If you read my Fabulously Lazy post you know I’ve been struggling with chronic fatigue for a long time.

Also in that post I described my irregular circadian rhythm — despite setting my alarm for 7:30am to get up and go to work, my inner Night Owl always wins. I drag myself out of bed, feeling like I had to move heaven and earth to do it. I get a burst of energy around 10pm after being sluggish all day. This makes it hard to fall asleep, and the cycle continues. 

I just found an old screenshot of my character from a game I used to play. Glitch was the best.
I just found an old screenshot of my character from a game I used to play. Glitch was the best.

One of my last year’s resolutions was to get up at 7:30am every morning. If you struggle to get up early and think it might be a good idea to just set your alarm, hoping the rest will fall into a normal schedule, I’m here to help you learn from my mistakes.

In my earlier post I mentioned cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, like adrenaline, but it basically regulates everything. I can’t remember all the details but it will affect blood sugar levels, energy levels, inflammation, immune system, metabolism, and your circadian rhythm. (Everyone always talks about melatonin, nobody ever mentions cortisol, right?)

In a normal person, your cortisol levels are naturally highest in the morning. This, I imagine, gets you out of your cave and alert to face any predators or hunt your prehistoric food. As the sun gets lower in the sky, so does your cortisol level, letting you relax and get yourself ready for a night of sleep.

In our world of incandescent indoor lights, psychological stresses, and physical stresses that wreak long-term havoc (like poor diet and drinking), sometimes we train our body to follow a different pattern. Or we wear our body out so much that it starts misfiring cortisol at random times to try and keep up.

I had a rhythm of higher than normal cortisol levels in the afternoon and evening, and lower than normal cortisol levels in the morning. (A 4-point saliva test helps track your levels. Ask a naturopath to order one for you if you’re curious. It’s kinda fun to learn about this stuff!) This is why I couldn’t wake up when I wanted to and why I wasn’t falling asleep even though I was dead tired earlier in the day.

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I use the iPhone app Sleep Cycle to track movement during sleep. Since I tend to move very little in my sleep, I think its assessment of “quality” sleep is pretty accurate, measuring when I’m lying in bed tossing & turning vs actually sleeping.

I struggled with my well-intentioned resolution through January, February, and March, growing progressively more sleep-deprived and exhausted. I would lie awake in bed trying to fall asleep later and later, until I was averaging less than 5 hours of sleep a night. My alarm would go off at 7:30am and I would fall back asleep anyway, until I had to rush to work. I was completely wired with stress and frustration, my mind spinning in negative thoughts and worries, and I was completely physically exhausted. I was headed towards a crash.

That was when I went to the doctor for tests. My inquiry was “Why can’t I train myself to wake up earlier?” Her response was to tell me I was sleep deprived and needed to start getting 10-12 hours of sleep a night. I was hypoglycemic, low blood pressure, low-iron anemia, low vitamin D, and low thyroid. I had worn myself out.

Of course I just laughed at her — “when would I eat?”

She sat me down and gave me a serious talking to about my lifestyle, my career, my schedule, my stress levels, and suggested maybe I make a big change. I needed to give myself some time to rest, and my schedule needed more flexibility.

I’m pretty stubborn, but I slowly started taking some of her advice. I got on iron supplements, vitamin D, and thyroid hormone. I started prioritizing sleep. I became a hermit for a few months, but by October I was averaging 8 hours of sleep a night (by spending between 9-11 hours in bed.)

That was when my naturopath friend introduced me to a supplement called Cortisol Manager, which I started taking in the evenings to help encourage the cortisol monster to chill out. Within a few weeks I could start falling asleep more easily, and stay asleep through the night. Finally I was able to sleep 9-10 hours a night.

My body (and mind) has slowly started to recover. I have had to make some pretty big changes. I moved back to San Francisco, saving myself an hour every day in commuting to work. I’ve negotiated some work from home time with my boss and scaled back my responsibilities at work. I started volunteering for an environmental group and want to do more work like that. I’ve started prioritizing yoga and meditation, which has helped immensely, not only with relaxing but also with my chronic back pain.

I’m still in a bit of a protective cocoon phase, but am starting to feel myself coming out of it, slowly. It’s been frustrating, having to turn down fun invitations, like an all-night dance party at a planetarium (womp), and I still struggle to wake up before 8am most days. But I’m much calmer, and I’m getting better.