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Over 91% of the people I work with report that Sunday night’s sleep tends to be worse than any other nights. Regardless of what the root cause of their sleep issues are, even mild emotional tension and anticipation anxiety can make it harder to fall asleep. 

If you are like me, we often block most of our worries on the weekend. Sunday afternoon comes along, though, and we notice thoughts creeping in—another Monday morning is coming soon!! We do a “reality check” and we often don’t like what we see. Perhaps we have too much on our plates or we don’t like our jobs. Regardless of why, there is a big overwhelm that makes the sleep more difficult. 

What happens when sleep is worse on Sunday nights?

The biggest reason why your sleep is worse on Sunday night is anticipation anxiety. Anticipation anxiety is when we worry and stress about events that will happen in the future. We all do it to a certain degree mostly every day, but it can kick in more so at the end of a weekend. 

This increase in stress can be mild, almost like an afterthought, or more severe, with nagging crazy thoughts that are almost giving you a panic attack. Everyone is affected differently, however even small amounts of stress hormones can create issues for hours and hours and affect your sleep negatively. 

The stress hormone cortisol and sleep

Cortisol is most well known as the stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands (found on top of your kidneys). Cortisol is produced along with adrenaline, in response to “danger.” Danger can mean actually being in physical danger, though most often we experience negative thoughts that our bodies perceive as if something bad is about to happen. 

When there is an immediate danger, the adrenaline kicks in within a split second. Like when you are driving and think you are about to get in a car accident, that instant feeling as if someone punched you in the gut—that is adrenaline. It comes in fast, and if the danger passes, it clears out fast and you feel calm and happy again in no time. 

Cortisol also comes along to help with the danger at hand. However, cortisol is not instantly available like adrenaline is; it takes about 10 minutes to be produced. The problem with the cortisol, once produced, is that it takes a couple of hours to be cleared out of your body. Which means you will feel anxious and wound up for a couple of hours. So the more you worry, the more it’s produced and the harder you have to work to calm yourself down. 

When the cortisol is high in the evening or at night, you can’t sleep well. The body says, “wait, there is a problem, stay awake to deal with it!” It’s the wise thing to do, right? But not great if there is no real danger and you are trying to get some good rest. 

So let’s explore next how you can regulate your cortisol so you can sleep peacefully on Sunday nights. 

How to regulate the stress hormone cortisol and other strategies to sleep well again 

There are various strategies on how to regulate your cortisol better and support your nervous system so you can sleep better in general, but specifically on Sunday nights. 

  1. Bring more routine in your sleep schedule. The more we keep the same sleep hours, the more balanced the cortisol is. Cortisol is not all bad. In fact it does a bunch of amazing things, such as giving us that oomph in the morning and helping with our blood sugar balance, which also gives us wonderful energy. As tempting as it is to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday mornings, don’t do it. Instead, take a 30-minute rest (not longer!) between 1 and 3pm. (Read more on naps here.) It’s okay to stay up a little later on Friday or Saturday, but keep your wake-up time the same as during the weekdays and take a siesta in the afternoon. 
  2. Use your Friday to prepare for Monday. One of the biggest reasons why we start having some stress on Sunday afternoons or evenings is a certain amount of overwhelm. Changing the circumstances of why you dread the beginning of the week may or may not be doable right now (do change things if you can!), but what you have control over is spending even just 15 minutes on Friday to organize and plan your Monday and even some of the week. Simply write down tasks, worries, homework you need work on and whatever else is on your mind in one column. On the second column jot down possible solutions, dates, people to call, etc. If on Sunday afternoon you start ruminating about any of these things, just tell your mind, they are on that piece of paper and I’ll deal with them on Monday. If they are not on that list, pull it out and add them on! This will dampen the stress response that usually kicks in and will help you fall asleep easier. 
  3. Use herbs and supplements to regulate your nervous system. Some of my absolute favorite herbs are called adaptogenic herbs—they modulate the stress hormones and help you respond better to stressors. They help you feel less on edge and a lot more resilient. Formulas that contain ashwagandha, rhodiola, and holy basil, taken consistently for a few months, can make a significant difference in your sleep. The formula that I take these days is HPA Adapt from Pure Encapsulations. 
  4. Keep your meals consistent to support healthy cortisol and sleep better. Cortisol has this amazing ability to protect us from danger. If you have low blood sugar (which the brain doesn’t like) and the body needs quick energy, you will get a burst of cortisol to produce more glucose. Of course, that further stresses the adrenal glands, by requiring them to work harder. What keeps your blood sugar levels nice and steady throughout the day is eating consistently, eating fewer refined carbs and sugar, and eating more complete meals that have some carbs, but also plenty of healthy protein and fats. The higher the highs in blood sugar (when eating too much sugar or simple carbs) the bigger the lows will follow, which then will signal to cortisol to bring some glucose to use for energy, as soon as possible. 
  5. Keep your body engaged physically and use techniques to calm your mind. It’s no secret that moving your body physically relieves stress. Find what you like to do the most and do it consistently. Regardless whether it’s yoga, walking with your dog, sprinting every morning, going to the gym, biking, etc., it’s most important to enjoy it and keep up with it. To help calm your mind, use a meditation app and start with even just 5 minutes per day. One of the things that I hear most from people is that they tried meditation and it doesn’t work. Meditating is not about emptying your mind and if you’re not successful, you’ve failed. It’s about being where you are at and to keep doing it. If you have a crazy racy mind, just observe that for 5 minutes. The next time you might feel like knots in your stomach, just notice and breathe through that. Or you might have 1,000 thoughts racing through your mind. Just be where you’re at, stick with it, and you’ll notice how this acceptance and awareness of where you are is gradually bringing you peace. This will calm your nervous system down, balance your cortisol, and help you sleep better. My favorite free app is Insight Timer. Amazing free meditations there, including my own sleep-inducing meditation (search for my full name in the app to find it). 

These ideas should help you gradually feel better and better, and sooner rather than later you’ll notice that you are feeling more at peace on Sunday and have an easier time falling asleep. 

If you want to understand your cortisol patterns one step further, I can run a 6-point saliva cortisol test to see exactly what is happening in your body and be more specific on how to heal it with herbs and supplements. Make an appointment and I’d be happy to help you. 

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