Hormones I: Melatonin & Cortisol
Date: 12.3.2013
A woman circling the sun with her arms, as the sun is near setting, in front of the ocean
The Hormone Games

Are Your Hormones Working for You, or are You Working for Them?!?

Part I: Melatonin & Cortisol

Circa, is a Latin root meaning “ring” or “cyclical” and dia, another Latin root referencing “day.” Medically, we talk about circadian rhythm as our sleep/wake cycle. Traditionally, humans are wired to follow a circadian rhythm that mirrors that of the Earth. We are awake during the daylight and sleep during the darkness. However, in today’s overstressed society, to our detriment, we are considered lucky to have schedules that allow for this pattern. Ironically, most of us seem to think that if we can “get by” on 5 hours of sleep or if we can get paid more for working third shift, that we can be more productive, work more, make more money and thus are winning… but winning what?!? and at what cost?!?

We [arguably] have circadian hormones. Melatonin for the night and Cortisol for the day. Melatonin relating to the Latin word melan for dark (think nighttime), is a hormone our pineal gland produces during darkness to promote sleep. In addition to sleep induction, melatonin is linked to our immune system and triggers a STRONG immune response while we are sleeping. This is also why you get tired when you are sick, the body is telling you it wants you to sleep so it can fire up the immune system.

Shift work has been classified as a Class 2a carcinogen by the World Health Organization (1). Several studies suggest that persons working third shift, or are exposed to a lot of light at night, are at increased risk for certain types of cancer (2). These individuals make less melatonin, which means less immune response/repair and thus, increased risk for disease. Supplementing melatonin is also sometimes suggested as part of a treatment regimen for some cancer patients, perceivably for this very reason it stimulates the immune system!

Immune stimulation creates inflammation in the body, this is supposed to happen. Thankfully, we have another hormone that spikes in our blood just before morning to reduce the inflammation.

Cortisol, a hormone produced in the adrenal gland located just above the kidneys, is commonly known as “the stress hormone.” It is also our body’s natural steroid or “antiinflammatory” hormone. A few of cortisol’s other actions include: blood sugar regulation, immune suppression, stress and blood pressure regulation, and many other metabolic functions. All of which can become “off” when we are stressed!

A “normal” cortisol pattern starts with a spike of cortisol in the blood just before we wake in in the morning followed by a gradual decrease in levels over the course of the day. Levels are supposed to be lowest at night allowing us to sleep and immune cells to proliferate. However, with much of our society being “stressed out,” a few pattern imbalances can happen:

1. Scenario one (acute stress) imagine a time when life hit you in the face, maybe a family member was in a car accident, and we do not know yet if he/she is going to be alright. In this moment, most of us would NOT be tired, nor would we be hungry. Our body will fire off more cortisol (in addition to other stress hormones) to keep us alert and raise our blood sugars to give us the burst of energy we need to “get through it.”

2. Scenario two (chronic stress) imagine having to work long hours and still not making ends meet, a family member is ill and needs your care, you have decided to go back to school and need to be studying. Your cortisol is probably higher than normal, but not as high as scenario one, and still, you push on.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, both scenarios are a temporary response. Our cortisol can keep us going for quite a while if need be; but, eventually [without proper care] we enter a state of adrenal fatigue*. The body will force sleep, desperately needing melatonin/restoration. At this point someone will often feel very tired as the cortisol can no longer keep up with demands; if we continue to forgo sleep we put ourselves at increased risk of getting sick! Sickness is frequently the body’s way of telling you it NEEDS sleep to stimulate immune cells (melatonin) and initiate repair.

“Winning” the circadian rhythm game, comes at the cost of our own state of health. The more we “push through it,” the more depleted our body gets. Without adequate levels of melatonin and immune/repair time… we are setting ourselves up for sickness, either acute illness or chronic illness.

* For more on adrenal fatigue and its relationship to low energy, low libido and weight gain, please see part II of The Hormone Game series: the adrenal gland and related hormones

1. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2013;91:626627.
2. Night shift work and cancer risk: a literature review Med Pr. 2011;62(3):32338. Abstract located:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21870422