Are You Getting Enough Sleep to Reverse Your PCOS?

By Clare Goodwin

Last updated: September 3, 2020

Given all of the developments in modern medicine and technology, you’d think that we’d have come up with a way to pack more into 24 hours. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. Research shows that despite many of us probably wishing we didn’t, we still need as much sleep as we ever have. It also tells us that sleep deprivation can be a contributing factor in the development of many ‘modern illnesses’. These include obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Interestingly, there’s also a relationship between sleep deprivation and PCOS.

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation and PCOS symptoms are linked in several different ways. Sleep deprivation causes insulin resistance, makes us crave simple sugars and carbohydrates, and increases inflammation, and increases stress hormone levels.

How Can There Be A Causal Relationship Between Sleep Deprivation and PCOS? I Thought PCOS Was Genetic!

PCOS is a condition which occurs when your body overproduces ‘male’ hormones like testosterone. Like many other conditions, PCOS is also regarded as a ‘modern’ illness. Although there is undoubtedly a genetic component to PCOS development, the discovery of epigenetics has proven that these genes will only be ‘turned on’ when certain environmental factors are present.

You can think of like this: genes are the loaded gun, but environmental factors pull the trigger.

In terms of PCOS, insulin resistance and inflammation can be thought of as the loaded gun. They are responsible for the overproduction of testosterone, which leads to PCOS symptoms. However, it is only when the right environmental factors, such as sleep deprivation, ‘pull the trigger’ that insulin resistance and inflammation occurs.

How Is Insulin Resistance Linked to Sleep Deprivation and PCOS?

Insulin is your storage hormone. It allows the body to store excess blood sugar for later use. For many people, this process works seamlessly. However, in certain circumstances the insulin stops working effectively and insulin resistance develops. This leads to consistently high levels of insulin in the blood. Amongst many other problems, one thing that high insulin causes is the ovaries to overproduce testosterone, leading to PCOS symptoms.

If you want to know more about insulin resistance and PCOS then read my in-depth article by clicking the link.

So now you know how insulin resistance is linked to PCOS, but what is the relationship between sleep deprivation and PCOS? The answer is that inadequate sleep causes insulin resistance! It does this in the following ways:

Sleep Deprivation Makes You Crave Sugar

When your body is low on energy because it hasn’t had enough sleep, it craves the next best thing: sugar! Energy drinks, chocolate bars, pastries, and pizza. We’ve all reached for one (or all!) of them when we’re sleep deprived.

Eating high sugar foods may provide a much-needed spike in energy by increasing your blood sugar levels, but they also cause your insulin levels to rise. Do this repeatedly and you’re at risk of developing insulin resistance. If you already have insulin resistance, then eating high sugar foods will only make your situation worse. Either way, you’re increasing the likelihood of your body overproducing testosterone.

An interesting study of the brain in sleep deprivation found that not only does a lack of sleep impairs us from making complex decisions, it also activates the part of the brain associated with desire and cravings. The result is that we crave high sugar, high carb foods, but have less ability to judge whether or not we’re making sensible food choices.

Sleep Deprivation Causes Insulin Resistance

Not only does sleep deprivation cause you to crave sugary foods, which can lead to insulin resistance, it also decreases your cells’ sensitivity to insulin. One study showed that just one week of sleeping only five hours a night reduced insulin sensitivity by 24%. Having decreased insulin sensitivity means the body has to produce even more insulin to have the same effect. Sleep deprivation and PCOS are therefore linked due to inadequate sleep causing increased blood insulin levels, which leads to increased testosterone.

Sleep Deprivation Causes Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is one of the biggest causes of insulin resistance – the leading cause of PCOS. Scientists now think that inflammation and insulin resistance go hand in hand. Studies have shown that 10 nights of sleeping for only four hours caused a 5 fold increase in inflammatory markers. The inflammation leads to insulin resistance, which leads to PCOS symptoms. Yet another way that sleep deprivation and PCOS have a relationship.

Sleep Deprivation Causes An Increase In Cortisol

The final way that sleep deprivation and PCOS are linked is due to cortisol. Cortisol is your long-term stress hormone. One of cortisol’s roles is to release sugar into the blood when the body is in a fight-or-flight situation. The body perceives a ‘danger’ and releases the sugar to provide energy to run away from or fight the danger. You can read more about this in my article about adrenal PCOS.

