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Image by Annie Spratt


Food Fabulous

Notes from midlife

How to hack your sleep hormones

Sleep matters, big time.

You know this deep down. No, not even deep down. You know that things aren’t so good when you don’t get to sleep well regularly. Without enough sleep, you create an uphill battle in so many different ways.

It’s an essential and natural part of life.

And yet we seem to think it’s OK – or admirable in fact – to scape by with as little of the stuff as possible. Almost as though it were a competition.

To be successful, you need to work harder, sleep less – catch up on sleep when you’re dead…

Sleep impacts on your ability to lose weight, it affects how fast you age, can prevent cancer, and dictates whether or not you are able to function at a high level.

Most people get that on a conceptual level, but I want you to get really present to why that is and what the consequences to you are of not having enough.

Unless you already know you struggle with your sleep you are probably in the space where you think ‘yes, it’s easy, I could do more of that any time I choose’.

And you don’t.

pink sleep mask

What is the purpose of sleep?

To rest and recover – and allow the body to repair itself. This is vital.

These maintenance and repair processes take 7 to 9 hours.

That’s why adults need between 7 and 9 hours per night – regardless of what you think you have trained yourself to get by with. If you are regularly getting less than 6 hours a night, you will be building up a big sleep deficit and I’m sorry to tell you that you can’t just make it all up by sleeping longer at the weekend.

It’s not just the quantity but the quality that matters. I’m going to be sharing some tips about that in a second.

What happens when you don’t sleep?

You already know that life doesn’t look so great and you get irritable when you don’t sleep. The negative effects are pretty far-reaching but I just want to draw your attention to a few things you may or may not know.

Lack of sleep creates high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which makes you eat more and store more belly fat. Fact.

Your thyroid levels drop. Given the thyroid is the body’s internal motor, this is not a good thing. Everything works at a slower speed (think of a record player playing slow) and that includes the rate at which your body burns energy.

Insulin doesn’t work as well, leading to blood sugar problems (cravings, lack of energy) and increased fat storage.

There’s also an increased risk of cancer (quadrupled), diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease – you may or may not be concerned with these right now, but I’m guessing dragging yourself through the day and gaining weight is not cool?

So let’s do something about it…

Going to sleep has bad PR

One of the key problems with ‘getting more sleep’ is that it’s not sexy or glamorous. In fact, it might seem to you like it’s just another thing to have to add to the never-ending to-do list.

TRY THIS: Re-frame sleep. Instead of thinking of it as an obstacle and something you have to do, reposition it as something you choose to do. It’s a special treat that you ‘get to do’. This makes the process of going to bed much more enjoyable and, in practice, helps people let go of the stress around sleep (specifically whether they will get enough of it) and actually enjoy it.

women's feet sticking out of duvet

Fix your sleep hormones

Some hormones are very helpful for sleep. Others sabotage it. One of my favourite sleep hormones is serotonin, which might know you as the ‘happy hormone’ for its mood-boosting properties. It is also the precursor to melatonin, the sleep hormone. The warm-up act, if you like.

95% of serotonin comes from the digestive tract. It is influenced by your digestive health, the food you eat and the amount of sunlight you get.

Your eyes have special sensors that send signals to the brain to trigger the production of more serotonin so getting outdoors (without sunglasses) is one of the best things you can do to gently encourage your body to make more serotonin.

In case you’re wondering, indoor lighting is 100 times weaker than sunlight. Even on the cloudiest of days, natural light is 10 times brighter.

A recent study showed that employees who worked in an environment with windows got 173% more exposure to natural light than those who didn’t. And slept 46 minutes longer in spite of any other circumstances.

Another good reason to be outdoors is that sleep is also influenced by vitamin D, a hormone that is made as a result of the skin absorbing UV light.

Low levels of serotonin are also linked to anxiety and food cravings, which is one of the reasons why I use the supplement 5HTP a lot with clients. Note, if you are tempted to buy some you cannot take 5HTP if you are already taking any anti-anxiety medication, anti-depressants or herbal remedies like St John’s Wort. This can result in getting too much of a good thing and can be toxic. A good dose is 200-400mg at night but it might take 6 weeks or more to be effective.

