Did you really wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or was it that Facebook fight you got into while half-awake scrolling on the toilet this morning? For many of us, early mornings are the only time of day not packed with to-do’s, errands, and chores—so, why are we all so stressed out in the AM?
As it turns out, morning stress in moderate quantities is the byproduct of a perfectly natural and cyclical chemical reaction; we’re just expert exacerbators. Acknowledging and respecting these internal rhythms helps one better prepare for the day ahead physically and mentally.
Following the Beat of Our Bodies’ Rhythms
Human bodies are constantly operating to the beat of their own internal rhythms. Circadian, diurnal, ultradian, and infradian rhythms control how often and at what time we sleep, eat, and menstruate.
Circadian rhythms occur over an approximately 24-hour period and include body functions like sleep/wakefulness, body temperature, alertness, and hormone secretion. When a circadian rhythm is synced with the day/night cycle (as most of ours are), it is called a diurnal rhythm.
Cortisol, or the human stress hormone, is released into the bloodstream diurnally, with the highest hormone concentrations occurring 30-45 minutes after waking. This is called the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR), and it’s the scientific explanation behind “do not talk to me before I’ve had my morning cup of coffee.”
Breaking Down the Cortisol Awakening Response
The International Review of Neurobiology explains that the CAR, while not ideal to those sensitive to stress, is a crucial point of reference within a healthy cortisol circadian rhythm.
The CAR is initiated by the hippocampus and hypothalamus, both located deep within the brain. Upon waking, the light-sensitive suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus activates the production and release of cortisol. In charge of emotional processing, the hippocampus then fine-tunes these neural messages on their way to the adrenal cortex.
In plain English, the hypothalamus is the CAR head honcho. The middle-management hippocampus then relays the boss’ orders to the worker bees of the adrenal cortex, which produces the steroid hormones we feel on a conscious level as stress, nerves, or general frazzlement.
This instinctual process of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is unique to morning waking. According to ZRT Labs in Oregon, the CAR does not occur in the middle of the night or following an afternoon nap, which is why waking up in the evening often feels so groggy and inexplicably weird.
What the CAR Means for Your Morning Routine
Cortisol (also called hydrocortisone) is the most significant hormone, or glucocorticoid, our body releases. Almost all tissues in the body contain glucocorticoid receptors, which means cortisol affects nearly every organ system.
The release of cortisol into the bloodstream aids in metabolism regulation, inflammatory response, and immune function, which are generally regarded as positive. But cortisol release can also look like increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and other all-too-familiar stress symptoms.
Labs dedicated to hormone testing like ZRT in Oregon monitor cortisol’s natural fluctuations via a diurnal cortisol curve. Half an hour after a healthily-functioning CAR is activated, cortisol levels will be at their highest peak. Levels should taper to less than half by noon and gradually diminish into the night.
Barring any dysfunction to the CAR (we’ll discuss this a bit later), this means you’re likely to be the most stressed anywhere from a half-hour to 45 minutes after first waking up. With that in mind, you can begin to navigate your mornings and subsequent cortisol spike in a more peaceful, productive way.
How to Ride the Cortisol Wave Without Wiping Out
Medical director of Precision Analytical Dr. Carrie Jones describes the morning CAR as a mini stress-test for the body. She recommends a number of early morning activities that can help you pass this test with flying colors.
Exposure to bright, natural light immediately upon waking can facilitate a healthy CAR response. A study done at the University of Colorado in Boulder found that exposure to approximately 10,000 lux of bright light in the early morning contributed to decreased cortisol levels (i.e., less stress). You can facilitate this exposure to light by opening the curtains, going outside, or using a therapeutic, full-spectrum lightbox upon first waking.
Light exercise, stretching, and/or meditation within the first half-hour of waking can also ease AM cortisol spikes’ effects. We love this über-simple, five-minute morning yoga routine, but any kind of yoga will do.
Natural Herbs, Supplements, and Other Ways to Combat Stress
Jones additionally recommends taking dietary supplements within the same 30-45 minute time frame. Vitamin C and B, licorice, Rhodiola, and bacopa energize the HPA-axis and help restore a normal CAR process.
Other holistic stress remedies include lavender, lemon balm, antioxidant-rich foods, probiotics, and cannabidiol. If you’re interested in trying the CBD stress relief route, consider using this handy guide to find the right dosage for you.
Nighttime routines are equally as important in establishing a healthy CAR. Jones suggests ingesting calming, sleep-promoting supplements before or right after the last meal of the day. Phosphatidylserine, l-theanine, magnolia, and magnesium all work to relax and ease the body into the evening for restful sleep and stress-free mornings.
The Sleep Foundation also offers tips to promote a healthy, restful sleep cycle, such as creating a sleep-inducing bedroom and crafting a pre-bed routine.
These Popular AM Routines Are More Harmful Than Helpful
Just as important as what we should do is what we shouldn’t, and one such habit is the overconsumption of caffeine. Caffeinated and/or sugary beverages like coffee, tea, and soda increase cortisol secretion, disrupting the body’s natural CAR pattern. And while we’re not saying you have to quit caffeine altogether, if you find yourself incurably stressed in the morning, it might be worth it to try one of these coffee alternatives instead.
Another common but stress-inducing morning habit is checking your phone as soon as you wake up. As tempting as this may be, Google’s former Design Ethicist Tristan Harris warns that doing so can literally “hijack our psychological vulnerabilities.”
Technology (and more specifically, scrolling through social media) plays on our groggy, early-morning vulnerabilities by using intermittent variable rewards, increasing our FOMO (fear of missing out), exploiting social reciprocity, and offering a long list of often-useless notifications that “frames the experience of ‘waking up in the morning’ around a menu of ‘all the things I’ve missed since yesterday,’” Harris writes.
Surprisingly enough, people on Facebook aren’t inherently more annoying in the morning—thanks to our CARs, we’re just more susceptible to these emotion-inducing tech phenomena. Allow your body and brain to wake up without the anxiety-inducing onslaught of social media feeds by waiting at least 30 minutes after waking to check your phone.
Once you’ve got this down pat, take it one step further by doing a complete unplug once a week.
The Importance of Maintaining a Healthy CAR
Taking note of our bodies’ CARs helps monitor other facets of our health. A fight with a spouse, a big project at work, or other special circumstances can sometimes contribute to augmented or imbalanced cortisol responses. It can also indicate more significant issues such as atherosclerosis, immunosuppression, coronary heart disease, major depressive episodes, and other mental health disorders.
Prolonged stress is not just a sign of major health issues; it can also be the cause. The Mayo Clinic reports that extended exposure to stress hormones can affect virtually all bodily functions, leading to anxiety, depression, weight gain, digestive problems, chronic headaches, sleep issues, and memory/concentration impairment.
Data from the American Psychology Association shows that Americans are more stressed than ever, and if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that staying proactive about our health is absolutely crucial.
Acknowledging, monitoring, and working to minimize early morning grumpiness brought on by the Cortisol Awakening Response keeps us happy and healthy and significantly reduces the chance of getting blocked on Facebook before 8am.