Are you a member of the 4am insomniacs club?

Are you someone who wakes up at 4am for a couple of hours?  Do you lie there wondering if you taxed the car, when to book your child’s haircut and what to have for supper next weekend?  Do you then crash back into a deep sleep and wake up dazed and confused, having slept through your alarm?  Here are some simple natural ways to improve your sleep and help you go back to sleep when you wake up in the night.

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Why am I waking up in the night? 

There could be many reasons why we wake up in the night. We might wake up because we need the loo, are having a hot menopausal flush or have aches and pains. When this happens, most people can get back to sleep quickly. However, many of us really struggle; and this prolonged lack of sleep can really disrupt days on end. 

Of course, sometimes we wake up because a particular event in the past or future is stressing us. This is unavoidable and totally understandable. After my mummy died several years ago now, I found sleeping very hard. I used to process her death for hours on end in my head all through the night. Then I’d wake up early with my heart rate pounding and pulse racing. But I still had to get through each day and be a strong mummy for my young family. I just knew I had to do something to help me sleep and cope better with my grief so I could function better during the day.

The most common reason for waking up for prolonged periods in the night, usually around 4am, is due to a pesky hormone called cortisol, which has a powerful influence on sleep patterns.  This hormone is made by your adrenal glands, walnut sized organs that lie above your kidneys and play a role in your “fight or flight” response to day-to-day challenges.

When we are under pressure, e.g. juggling a household, young children, a job, or dealing with stressful events such as grief, the adrenal glands are put under extreme pressure and can misfire cortisol at the wrong time. Instead of during the day they fire up at night, waking you up super early at approximately 4am and making it hard for you to get back to sleep, resulting in you feeling exhausted and groggy all the next day. This is a hard cycle to break, and it seems desperately unfair.

What are the symptoms of having high cortisol?

The hallmarks of someone in a high cortisol state include being snappy, unrelaxed, hyperactive, jittery, hypervigilant, overactive and generally wired. These people can seem unpredictable and may be subject to mood changes, easily losing their temper in an instant. You can sometimes spot someone in a high cortisol state as their pupils can be very dilated like ‘Disney eyes’, and they may be very thirsty and rely on caffeine or alcohol to keep them alert.

How to help smooth high cortisol levels

  • Sugar – sugar (even naturally sweet fruit) and high-carb foods can make someone with high cortisol feel worse, while high-protein foods can make you feel better. If you are going to eat a sweet food, pair it with protein; for example, have an apple with some peanut butter, cheese or hummus.
  • Caffeine – some of us are very sensitive to caffeine in coffee, cocoa or chocolate, tea (including green tea), as well as energy drinks and supplements. Reduce your caffeine intake as much as possible, only drinking caffeine in the morning, so most of it is out of your system by the evening.
  • Alcohol – sadly alcohol can play havoc with your hormones, mood and sleep as it is initially a stimulant as well as a depressant. It contributes to poor and disrupted sleep and can make you feel groggy the next day if you have drunk too much the night before, especially just before sleep. Try to reduce your alcohol intake, stop drinking well before bed or replace it with some of the lovely non-alcoholic drinks now available. A large cup of herbal tea can help when you are frazzled after a hectic day.

Natural remedies and herbs to reduce your cortisol levels

There are several natural remedies and herbs that I would recommend to help reduce a high cortisol state and balance your hormones, which should, in time, help you have a better sleep. 

  • Magnesium is an essential mineral that can reduce blood blood and urinary levels of cortisol and this is likely due to it’s natural calming effect. Some of the best food sources of magnesium include spinach, kale, Swiss chard, avocados, dark chocolate, brown rice, quinoa and oats. Nuts and seeds like almonds, cashews, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are all high in magnesium. Some types of seafood, like salmon and mackerel, are also good sources of magnesium. Alternatively, you can take magnesium as a supplement which can help to reduce an overactive cortisol response. Ideally take it at night to help put the body and brain into a more restful state.
  • Omega-3 fats may help to improve sleep quality, and fish oil supplementation may help to reduce overall cortisol levels according to research. Omega-3 fatty acids are not produced by our body, and therefore we need to consume omegas through our diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are mainly found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines as well as organic whole milk, some eggs, some grass-fed meat, flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts. Omega-3 can also be taken as a supplement.
  • Chamomile is very calming and naturally contains a natural source of the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which can help with sleep and help melt worries away. It is tummy-friendly and a brilliant source of calcium, particularly if you are dairy-free. A cup of chamomile tea before bed can be a great way of helping with sleep quality. 
  • Saffron (crocus sativus) is a gorgeous deep russet-coloured spice that may help with stress, low mood and anxiety. It helps modulate adrenal response to day-to-day challenges and there is some evidence it helps with focus and concentration for those people with scattered minds. Add saffron to delicious Spanish or Southeast Asian recipes such as paella and curries or take it as a supplement. 
  • Ashwagandha (withania somnifera)- research shows that this Indian Ayurvedic adaptogen herb can help you drift off to sleep, as well as improving overall sleep quality. This is because it helps to cool down excess cortisol at night and over time, it may well help an overactive mind from racing at night.
  • Reishi mushroom extract is good at encouraging the body to relax and helping to improve both quality and quantity of sleep. Reishi mushrooms contain a high concentration and large variety of naturally sedative compounds called ‘triterpenes’ which work with the nervous system to induce calm, relaxation and drowsiness. It has also been shown to interact with the GABA pathway, known as “the brakes of the brain”, lowering neural activity and promoting sleep. Reishi is the ultimate winding-down extract taken before bed or it can be stirred into food.


Although life is a bit of a rollercoaster and inevitably causes sleepless nights on occasion, none of us want to be part of a prolonged 4am club. Sleep deprivation can make you feel run down, anxious and have a negative effect on family life. Whilst you might not notice an instant change to your sleep pattern, taking some natural remedies and herbs to regulate your cortisol levels will gradually lead to fewer sudden early wakeups and help you get back to a nice calm sleep more quickly.

I hope my recommendations help you, but if you would like your cortisol and other hormone levels tested, or need further sleep and cortisol balancing support, please get in touch with our NatureDoc clinical team for a 1 to 1 consultation.

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