Jun 24, 2021
7 mins read
One thing that’s come up regularly throughout quarantine is clients waking up tired even though they slept for a good 8-9 hours. They have to peel themselves out of bed in the morning and it takes longer than usual to feel ready to take on the day.
A cup of coffee might do the trick, but relying on outside stimulation to get our energy levels up isn’t getting to the root of why you’re feeling so sluggish in the first place.
What happens when you sleep
Though you might not move at all while you’re laying in bed, inside your body there’s a lot of work going on while you’re getting some shut-eye.
Here are a few things that happen while you sleep:
Brain cleansing: The glymphatic system (the lymphatic system of the brain) primarily works while you sleep. Its main job is to clear out toxins and waste from the brain. It’s also responsible for the distribution of nutrients that you get from your food, repairing your brain from stress, putting daily memories in order, and releasing growth hormone (which is essential for the daily repair our bodies need).
Liver detoxification: The liver does most of its detoxification process while you’re in deep sleep. Without sleep, this waste can build up and cause sluggishness of the liver. Since the liver is responsible for over 500 jobs in the body, including helping to regulate hormones, you’ll start to feel that something’s off.
Gut repair: The gut gets a chance to rest while you sleep. It works through the digestion process throughout the day as you eat meals and snacks, and nighttime is reserved for restoration. Studies show there is a connection between our microbiome and circadian rhythm, as the gut plays a part in regulating hormones involved with sleep (cortisol and melatonin).
These are just a few of the many ways your body works while you sleep, but I wanted to highlight these because they’re important for hormone health.
So why are you waking up tired?
As you can see, there’s a lot going on while the rest of your body isn’t moving a muscle. Although it’s normal to take a little time and wake up gradually in the morning, if you’re not feeling better within an hour of waking, it’s worth exploring some of these potential root causes:
Not eating adequate meals
Everything that happens while you sleep requires energy. Sounds counterintuitive, I know, because sleep is how you get energy, right?
It really comes from the fuel we give our bodies. We need certain nutrients for these processes to happen, and if the food we eat isn’t replenishing what we use on a daily basis, those processes aren’t functioning as optimally as they could be and it could lead to that sluggishness.
This could be from not having a balanced meal (protein, fat, and fiber is the key combo), nutrient deficiencies, or simply not eating enough food to meet your body’s needs.
Eating too late at night
Ideally, we want to eat dinner at least two or three hours before going to bed. This gives your body a chance to process your dinner, otherwise, your energy is being diverted to digestion while you’re sleeping instead of getting restful and restorative sleep.
I know it can be difficult with busy schedules, but it’s worth experimenting with to see if eating earlier helps you wake up on the right side of the bed in the morning.
Poor sleep hygiene
You spend a third of your life in bed, so make it a sanctuary. How does your mattress feel? Are you comfortable at night? Are your sheets up to par? Here are a few other ways to make your bedroom more conducive to sleep:
Cool temperature (65-68 degrees, or whatever feels cool to you).
Blackout curtains or a sleep mask (here’s the exact one I use).
Remove any bright lights. Cover them with masking tape or put them in another room. (Here’s a super interesting study showing light exposure even away from the eyes can affect your circadian rhythm. More on that below.)
Use earplugs (expansive foam or moldable silicone) to keep out noises.
Turn on a fan or use a white noise machine or app.
Not getting enough sunlight
Getting natural light in your eyes and on your skin sets your circadian rhythm. It helps turn off the melatonin switch that keeps you sleepy and signals to your body it’s time to make cortisol. This is one of our stress hormones, and aside from helping us deal with stress, it also helps us wake up in the morning and makes us feel alert and prepared for the day.
There is what’s called a cortisol curve that is the natural progression of cortisol throughout the day. Ideally, the natural light tells your body it’s time to wake up, melatonin switches off, and cortisol switches on. It should peak within the first hour of waking, and slowly lower as the day goes on. At the end of the day, at its lowest, this signals to melatonin to come do it’s thing to relax you and prepare you for sleep.
If your WFH routine has you cooped up inside, try stepping out for just a few minutes as your coffee brews and see if that helps. And make sure you have a solid breakfast with protein to support your blood sugar and energy.
Too much artificial light at the end of the day
Like I said above, your body naturally releases melatonin in the evening to prepare you for sleep. The warm, orange-toned light of sunset helps you wind down.
Blue-hued light helps us wake up in the morning, but it also emits from screens (phones, computers, TVs), confusing our body at night and altering the cortisol/melatonin cycle (your circadian rhythm). Not the vibe we’re looking for!
Try turning off the screens at least an hour before bed and see if it makes a difference. If that’s not possible, use blue-blocking glasses, download the f.lux app for your computer, and keep the screen brightness as low as you can.
It’s common for those who experience hormonal imbalances like irregular periods, dysmenorrhea (painful cramps), or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) to have poor quality sleep that leaves you exhausted in the morning.
A common occurrence is too-high levels of estrogen (compared to progesterone, another important hormone for menstruation). Estrogen increases body temperature, which can decrease REM sleep, an important part of the sleep cycle. And this doesn’t only happen while you’re bleeding — irregular periods mean your hormones are irregular throughout the 28 days of your cycle.
How you regulate your period depends on why it’s out of whack in the first place, so the finer details should be left to your relationship with a knowledgeable practitioner (I’m happy to talk more about this with you!).
In the meantime, you can follow the moon phases to live more in tune with your cycle and help jumpstart the process of getting back into balance.
Lehtinen, Päivi. “Deep sleep cleanses the brain.” University of Helsinki. Feb. 28, 2019.
Aaling Jessen, Nadia, et al. “The Glymphatic System – A Beginner’s Guide.” Neurochemical Research. 2015 Dec; 40(12): 2583–2599. doi: 10.1007/s11064-015-1581-6
Shigiyama, Fumika, et al. “Mechanisms of sleep deprivation-induced hepatic steatosis and insulin resistance in mice.” American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2018; DOI: 10.1152/ajpendo.00072.2018
Galland, Leo. “The Gut Microbiome and the Brain.” Journal of Medicinal Food. 2014 Dec 1; 17(12): 1261–1272. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2014.7000
Blakeslee, Sandra. “Study Offers Surprise on Working of Body’s Clock.” The New York Times. Jan. 16, 1998
Harding, Edward C., et al. “The Temperature Dependence of Sleep.” Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2019; 13: 336. Published online 2019 Apr 24. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2019.00336