting good quality sleep, check out our guides on How to overcome nighttime disturbances and How exercise impacts your sleep.