Do you feel tired during the day but wired at night? If so, you’re not alone. A lot of people get more energy at night than during the day, often to the point where it’s difficult to sleep.
There are a few reasons you may have unstable energy levels throughout the day, but one of the most common underlying causes is an imbalance in your daily cortisol rhythm. Cortisol is a hormone that keeps you alert, and if you release too much cortisol at night and not enough during the day, your energy levels can end up skewed.
Here’s a look at how cortisol imbalance works, why it can leave you with a burst of energy right before bed, and how you can rebalance your cortisol and restore your natural daily rhythm.
How Cortisol Influences Your Energy Levels
You may have heard of cortisol before. It’s often described as your body’s stress hormone— you release it in response to stressful situations and it helps to activate your fight-or-flight response.
Many articles focus on lowering your cortisol to relieve symptoms of chronic stress. But cortisol plays other essential roles in your body, and you don’t want your cortisol levels to be too low.
One of cortisol’s most important jobs is regulating your circadian rhythm— the internal clock that controls your sleep-wake cycle over the course of 24 hours. Higher cortisol wakes you up from sleep and keeps you alert throughout the day, and low cortisol makes you tired and helps you fall asleep.
Here’s what a healthy daily cortisol rhythm looks like:https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Blood-cortisol-level-over-the-day-data-source-from-Lovallo-and-Thomas-2000_fig1_278686451
You’ll notice that cortisol spikes right around 6 AM, prompting you to wake up. It gradually declines throughout the day and approaches a low point at bedtime, between 10-12 PM.
A Cortisol Imbalance Can Give You Too Much Energy at Night
The graph above shows your ideal daily cortisol rhythm. But factors like stress, lack of sleep, irregular sleep patterns, and caffeine consumption can throw off your body’s cortisol levels throughout the day.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7830980/https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16204431/
For example, one study found that when healthy young adults got poor sleep one night, the next night their evening cortisol levels were higher than usual and they had trouble falling asleep.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9415946/ This kind of negative feedback loop can get you into a cycle where the more imbalanced your cortisol becomes, the harder it is to correct it.
Another study found that chronically stressed people had a steeper cortisol slope throughout the day, leading to mid-afternoon fatigue and more negative emotions.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30340064/ People with mid-afternoon fatigue often either take naps or drink caffeinated beverages late in the day to try to perk up, further skewing their cortisol rhythm and worsening their sleep-wake cycle imbalance.
How To Balance Your Cortisol Rhythm for More Stable Energy
The good news is that you can influence your cortisol rhythm with a few lifestyle changes. Here are some ways to better regulate your cortisol levels and stabilize your energy throughout the day.
Wake Up at the Same Time Every Morning
Research from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has found that waking up at the same time every day stabilizes your sleep-wake cycle, which can help balance cortisol release throughout the day.https://aasm.org/resources/clinicalguidelines/040515.pdf
If you have too much energy at night and struggle to fall asleep, it may be hard to get on a consistent wakeup schedule. The first few nights you may go to bed late and have to get through the day on only a few hours of sleep.
However, if you can make it through the short-term struggle, your body will adjust, and waking up at the same time every morning will help you balance your cortisol and stabilize your energy levels long-term.
Use Adaptogens to Manage Stress
Adaptogens are compounds that increase your brain’s resilience to stress.
Research shows that adaptogens are good for:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3991026/
- Decreasing fatigue
- Relieving stress
- Decreasing anxiety
- Boosting focus and sustained attention
- Shifting brain function toward a state of homeostasis (balance)
One of the interesting things about adaptogens is that they help level out your brain function, regardless of how it’s imbalanced. If you need more energy, for example, adaptogens will do that— but they’ll also calm you down if you have too much energy. No matter where you are, they bring you to a healthy middle ground.
There are many different adaptogens, including:
- Cordyceps militaris (a type of mushroom)
This supplement quiz will help you find out which adaptogens work best with your unique needs.
Block Blue Light Before Bed
Melatonin is a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. It acts as a counterpart to cortisol: as cortisol drops in the evening, melatonin rises, and you feel tired as a result.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1609019/ The opposite happens in the morning—as cortisol rises, melatonin goes down, helping you wake up.
However, you may be messing with your melatonin levels at night without realizing it. In the couple hours before bed, exposing yourself to blue light—the kind given off by your phone, computer, TV, and other electronics—can inhibit melatonin production and decrease your sleep quality.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30311830/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5703049/
To block blue light, avoid TV an hour before bed and turn on night mode on your computer and smartphone. Night mode automatically filters out blue spectrum light. It makes your screens look amber, which may take a day or two to get used to, but you’ll notice a significant difference in your sleep quality, and your sleep-wake cycle and energy levels should also improve.
No Caffeine After 2 PM
Coffee is a great way to get an extra boost of energy in the morning, but if you drink coffee in the afternoon, you’ll artificially increase your cortisol levels, which may leave you overly alert at bedtime.
A 2005 study looked at how caffeine affects daily cortisol rhythmhttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16204431/. It found that people who only drank caffeine occasionally had a sharp increase in cortisol levels throughout the day.
When people drank caffeine regularly, their bodies adapted, and they saw a smaller increase in cortisol. However, drinking caffeine in the afternoon still caused cortisol levels to rise for several hours.
If you’re already struggling with a cortisol imbalance, drinking coffee after about 2 PM may make things worse. You’re probably better off avoiding any stimulants in the afternoon.
The good news is that you don’t need stimulants to improve your focus and energy levels. If you want to be sharper and more productive throughout the day, try taking this nootropic quiz. It will give you a customized nootropic formula designed to enhance your brain function, based on your unique needs.
If you feel fatigued throughout the day and have too much energy to fall asleep at night, there’s a good chance your cortisol rhythm is out of balance.
Try the lifestyle changes in this article and see if your energy levels stabilize, or talk to a doctor about getting your cortisol levels checked. With the right changes, you can get your circadian rhythm back on track and feel good throughout the day.