How does stress affect your sleep?
- Sleep is essential to human health. Our bodies need a chance to rest in order to repair and restore, as well as consolidate information from the day.
- The stress response has a physical impact on our ability to fall asleep, have a restful sleep and wake up in a normal, healthy way.
- Improving sleep hygiene by creating a bedtime routine, diet and lifestyle choices play a major role in stress reduction and increasing restorative sleep.
The report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that stress is one of the major contributors to ongoing sleep issues. While stress leads to poor sleep, poor sleep can in turn increase stress levels. Luckily, the sleep hygiene techniques, and diet and lifestyle practices that help in managing stress can also improve sleep quality.
How stress can affect sleep
Stress is a normal part of life. Without it we wouldn’t have the ability to meet work deadlines, nail that upcoming presentation or get that exercise class in. Acute stress is not only healthy, but it can also be lifesaving.
When we’re talking about stress-related health issues like sleeping problems, it’s chronic stress at the centre of these concerns. The problem is that we live in a world where chronic stress has become a normal, almost expected, part of daily life.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis of glands that regulates the stress hormones, and response in the body, can become ‘dysregulated’ by repeated stress.
In chronic stress, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, chemicals that naturally fluctuate throughout the day, start being over-produced and spiking at the wrong times of day.
You’ve probably heard of melatonin, the happy, sleeping hormone that the pituitary gland produces in response to the lowered light of dusk and tells your body that it’s time to sleep. This, along with cortisol rising in the morning, is part of the “sleep-wake cycle”, or circadian rhythm.
Unfortunately, when the stress hormone cortisol levels are high, melatonin production is suppressed. Suddenly that hormone that makes you feel pleasantly drowsy in the evening is replaced by cortisol - making you feel wide awake, possibly even anxious and irritable.
Why is sleep so important for wellbeing?
A good night’s sleep can solve a lot of problems. When we sleep, the body has an opportunity to repair damage to the cells, muscles and nerves from normal day-to-day living.
Sleep also cleanses cellular debris from the brain via the ‘glymphatic system’. A healthy glymphatic system enhances brain function and improves recall.
Important hormones are released during sleep; along with melatonin, we also release growth hormones that support metabolism, and leptin and ghrelin for regulating the appetite.
Poor sleep affects metabolism and hunger signals. Ever noticed how even one bad night of sleep can lead to a day of less than stellar food choices? That’s the handy work of these hormones being out of balance, plus the need for quick-releasing energy from refined carbohydrates like pastries and biscuits to give you a boost.
Stress, poor sleep and mental health
Chronic stress and poor sleep don’t just impact the physical body. These issues can also exacerbate mental health conditions. Sleep problems are shown to significantly impact people already under psychological care - in fact, not only do sleep issues increase the risk for depression and anxiety, but also the risk of triggering more serious mental health disorders.
Common signs that stress is impacting your sleep
While some of the signs that you’re stressed and not sleeping well are obvious - fatigue, irritability and a shorter fuse - other common signals of the body can be misread or ignored.
Here are some typical symptoms that poor sleep and stress are affecting you:
- Muscle tension, aches and pains
- Teeth grinding - also known as bruxism
- Poor immunity
- Overreacting in stressful situations
- Changes in blood pressure - either too high or too low
- Feeling groggy in the mornings and wide awake late at night
- Digestive disturbances such as diarrhoea, constipation and upset stomach
- Mood swings
- Changes in appetite
- Headaches and dizziness
However, if you experience symptoms like excessive sleeping during the day, irregular heartbeat or breathing, ongoing headaches, loud snoring, increased accidents, or restless leg syndrome, seek medical advice.
When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, the process really begins hours before bedtime.
Here’s how to get started on improving your sleep hygiene:
- If you love your caffeinated beverages, try to drink them in the first half of the day before lunchtime so they don’t interfere with melatonin production.
- Eat an earlier dinner so you’re not going to bed feeling too full.
- Switch from screens to activities that help you wind down at least 1-2 hours before bed. This will aid in avoiding negative content and blue light that suppresses melatonin. Take it one step further with a digital detox. Note: if you do need to use technology before bed, switch on a blue light filter such as ‘f.lux’ to reduce the impact of blue light.
- Avoid alcohol before bed - although it may initially give you the ‘wind down’ effect, it ultimately disrupts the sleep cycle as your liver works to metabolise the alcohol while you sleep.
- Try a little mood lighting - switch on lamps instead of overhead lights or burn an aromatherapy candle for added relaxation. Look out for essential oils like lavender or chamomile, which exert a calming effect.
- Roll out the yoga mat for some gentle yin stretches before bed.
- Try a magnesium salt bath or foot soak.
- Sip on a chamomile or bedtime blend herbal tea.
- Get into bed a little earlier for some reading, journaling, or a sleep-focussed meditation.
Lifestyle habits for better mood and sleep
Improving your stress response can have far-reaching effects - from mood, immunity and concentration to energy levels and sleep quality. It starts, as most health-related things do, with a nutrient-rich diet and daily movement.
The foods we eat are the building blocks of the brain chemicals and hormones that have a powerful influence on mood and sleep. Here are some practical tips on how to boost your mood through your diet.
When it comes to movement, just 20 minutes of cardio per day (like a brisk walk or swim), is all you need to start sleeping better, releasing tension that builds up throughout the day and improving your perspective.
Spending time in nature has scientifically proven benefits for mental and physical wellbeing. Time in nature does more than just reduce stress, it helps you to recharge, shift focus and put things back into perspective.
Early morning sunlight exposure helps to keep the circadian rhythm in balance by slowing the release of melatonin. This helps to wake you up in the morning and has the added benefits of improving melatonin levels at night - so you’ll feel sleepy when you are supposed to! Early sunlight is also shown to boost vitamin D levels.
We all have periods of stress and bad sleep. However, if you’re noticing that they’re starting to impact your daily life then look closely at your habits - are they helpful or harmful? Improving your sleep quality and stress response starts with building small habits that become the foundation of better sleep, improved health and a happier you.
- Australian Institute of Health & Welfare. Written November 2021, accessed September 2022 from https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/7e520067-05f1-4160-a38f-520bac8fc96a/aihw-phe-296.pdf.aspx?inline=true
- Hirotsu C, et al. Sleep Sci 20158(3):143-152.
- Aalling Jessen, N, et al. Neurochem Res 2015;40(12):25833-25899.
- Sleep Foundation. Updated August 2022, accessed September 2022 from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep
- Mind. Written May 2020, accessed September 2022 from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/sleep-problems/about-sleep-and-mental-health/
- Mikulska J, et al. Brain Sci 2021;11(10):1298.
- Better Health Channel. Reviewed April 2017, accessed September 2022 from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/Mood-and-sleep
- Mayo Clinic. Written August 2019, accessed September 2022 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-disorders/symptoms-causes/syc-20354018#:~:text=Some%20of%20the%20signs%20and,cycle%20and%20difficulty%20falling%20asleep.
- Sleep Advisor. Updated March 2022, accessed September 2022 from https://www.sleepadvisor.org/morning-sunlight/#:~:text=By%20seeing%20daylight%20in%20the,including%20hormone%20regulation%20and%20appetite