Does Running Help You Sleep Better?
Insomnia is caused by stress and a disrupted sleep-wake cycle. Running lowers stress by releasing mood-lifting hormones and regulating cortisol levels. It normalizes the sleep-wake cycle by boosting the levels of sleep-inducing hormones like serotonin, growth hormone–releasing hormone, and thyroid. The post-running drop in the core body temperature also makes you feel sleepy.
After a long day, when you are exhausted and all you want is to just crash on the bed, do you find it impossible to get some shut-eye once you get to bed? Do you find yourself twisting and turning, trying to find a cozy position that would bring sleep faster? Or do you have small bouts of disturbed sleep that make you even more exhausted the next day? You are officially an insomniac.
Why Is Disturbed Sleep Such A Bad Thing?
- Almost 30 percent of the general population in the United States have brief symptoms of insomnia.
- Of this, 15 to 20 percent have a short-term insomnia disorder lasting up to three months.
- About 10 percent suffer from chronic insomnia, which occurs at least three times per week for a sustained period of three months.
- The most common symptoms are exhaustion, poor concentration, poor memory, drowsiness through the day, low energy, and mood swings.
- Insomnia accounts for a loss of about 8 days or $63 million per person a year in the United States.
- Chronic insomnia could mark the beginning of more serious ailments like depression and high blood pressure.
Why Does Your Sleep Get Disturbed?
- Stress over an upcoming event or long-term stress because of poor work environment
- A disrupted sleep-wake cycle caused by certain antidepressants, allergy medications, substance abuse, drinking alcoholic drinks or caffeinated drinks like tea, coffee, or cola before bed, irregular sleep patterns due to shift work, changing time zones after frequent long-haul flights (jet lag), medical conditions like chronic pain, breathing difficulties, nocturia—a disease that makes you get up frequently at night to urinate—musculoskeletal disorders, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), diabetes, stroke, heart failure, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease
How Does Running Help You Sleep Better?
The benefits of running are widely known and discussed. But can getting on your feet regularly help you sleep better? Yes, running can regulate your hormones and body temperature to relieve stress and bring your disrupted sleep-wake cycle back to normal.
Running Relieves Stress
You know that cortisol is the hormone your body releases as response to stress. So higher the cortisol level, greater the stress, and the more disrupted your sleep. Usually, running, or any physical exercise for that matter increases the cortisol levels. So how does running relieve stress? In two possible ways.
1. From the excess cortisol circulating in the body right after exercise, your body gets a negative feedback to slow down cortisol release. That’s how the cortisol levels drop after some time and bring about a feeling of relaxation, which is conducive to sleep.
2. Running also makes your body release mood-lifting hormones like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and norepinephrine that help decrease anxiety and depressive symptoms and give you a feeling of happiness and relaxation.
Also, a study showed that while high-intensity exercise hikes the cortisol level, low-intensity exercise could bring the circulating cortisol levels down.
But contradictory as it may sound, low levels of circulating cortisol are also linked to sleep disruptions. Patients with Addison’s disease, where the adrenal glands do not produce enough cortisol, complain of delay in sleep onset, waking up frequently and early in the morning, and fatigue during the day. So high-intensity exercise is a good way for them to normalize their cortisol levels.
Whatever your complaint with cortisol is, running could help you sleep better.
Running Normalizes The Sleep-Wake Cycle
The Sleep-Related Hormones Serotonin And Melatonin
Like there are specific hormones for specific sets of tasks in your body, there are hormones for your sleep-wake cycle too—melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin is responsible for sleep. And because it is made from serotonin in your pineal gland as soon as darkness sets in, a low level of serotonin affects its production and, in turn, affects your sleep quality.
Running helps your body release more tryptophan, which is a building block for serotonin, and thus helps synthesize more serotonin, which eventually gets converted to melatonin.
However, its direct relation with melatonin is controversial because melatonin secretion is dependent on a lot of other parameters like time of day, light conditions, age, and even cortisol levels. Melatonin secretion happens when there’s darkness and the cortisol levels are low. It also decreases with age.
As any exercise essentially hikes the cortisol levels, running before bedtime will delay your melatonin secretion. So to get the best effect, run in the late afternoon or early evening so that you get enough time for the cortisol level to go down and melatonin secretion to begin.
The Thyroid And Growth Hormone-Releasing Hormones
Low levels of both the thyroid hormones and the growth hormone–releasing hormone (GHRH) are known to trigger chronic insomnia. In fact, hypothyroidism can lead to obstructive sleep apnea, a condition where you pause your breathing while asleep, and as a result you wake up many times. Running increases the levels of free circulating thyroid hormones in the body and also helps release the GHRH, which has been known to induce slow-wave sleep or deep sleep.
The Correct Core Body Temperature
Your sleep-wake cycle also has a strong link with your core body temperature, which follows a 24-hour circadian pattern. Sleep onset begins when the body temperature starts dropping. So if you have delayed sleep, disturbed sleep, or early waking, the reason could be consistently high core temperature or the body heating up before it should.
As you run, there’s an increase in body temperature, but after you stop running, the temperature starts dropping rapidly, which makes your body prepare for sleep. In fact, this post-exercise cooling induces a restorative slow-wave sleep.
All This Isn’t Mere Theory; Here’s Proof
Studies on the effect of aerobic exercises like running on chronic insomnia have shown a positive link between the two.
According to a study published in Sleep Medicine, a group of older adults who did little to no exercise and had persistent insomnia did aerobic exercise three days a week 16 weeks. By the end of that period, they took less time to fall asleep (measured by a metric called sleep onset latency), had better and longer sleep, was asleep for the larger part of the time they spent in bed (sleep efficiency), and functioned better in the daytime than before.13
How Much Should You Run To Get Better Sleep?
Although many studies have tackled the subject of insomnia and exercise, not many studies have estimated the optimum duration of physical activity that will ensure better sleep. However, a study on 2,600 men and women, aged between 18 and 85, found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week provided a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality.
Regular exercise can alleviate the symptoms of insomnia, but it’s definitely not a quick fix. It takes several months to start to experience the benefits fully. Stay active and aim for 30 minutes or more of activity on most days—but not close to bedtime—to ensure a good night’s sleep.