Chronic Stress + Insomnia
Posted on March 03 2021
How has your sleep been lately? Are you sleeping the recommended 7-9 hours per night and waking most mornings feeing rested?
If the answer is no, you are definitely not alone. Even before COVID, over 35% of adults were not getting enough sleep, and that was before the situation we currently find ourselves in. Just one month into the pandemic, back in April of 2020, the use of prescription sleep medication had already increased by 20% in the US – it will be pretty fascinating (not in a good way) to see what sleep statistics look like once the pandemic is finally behind us and researchers can assess the full impact. But it’s pretty safe to say that existing sleep issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and many previously good sleepers are now experiencing insomnia.
Why? In short, chronic stress.
While COVID hasn’t affected everyone in the same way, there are some themes that are pretty universal and are causing elevated stress levels for most of us:
- Disruption of Daily Life and Routines – working from home, school closures, job losses, working under more stressful conditions for frontline workers, no gyms or yoga/fitness studios, no social gatherings.
- Anxiety and Worry – health and economic being the biggies, but also the overwhelming and unrelenting feeling of uncertainty we are living with.
- Depression and Isolation – depression rates have risen dramatically alongside alcohol consumption.
- Excess Screen Time – totally guilty.
- Stress-related Fatigue – somehow, we feel like we are doing less and slowing down, but are also way more tired than pre-pandemic.
That mostly sums up the WHY -but the HOW is also worth looking at.
When stress levels increase that triggers a physiological response in our bodies, specifically an increase in the production of cortisol.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone that is produced and secreted by your adrenal glands via a complex communication system involving your hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. The hypothalamus and pituitary glands are in your brain, and the adrenal glands are just above your kidney. This network is called the HPA axis for short. When you are stressed, the HPA access cues the release of cortisol, putting you in “fight or flight mode”. This response was perfect in early human times when fast reactions and an energy surge meant the difference between life and death. But it is disproportionate to feelings of stress that come from watching the news or having a bad day at work. Unfortunately, our adrenal glands don’t know the difference, and constantly elevated cortisol levels as a result of an over-active HPA axis can have significant impact on our sleep cycle, and our daytime stress levels, as well as our overall wellbeing.
Stress and SleepEach night when you sleep, your body goes through several sleep cycles: stage 1, 2, 3 and REM sleep, which have different qualities and functions but are all important. When your HPA axis is too active, and too much cortisol is secreted it disrupts your circadian rhythm/sleep cycle, causing difficulty getting to sleep, fragmented sleep with frequent waking, insomnia, and shortened sleep time overall.
Then, to make matters worse, sleep deprivation at night causes more cortisol secretion during the day, possibly in an effort to stimulate alertness when you are tired. So, the cycle keeps repeating and getting worse, and is sometimes referred to as “adrenal fatigue”. Your adrenals aren’t actually fatigued; it’s more a matter of them being dysregulated – they are no longer producing the right amount of cortisol to keep you safe, but also healthy. Over time, this heightened response to chronic stress can lead to fatigue, depression, insomnia, anxiety, brain fog, low libido, inability to handle stress, and lowered immunity.
So what can you do?
Well, the first thing is to try to reset your circadian rhythm and get your sleep cycles back on track. If you’ve read any of my other sleep blogs you know that I firmly believe that sleep has to be the foundation of self-care.
Here are a few tips for getting a stressed-out sleep cycle back on track:
- Get to bed before midnight. Healthy adrenals will produce the least amount of cortisol between midnight and 4am so you want to be asleep then to let your adrenals rest and repair and get back into this rhythm. Wake up at the same time every day, even if you didn’t sleep well and don’t nap.
- Sleep in a cool, dark room with a comfortable mattress. I like a sleep mask to make it extra dark.
- No screens before bed. For at least an hour. Sorry/not sorry.
- Get natural light as soon as possible after you wake up – if you can get outside. If you’ve got a dog you will both benefit from this. Exercise in the early part of the day also helps with sleep – exercise before bed has the opposite effect.
- No caffeine after noon.
- Manage your stress response with meditation, yoga, a bath, massage, reading, etc..
These tips are mostly designed to help your body really get the message of when to sleep, and when to be awake. But it can be challenging, and will take time to re-regulate.
If you find these tips alone are not enough, I use both Niyama’s Sleep Like Buddha (1 capsule 30 minutes before bed and 1 if I wake at 2 am with busy brain) to help me relax into deeper sleep, and Daytime Zen (1 capsule as soon as I wake up) to reduce cortisol secretion during the day and help me feel calmly alert. Both can be used separately, but it is as a system that I find them most effective for me.
Hope this helps you sleep more and stress less – and please be kind to yourself, we’ve all been through a lot and we don’t always give ourselves credit for it. You are doing amazing so tell yourself that and cut yourself some slack.
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