Sleep Deprivation and Cortisol – What You Need to Know
Any new parent can confirm that not getting enough sleep is stressful. But did you know that chronic sleep deprivation actually increases cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in the body?
Whether you’re three months old or three decades old, inadequate sleep negatively affects the body in various ways, especially if it goes on long-term.
Many parents worry about the potential effects of ‘sleep training’ with regards to elevated cortisol levels.
But in reality, a long-term lack of sleep due to poor sleep hygiene and mismanaged routines is more likely to be detrimental than a short-term, gentle, personalised approach to helping your child get into a healthy sleep cycle.
If sleep deprivation is an issue for you or your baby, let’s talk about it.
In this blog, you’ll learn how cortisol affects sleep, how sleep deprivation presents in adults and infants, and find out what research has revealed about sleep training.
The Role Of Cortisol And Sleep
Cortisol is mainly recognised as the “stress hormone.” It is part of the body’s fight or flight response, which is triggered when we face a threat.
However, cortisol has other vital functions, such as regulating blood pressure, balancing blood sugar, regulating energy levels, and playing a role in the sleep-wake cycle.
Working in sync with melatonin (the hormone that helps prepare the body for sleep), cortisol levels fluctuate during the 24-hour cycle, helping us wake up and drift off when we need to.
In a balanced cycle, cortisol levels peak in the morning at around 9 am, helping us be alert and active. They decline during the day, dropping to lower levels in the evening to allow our bodies to rest.
However, cortisol can get out of whack, throwing our bodies out of balance and causing issues with sleep. If we’re stressed out, the brain produces excess cortisol, making it difficult to sleep.
At the same time, if we don’t get enough sleep, cortisol levels can increase, making it more difficult to catch up on sleep, and getting us stuck in a vicious cycle of stress and sleep deprivation.
It’s often hard to tell whether the stress caused the lack of sleep or the lack of sleep caused the stress – the old “chicken or the egg” scenario.
Regardless, chronic sleep deprivation and cortisol elevation can be problematic.
The Effects Of Increased Cortisol And Chronic Sleep Deprivation
Elevated cortisol levels over a prolonged period can cause various health problems, from weight gain, fatigue, and brain fog to depression, anxiety, a compromised immune system, and of course, sleep issues.
If you’re not sleeping well or have a child that isn’t getting enough sleep, you’ll know exactly what that feels like and looks like, but let’s review what the research says.
Sleep Deprivation in Babies
According to a study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine,
“bedtime problems and frequent night wakings are highly prevalent in young children, occurring in approximately 20% to 30% of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.”
The study revealed that sleep problems that first occur in infancy could persist throughout pre-school and school-aged years and become chronic.
The effects of sleep disruption and/or insufficient sleep were shown to negatively affect cognitive development, such as learning and memory. Mood regulation was also affected, with sleep-deprived kids being more irritable and less able to control their impulses.
Children found it difficult to focus and experienced behavioural issues such as aggressiveness and hyperactivity. General health is also impacted, with hampered metabolic and immune function, more accidental injuries, and decreased quality of life.
Here are some signs that your infant or toddler may not be getting enough sleep:
● Irritable when awake
● Poor appetite
● Fussiness (particularly in toddlers)
● Clingy and experiencing extreme separation anxiety
● Persistent early rising (very common in overtired children with increased cortisol levels)
● Ongoing bedtime battles and prolonged settling
Sleep Deprivation in Parents
Unfortunately, adults are not immune to the adverse effects of sleep deprivation. If your sleep is disrupted because of your child’s sleep cycle, you may find yourself experiencing some of the following symptoms:
● Increased anxiety
● Feelings of resentment towards your child
● Low mood and/or mood swings
● Poor relationship with your partner
● Difficulty with focus and memory
● Brain fog
● Weight gain
● Sugar cravings (particularly in the afternoon)
Does Sleep Training Elevate Cortisol Levels?
With sleep and cortisol so closely linked, it’s natural to wonder about the effects of sleep training.
During the early stages of working on your child’s sleep cycles, there will be a period where they (and you) are sleep deprived as they adjust to new routines.
Does this mean that their cortisol levels will rise and make things even worse?
The research is pretty conclusive: sleep training – even the more traditional “cry it out” approach – is not damaging for babies. In fact, one review of 56 different studies said:
“Adverse secondary effects as the result of participating in behaviorally based sleep programs were not identified in any of the studies. On the contrary, infants who participated in sleep interventions were found to be more secure, predictable, less irritable, and to cry and fuss less following treatment."
This study also looked at the impact of sleep training on parental mental health and found that:
“Following intervention for their child’s sleep disturbance, parents exhibited rapid and dramatic improvements in their overall mental health status, reporting fewer symptoms of depression. They reported an increased sense of parenting efficacy, enhanced marital satisfaction, and reduced parenting stress."
Does Sleep Training Stress Babies?
But what about cortisol levels? Will your baby be stressed out by sleep training and suffer because of it?
Cortisol levels can rise for a variety of reasons, particularly if we are stressed. However, one of the most common reasons for elevated cortisol in children is the stress caused by long-term sleep deprivation.
Your child is more likely to experience raised cortisol levels if you don’t get a handle on their sleep than if you undertake gentle, gradual sleep training.
A study from the journal Pediatrics showed that babies sleep trained using the Ferber or camping-out method did not have an increased risk of emotional, psychological or behavioural disorders at age six.
Conversely, the babies in the control group who were not sleep trained had a higher risk of behaviour disorders (and their mothers a higher risk of depression.)
The Benefits Of Sleep Training
As you have read above, the benefits of sleep training are numerous. Gentle, gradual techniques are unlikely to cause elevated cortisol levels and are, in fact, more likely to resolve the higher levels associated with inadequate sleep.
When I finish working with families, the differences parents report is quite significant.
Here are some of the common changes they notice:
● Brighter, more alert facial expressions in young babies
● Increase in appetite and less fussiness (often significant in toddlers)
● More focused concentration
● Less separation anxiety (baby no longer cries when mum leaves the room or moves away)
● Increase in cognitive functioning (more vocal, increase in vocabulary, improved play skills, willingness to learn)
● Less emotional and more controlled emotions
Mums also experience a significant reduction in anxiety and mood and are less tearful.
If you’d like to help your people sleep well (and experience the delicious benefits of more sleep yourself), contact me today to find out how I can help you and your family.