Natural ways to get more serotonin

  • Get outside! Sunlight is not created equal – the light between 6.00 am – 8.30 am provides the greatest benefit.

  • Move your body in a way that feels good. Regular exercise can have mood-boosting effects.

  • Eat more foods that that are naturally high in the amino acid tryptophan that can increase serotonin levels include eggs, cheese, turkey, nuts, salmon, tofu, and pineapple.

  • The conversion from tryptophan to serotonin requires folic acid, B6, vitamin C and zinc. These can be found in beef, broccoli, cashews, chicken, chickpeas, cauliflower, peppers, kale, kiwi, lamb, oranges, parsley, pumpkin seeds, pineapple, salmon, spinach, turkey and tuna. You’ll notice some foods are in both lists. This is not a typo!

  • Consider meditating, which can greatly boost serotonin levels. Studies also show meditation to be an effective treatment for insomnia. I love Calm for this (for a free month-long trial, go to The reason I recommend this so much is that, unlike some other guided meditation apps, you can just opt for a Daily Calm 10-minute session rather than have to make yet another choice in your life about which meditation you want to do).

woman meditating

Get yourself more melatonin

Melatonin is secreted naturally in response to lower light levels – when it gets darker outside.

People think of it as the sleep hormone. It doesn’t actually put you to sleep but it facilitates good sleep and improves the quality of your sleep. Melatonin and the stress hormone cortisol are antagonists. If you are stressed, melatonin reduces.

How to increase melatonin levels naturally

Thanks to electricity, we can choose to have lights blaring at all hours, which is not helpful for increasing melatonin. Do this instead:

Dim the lights in the evenings if you can – use or fit dimmer switches, consider sidelights instead. Give your body the signal that things are getting darker so you are more ready for sleep.

Sleep in a dark environment to avoid the effects of light pollution and increase melatonin levels. That means blacking out your bedroom (blackout linings are widely available these days without your needing to run up a pair of curtains). If that isn’t possible, invest in a silk eye mask. I love this one (although others are available – just choose silk, which is breathable and kind to skin)

Ditch alarm clocks with white or blue digits for an old-fashioned clock or one with red digits.

Fix your gut to get better sleep

There are 100 million neurons in the gut – more than the spinal cord. The gut is known as the second brain. Serotonin is made in the gut and, if you have digestive problems, this is likely to be impaired.

TRY THIS: If you know you suffer from IBS or other digestive issues and both these and your sleep bother you, ask me about my programmes that help. Right now, eat happy tummy foods. Ensure you regularly eat probiotic foods like natural yoghurt, kefir and kombucha (the last two are now widely available even in supermarkets) or even take a probiotic supplement.

natural yoghurt

Tame your stress hormones

Cortisol is one of the main stress hormones. It’s often seen as the bad guy but the point is not to NOT have cortisol but to have a healthy pattern. It should follow a specific pattern throughout the day. When this pattern gets out of whack, this can result in your feeling tired but wired – absolutely exhausted but your head is buzzing when you hit the pillow. Not exactly the recipe for a night of successful sleep. Another thing I frequently see in clinic is imbalanced stress levels (and we can measure these relatively inexpensively with an adrenal stress profile saliva test) lead to random awakenings in the middle of the night.

My biggest tip for stress relief is – you guessed it – stepping up your self-care. This helps you empty the stress bucket and makes life feel nicer. Couple this with emptying your head and stopping the internal chatter using 10 minutes of regular guided meditation and you’re onto a winner.

In case you are about to say ‘I am rubbish at meditation’ consider that the point of the guided meditation is you are not having to do it on your own. Simply follow the instructions. If you find your mind wandering – and it will, especially to start – bring it gently back into line.

Lady hormones and sleep

During the perimenopause (the transition to the menopause), those night sweats caused by falling levels of oestrogen are enough to keep anyone from restful slumber.

But did you know that oestrogen also allows your body to better use the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin, which is the precursor to the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin? This perhaps explains why your sleep gets a bit wonky at this time of your life.

