The profound link between sleep and stress

According to the Canadian Sleep Society, 40% of Canadians live with a sleep disorder, and research shows that stress directly contributes to sleep problems. Tack on daily pressures and personal struggles, and the vicious cycle between sleep and stress worsens.

Understanding the natural stress response

When your body encounters a perceived threat (such as a dog barking at you during a walk), your hypothalamus, a tiny area at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm. This prompts your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, two of your major stress hormones.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevating your blood pressure and boosting energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream. This alters the immune system’s response, suppressing the digestive and reproductive system. In essence, these hormones create a fight-or-flight response to the perceived threat.

In today’s society, the “barking dog” can be anything from meeting a work deadline, to social obligations, to paying the bills. As a result, our bodies are constantly responding to perceived danger, which can lead to chronic stress.

What are the symptoms of chronic stress?

Symptoms of high stress include:

  • Irritability, nervousness or anxiety
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Excessive sweating
  • Teeth grinding
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Muscle tension
  • Restlessness

How does stress contribute to sleep problems?

The most common non-medical causes of sleeplessness are stress and anxiety, or a state of hyperarousal. Adults with high stress levels are likely to lose sleep because their thoughts are racing (49% vs. 10% of adults with low stress). This is usually due to emotional arousal, which can be triggered by ruminating on work, personal struggles or health issues. As a result, people develop a fear of sleeplessness, which then intensifies their inability to fall asleep. In other words, people who can’t sleep are stressed out, this stress contributes to sleep problems, and causes even more stress. It’s a never-ending cycle!

How does sleep affect heart health?

During sleep, the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the fight-or-flight system, takes a break. Studies show that when we’re deprived of sleep, blood pressure increases. This is due to the sympathetic nervous system’s increased activity, which can lead to higher incidence of heart attack or stroke.

Additionally, many of the genes affected by lack of sleep are involved in processing stress and regulating the immune system. Researchers found that after just one week of insufficient sleep, the gene expression of more than seven hundred genes had changed. This increases the activity of genes linked to inflammation, which further explains the link between sleep deprivation and heart disease.

How does sleep affect mental health?

Sleep deprivation has a strong connection with mental health disorders, especially depression and anxiety. Some psychologists believe that 80-90% of depression and anxiety cases are strongly correlated with sleep problems, as sleep disturbances interfere with dopamine levels. Since dopamine is our feel-good hormone, this can lead to a chemical imbalance. This imbalance is commonly associated with mental health disorders.

What are the effects of sleep on the brain?

One of the most important recent findings is that the brain’s plumbing system, known as the glymphatic system, functions at a much higher rate during sleep. This means that sleep plays a critical role in brain maintenance, and helps wash away the toxic buildup associated with Alzheimer’s.

One study shows that men who reported sleep issues were one and a half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Another study shows that just one night of sleep deprivation leads to an increase in two rare molecules (NSE and S-100B) that are associated with brain damage.

Tips for managing stress and getting quality sleep

As we’ve learned, stress contributes to sleep problems. For that reason, learning how to deal with stress throughout the day will help improve the quality of your sleep.

Here are some tips to help with managing stress:

  • Calm the mind: Consider yoga, meditation or qigong to help slow down your thoughts and disengage from daily stress and strain.
  • Brain dump: Before bed, make a list of everything that you need to do the next day. This helps empty your mind, so your to-do list is out of your head and not swirling around as you’re trying to sleep.
  • Deep breathing: The ancient Indian practice of pranayama recommends inhaling through the nose for four counts, holding for seven, and exhaling through the mouth for eight. It can help induce sleep within one minute!

Bonus tip: Napping

While chronic sleep issues can have long-lasting effects on our health, naps can help mitigate some of those effects in the short term. A study by the Sorbonne University in Paris found that naps, as short as 30 minutes, lower stress and boost the immune system.

Melatonin for sleep, stress and anxiety

Melatonin is a hormone that gets secreted by the pineal gland and regulates our sleep-wake cycle. It also helps stimulate the immune system, prevents memory loss and treats insomnia. All of these factors play a role in managing stress, depression and anxiety.

Supplementing with melatonin can improve sleep quality, regulate your circadian rhythm and erase negative thoughts and feelings. A sustained-release form, such as Innovite’s Sustained-Release Melatonin, yields better sleep and is particularly helpful if you frequently awaken during sleep.

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