Cortisol levels are increased by sleep deprivation. The effect of sleep deprivation on cortisol levels is persistent, lasting well into the evening following a night of inadequate sleep. The excess sugar levels caused by increased cortisol have a detrimental effect because they can cause or worsen insulin resistance.

Sleep Deprivation and PCOS Are Clearly Linked. How Can I Solve This?

To help you deal with any sleeping problems and ensure that you’re getting adequate sleep, here are my 7 Tips To Sleeping Like An Absolute Boss. You can also get this in a downloadable format by clicking on the picture below.

The obvious way to help to reduce the problems associated with sleep deprivation and PCOS is to get adequate sleep. However, what is considered an adequate amount of sleep is unique to every individual. Adequate sleep means that you’re waking up feeling refreshed, preferably before your alarm. For me, this means between eight and nine hours of sleep, but six or seven might be enough for you. A good test to find out how much sleep you need is to find out how many hours of sleep you need before you wake up without an alarm.

But what if you always go to bed early, but find that you just can’t sleep? I know what it’s like to be absolutely exhausted, but unable to sleep. You may have been feeling tired all afternoon, but as soon as your head hits the pillow…? Woah. Suddenly your mind wants all of the answers to life’s great questions. These include thoughts such as:

  • ‘What should we have for dinner tomorrow?’
  • ‘Did I actually book that Airbnb for next week, or just mindlessly scroll through the photos?’
  • ‘How does the internet actually work?’
  • ‘What did my boss mean in that meeting this morning?’

I’m sure that you’ve all experienced this at some point. Your body is tired, but your mind is wired!

1. Get regular

One of the best ways to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day, including on weekends and days off! This regular rhythm will not only make you feel better, but also provide your body with some stability and something to work from.

2. Ditch the caffeine

This may only mean no caffeine after midday for some people, but if you find that you are hyper-stimulated by caffeine, or know that you have high stress hormones, then this means none at all.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t just mean coffee, but also tea and even dark chocolate for some people… Oh, and of course cola drinks, but you’re not drinking them anyway, are you?

3. Keep the bed for sleep…and sex

Do you use your bed to watch Game of Thrones boxsets, pay the bills, or read all of those emails that you couldn’t deal with at work? Well, don’t!

You want your body to associate your bed with sleep, so don’t use it for anything else (apart from sex), or it won’t learn this connection.

4. No screens 2 hours before bed

The blue light emitted from screens impacts our circadian rhythms. The best practice is to turn off all screen devices two hours before bed.

However, I know this isn’t always possible, so if you really have to do some life admin in the evenings then make sure you download an app that reduces blue light.

The latest iOS has this as a default, so just make sure it’s turned on. If you have Android devices then you can download apps. I also use an application called f.lux for my Mac laptop.

5. Meditate for 10 minutes before bed

Do you lie in bed at night thinking of all the things that you didn’t do that day, or going over a passive aggressive conversation you had with a colleague that day thinking “Damn, I wish I’d told her to xxx”, or suddenly remember to take the steak out of the freezer for dinner tomorrow night?

One of the best ways to stop all of these thoughts swirling in your brain is to make yourself comfortable and spend 10 minutes meditating before you go to bed.
To help with my meditation, I use either the One Giant Mind free app, or one of the Meditation Minis Podcasts.

6. Keep a pen and paper beside your bed

So sometimes you really do need to remember to get the steak out of the freezer, and who am I to stop you from meal prepping?

But instead of lying there thinking “I must not forget to take steak out”, over and over again, just write it down, get it out of your mind, and get to sleep.

7. Get your phone out of your room and make it black

Aside from the obvious disruption to your sleep when your WhatsApp chat is going crazy, the blue light emitted from your phone is enough to disrupt sleep.

So instead of charging your phone by your bed, keep it in the kitchen and get a manual alarm clock instead (one without a flashing LED light!). Removing your phone from your bedroom also means that you’ll also not be able to lie there scrolling.

Additionally, get some blackout curtains to make your room properly dark. This will help to signal to your body that it’s time to sleep.

Follow my tips and sabotage the relationship between sleep deprivation and PCOS! For more help and information, visit my Facebook page: The PCOS Nutritionist and subscribe to my weekly email by submitting your details in the box below.