And, during menopause, when oestrogen levels fall steadily, progesterone falls off a cliff. This is a problem for women because progesterone helps you fall asleep faster and experience fewer disruptions to your sleep. (A similar scenario plays out during menstruation, in case you wondered).

TRY THIS: Increase the amount of phytoestrogens in your diet. Phytoestrogens are weak plant sources of oestrogen, and you’ll find them in flaxseeds, soya products (like tofu, tempeh, miso), beans, lentils, chickpeas, alfalfa (like cress), apples, pears, carrots, fennel, onion, garlic, sunflower seeds.

Screen time, hormones & sleep

Oh no! Here's a go with the advice I know you’ve been dreading...

The blue light from smartphones, tablets and TVs kills your sleep. It triggers the body to produce more daytime hormones (like cortisol) – the exact opposite of what you want. In a nutshell, it disrupts your body’s natural preparation for winding down. Screen time at night has become so pervasive, many people have disconnected from what else they could do instead before bed.

TRY THIS: Have a screen curfew 90 mins (minimum) before bed to let your body wind down naturally and for melatonin levels to rise. What could you do instead? Actually talk to your partner (I know!), read a book, do a jigsaw. What else?

The black hole of the internet

You might have heard of the hormone dopamine, which we used to think of as the pleasure hormone – the one drug and sex addicts go searching for. What we know now is that it is about the hunt or the chase rather than pleasure as such – finding out what is coming next. And the internet is just perfect for that.

Did you ever just go on to Facebook “for a minute” only to emerge hours later? Or YouTube, whichever is your guilty pleasure? That's the effect of dopamine.

Wherever you end up, the internet is an inexhaustible mine of information. Once you start with this, a vicious circle gets created.

When it comes to sleep, what’s to know is that dopamine is also tied to being awake – and you can see why this is not great for getting some shut-eye.

Be the boss of the internet. Ideally cut out ALL screens 90 mins before bed to normalise levels of cortisol and melatonin.

If you find yourself disappearing into the black hole of the internet, break the habit loop. Get up, do something else.

This kind of pattern interrupt is exactly how you disappear any bad habits. It uses the tactic of distraction. Exactly the kind of tactic you would employ when dealing with a toddler throwing a tantrum in a toy shop.

It will also be helpful to turn off those little reminders that have you constantly picking up your phone, including WhatsApp and email notifications. Set your devices so these cues don’t flash up after a certain time in the evening. Remove the distraction.

clock on mobile phone

Fat storage hormones and sleep

The more starchy carbs you eat, the more glucose is in your blood and the higher the amount of insulin that your body needs to restore blood sugar balance. If your diet is high in starchy carbs like bread, rice, pasta and sugars, you make more insulin, which creates blood sugar fluctuations at night, and these cause sleep disturbances.

A sugar ‘crash’ at night triggers a release of cortisol to wake you up at the wrong time, and this can shift you out of deep sleep into a lighter sleep phase. Moving to a way of eating that balances your blood sugar helps significantly improve the quality of your sleep.


This is the over-arching strategy for good health. It also happens to be the very best thing you can do for a good night’s sleep. A rough structure for hormone balancing is to work to balance your blood sugar levels on the most basic level.

There are 3 essential rules:

  1. Eat a source of protein (palm-sized) at every meal and snack. This can be any fish/ seafood, poultry, meat, nuts, seeds, tofu, eggs.

  2. Get plenty of fruit and veg but focus specifically on eating veg that grows above the ground and berry fruits over tropical varieties like bananas and papaya. These foods naturally contain either less natural sugar or lower amounts of carbohydrates, which have an impact on hormones.

  3. Think carefully about the quality (what kind) and the quantity (how much) of starchy carbs like bread, pasta, cereals, potato, rice. Focus on wholemeal over white, sweet potato over regular white potato.

Eat no more than three times a day, giving your body plenty of time to rest, repair and reset in between. That’s three meals and no snacks. Don’t panic! That might seem like an impossible challenge right now if you have been riding the carb roller coaster. However, it will soon become second nature.


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