How is stress affecting your sleep?
A good night sleep is your best friend, we all know that! It’s a relationship that not only feels amazing but brings endless health benefits. From reducing inflammation, supporting a healthy weight, reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes, boosting the immune system, balancing your hormones (hello sex drive!), increasing brain performance, and reducing anxiety, you name it. Unfortunately, modern life can get on the way of this relationship. Sleep problems are on the rise putting people at a higher risk of physical and mental problems, literally making us sicker and unhappy.
Stress and the cortisol connection
It may come as no surprise that one of the major culprits behind sleep problems is…stress!
Stress, particularly prolonged stress, can disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis for short), a quite delicate inter-communicating mechanism in the body which controls secretion of the hormone cortisol. Under normal non-stressful circumstances, the HPA axis produces cortisol in a controlled diurnal rhythm, where cortisol levels are higher in the morning when you wake up (which gives you energy to jump out of bed and start the day), decreasing gradually throughout the day until reaching very low levels in the evening (allowing you to relax and fall asleep).
However, cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone, is also released under a stressful situation (either emotional or physical). Imagine you are walking down the road, suddenly you are about to be hit by a bus that makes an abrupt stop right in front of you! Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure spikes, and glucose is released into your blood stream. This is the result of a stream of cortisol being released to help you rise to the challenge, the so-called acute “stress response”. But the issue starts when this response is chronically triggered by day-to-day events (you are late for work, had a fight with your partner, are worried about money) therefore disrupting the cortisol diurnal rhythm. In this situation, your cortisol may be high in the evening, as opposed to low, which impairs your sleep. In addition, cortisol levels may not peak when you wake up, leaving you flat and tired in the morning. These are a few examples of how disrupted HPA axis and cortisol secretion can affect your sleep and energy levels.
To make the situation worse, a poor night sleep further contributes to dysregulation of the HPA axis, as studies show that it can raise cortisol levels the next evening. It becomes a sort of vicious cycle of high cortisol leading to poor sleep, and poor sleep leading to high levels of cortisol.
Here, we concentrate on the role of cortisol on sleep, but disrupted cortisol can also lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, mood changes, low libido, can mess up with your digestion and cause irregular cycles in women. If you suspect stress may be an issue, you can get your daily cortisol pattern checked using a saliva home test under the guidance of a qualified medical professional or naturopath.
Reduce stress - do more by doing less
We became a society of doing more, 24-hour connected to our phones and social media, going to the gym, obsessing about our food and diets, planning the next holiday or retreat. We want to do it all and we live in constant search, rarely giving our bodies and minds a break. When was the last time you were in a queue at the supermarket without quickly reaching to your phone, just waiting, looking around and literally doing nothing? Yes, you probably can’t remember. Don’t worry, you are not alone because this is the reality for most of us.
But guess what, it’s this constant “engagement” with everything and everyone around you that may be perpetuating a disrupted cortisol production, and affecting your sleep amongst other health issues. All those stimuli are perceived by an already overloaded body as stressors, so we need to learn how to slow down and switch-off, and let the magic happens. Here are 5 self-care habits you can start implementing right now:
Breathe! Research has shown that deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system (also called the “rest and digest” system). Check-in with your breathing throughout the day and practice Four-Square Breathing (also called Box Breathing Technique).
Practice meditation daily - 10-15 minutes in the morning is a great way to calm your mind setting the tone for the day.
Give yourself permission to pause and make your soul happy on a regular basis (it could be curling up in the sofa with a book, going for a walk in nature, or simply spending some quiet time tuning in with yourself).
Take control of your mobile phone – turn-off your messages and WhatsApp alerts and dedicate a specific time of the day to check them. The constant flow of notifications disengages you from the present moment and any attempt to relax.
Practice yoga, an excellent way to engage the body, the breath and the mind. It’s three in one! Great online resources are Yoga with Adrienne or Yoga Glo. Schedule it in your diary.
Your emergency "stress tolbox"
Let’s be honest, even with the best of intentions, it may be difficult to escape a stressful period here and then, or maybe you are just having trouble in slowing down at times. Fortunately, there are some great supplements and herbs that can help you navigating through those moments such as magnesium, B complex vitamins and adaptogens. The latter are a class of herbs known to have a balancing effect on the HPA axis, modulating cortisol. As the name says, they help the body to “adapt” to stressors, restoring balance. Top adaptogens in my list are ashwagandha, siberian ginseng, rhodiola, schisandra, licorice, and holy basil.
Although the above are excellent choices in a short-term situation, my best advice would always be to change your mindset and embrace self-care routines as above. This is the ultimate way to create a sustainable and healthy relationship with stress, cortisol and sleep. Happy cortisol, happy sleep, happy you!
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Hirotsu, C., Tufik, S. & Andersen, M. L. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Science (2015). doi:10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002
Leproult, G. Copinschi, O. Buxton, E. V. C. Sleep Loss Results in an Elevation of Cortisol Levels the Next Evening. Sleep 20, 865–70 (1997).
Stansbury, J., Saunders, P. & Winston, D. Supporting Adrenal Function with Adaptogenic Herbs. J. Restor. Med. (2013). doi:10.14200/jrm.2012.1.1007
Zaccaro, A. et al. How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2018). doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353
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