Is stress affecting your sleep?

We all love a deep and restful sleep and we feel the difference when we don’t get one.

A good night’s slumber not only feels amazing but also brings about endless health benefits. Think, reduced inflammation, supporting a healthy weight, high energy levels, increased cognitive function, reduced anxiety and balanced, happy hormones (hello sex drive)! You name it a good nights sleep can help heal it. Unfortunately, modern life can get in the way of our sleep relationship. Putting the modern day human at a higher risk of physical and mental health problems.

Sleep, stress & the cortisol correlation:

Prolonged periods of stress can disrupt a delicate inter communicating mechanism in the body called the hypothalamic-pituarty – adrenal axis, known as the HPA Axis, which controls the secretion of the well-known hormone cortisol. Under chilled out circumstances, AKA slower living or non-stressful events, the HPA axis produces cortisol in a nice and controlled rhythm. Where cortisol levels are highest in the morning when you wake, giving you energy to spring up out of bed and start your day. Then gradually decreasing throughout the day to lower levels in the evening. Allowing you to rest and digest, before snoozing your way into a restful nights sleep.

However, problems arise when this response is triggered by our day-to-day modern life events. Which could look similar to something like this: you missed your morning alarm, or you jump out of bed and speed through your daily HIIT workout, you skip breakfast, you’re late for work and you have multiple deadlines. Or you had a fight with you’re partner, or your stressed out about finances. Add 1-2 (or a few) daily coffees in the mix and we have disturbed our lovely cortisol rhythm. From a physiological response your heart rate is now increased, your blood pressure spikes and glucose is released into your blood stream. You may not even realise it, but your in flight or fight mode. This is a result of a surge of cortisol being released to help you rise to your daily challenges. Aren’t our bodies amazing! Although, now our cortisol might be high in the evening as opposed to low (hello restless sleep)! In addition to this, cortisol levels may not peak in the morning leaving you flat and tired and reaching for more coffee to get you going. Therefore, It becomes a vicious cycle of high cortisol leading to poor sleep and poor sleep leading to high cortisol. Eeek! This is not what we want and this continuous pattern can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, mood changes, digestion dysfunction, low libido, and can cause hormonal imbalances and irregular cycles in women.

Ok so what can we do about it?

The good news is that if you suspect stress is affecting your sleep, there are things you can do to help fix it.

Do more by doing less. We have become a tuned in society of doing more, we are connected to our phones, Wi-Fi and social media 24/7. We want to do it all: planning the next adventure, work hard, play hard and gym even harder. We are in a constant search, rarely giving our bodies and minds a decent rest. Here at 5 practical tips you can implement straight away:

5 self care habits you can implement right now:

  1. Take control of you mobile phone – Turn off your Instagram notifications, Facebook group chats and WhatsApp alerts. Go as far as turning off your Wifi altogether, I dare you! The constant and relentless flow of notifications and online engagement distracts us from being present with others and ourselves. Dedicate a specific time each day to tune into yourself and the actual real world – away from your phone.
  2. Breathe – have often do we stop during the day to notice or become aware of our breathing? Breathing is so powerful to bring down cortisol levels, yet it’s something so often forgotten about. Research shows that deep belly breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest zone. Aim to check in regularly with your breath throughout the day. A simple 10 -15 minute meditation in the morning and before bed is a great way to calm your mind and set the tone for the day. I use Insight Time an amazing free app with an abundance of gratitude, mindfulness and sleep meditations.
  3. Give yourself permission for self-enjoyment each day. Whatever that might be for you, reading a book, listening to music, cooking, or spending time in nature. The aim is to prioritise and spend more time doing the things you love. Because at the end of the day we ain’t getting out of here alive so we might as well enjoy our time!                                                                    
  4. Practice yoga. A brilliant way to engage breath, body, mind and movement. This is bang for your buck and regular practice can significantly lower your cortisol levels, boost energy and mood. Don’t worry I’m not asking you to become a Yogi! Start small, again even 10-15 minutes of stretching, movement and breathing is a great start.                
  5. Aim for protein based foods at each meal, with a variety of vegetables to help stabilise and maintain blood sugar levels throughout the day. This can help to lower cortisol levels and regulate mood and energy levels as well as serve a better nights sleep.

Your emergency toolkit:

Lets be real, even with the best of intentions, it may be difficult to escape the hustle and stressful periods in life. Fortunately, there are some great herbs and supplements that can help you navigate through modern day stresses. Think B vitamins, magnesium, L-theanine and adaptogenic herbs. My favourite adaptogenic herbs include, withania, licorice, schisandra and rhodiola, Furthermore, if you suspect stress is affecting you’re over all wellbeing you can get your daily cortisol levels checked through functional testing under the guidance of a qualified medical profession or naturopath.

Although the above are excellent choices to adopt, my best advice is to implement the practical self care routines as above to ultimately create long term sustainable health and a healthy relationship with stress and sleep.

Happy cortisol levels, happy sleep, happy human! Better living everyone, I hope this has been helpful.

Jana Taylor – Naturopath and Medical Herbalist

Disclaimer: This blog post is for educational purposes only. It is not designed to diagnose, treat or cure. For your individual health concerns, it is important to discuss these with a health professional.