How Stress Sabotages Sleep


How Stress Sabotages Sleep

By Natasha Turner

If you’re not getting enough shut-eye, you’re certainly not alone. Since 1999, the National Sleep Foundation has conducted annual, nationwide polls on sleep habits and attitudes toward sleep. The first of these polls revealed that only 35% of adults sleep the minimum eight hours a night recommended by sleep experts. Fast forward to 2005 and the same poll showed the average adult is still sleeping only 6.8 hours on weeknights and 7.4 hours a night on weekends.

The 2007 National Sleep Foundation Poll focused only on the sleep habits of women. Half of those polled reported that sleep and exercise are the first activities they sacrifice when they are pressed for time. About the same percentage admitted they reach for foods high in sugar or carbohydrates when they feel sleepy during the day. A whopping 90% of the women polled reported they are routinely bothered by fear, worry, stress, anxiety, depression or hopelessness. Worrying too much and feeling anxious were the most common complaints, with one-third of the women saying they felt this way a lot as compared to just sometimes.

There are several vicious circles the body can get into when hormonal imbalance is at play. But here’s a biggie: the stress hormone cortisol disturbs our sleep and sleep deprivation raises our cortisol.

Stress and Your Sleeping Patterns

Cortisol is a stimulating hormone that disrupts the quality of our sleep and makes us prone to anxiety and aggression. It may cause frequent waking throughout the night at points when it naturally surges, especially between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. So, if you often wake around these times, cortisol could be your culprit.

Normally, cortisol should be highest first thing in the morning, around 6 a.m. This early-morning boost wakes you up, makes you feel alert, and prepares you to start your day. It also helps raise your blood pressure, so you can get out of bed without fainting. However, this spike may also explain why more heart attacks and strokes happen first thing in the morning.

By evening, cortisol generally proceeds to its lowest level, which helps the body prepare for sleep. Chronic stress is known to disrupt this natural cortisol-release cycle, which may result in a flip-flop that causes cortisol levels to be highest in the evening. This off-hours spike leads to over-stimulation and may result in difficulty falling asleep or insomnia. The body is then faced with the problem of morning fatigue, not only from lack of sleep but also because of depressed levels of cortisol in the morning when they should be at their highest.

How Do You Know Whether Your Stress is Out of Control and Impacting Your Sleep?

I typically see two common patterns of cortisol imbalance. In some cases, cortisol is elevated at all points of collection, which typically causes sleep disruption characterized by waking between 2 to 4 am. In others, the normal cortisol pattern is reversed so that it is highest in the evening and lowest in the morning. The latter condition is characterized by extreme difficulty getting up in the morning, fatigue during the day, and difficulty falling asleep at bedtime.


  1. Sleep in complete darkness.

Your room should be as dark as possible – you should not be able to see your hand in front of your face. When light hits your eyes, it disrupts the circadian rhythm of the pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin. Studies have shown that even a small amount of light can cause a decrease in melatonin levels which can affect sleep and may raise cancer risks.

  1. The optimal amount of sleep is between seven and nine hours per night.

The American Cancer Association found higher incidences of cancer in individuals who consistently slept six hours or less or more than nine hours nightly. However, some people may require more or less sleep than others. If you awaken without an alarm and if you feel rested upon rising, you are most likely getting enough sleep.

  1. Establish regular sleeping hours.

Try to get up each morning and go to bed each evening at the same time. Oversleeping can be as detrimental as sleep deprivation. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep nightly. How you feel each day is an important indication of how much sleep is right for you.

  1. Avoid bedtime snacks that are high in sugar or simple carbohydrates.

Carbohydrate-rich snacks such as breads, cereals, muffins, cookies or other baked goods raise blood sugar levels for a short time, causing them to fall later. When there is a drop-in blood sugar, adrenalin, glucagon, cortisol and growth hormone are released to regulate blood glucose levels. These hormones can be stimulating to the brain causing you to awaken and be unable to fall back to sleep. Try not to eat for at least one hour before going to bed. If you do need to eat something, have a snack that contains protein such as a few almonds and half of an apple. Protein provides a source of the amino acid tryptophan. The body converts tryptophan to serotonin and melatonin, hormones that are important for sleep. The sugars from the fruit may help the tryptophan reach the brain more easily.

  1. Turn on the lights or open the blinds first thing in the morning.

Letting in the daylight and the sounds of the morning imprints the stimulus associated with awakening on the brain. This is the proper way to reset your body clock and will ensure that your melatonin levels stay set on “awake” until the evening. Ensure that you get adequate exposure to sunlight by getting outside during the day.

  1. Do not turn on the light if you go to the bathroom during the night.

Even brief exposure to light can shut down melatonin production which is important for sleep and this can contribute to fatigue or insomnia.

  1. Do not drink any fluids two hours before going to bed.

This will reduce the likelihood, or the frequency, of urination during the night. Men who make regular trips to the bathroom each evening should see their doctor as it could be an indication of prostate enlargement.

  1. Keep your bedroom cool – not warmer than 70°F.

We naturally feel sleepier when we are cold or are cooling down than when our body temperature is rising.

  1. Avoid stimulating activities before bed, such as watching television or using the computer.

Watching television in the bedroom is too stimulating. It also emits light which can be disturbing to sleep and electromagnetic energy that may increase your risk of cancer. Also, do not work in bed. Use the bed and the bedroom only for sleeping and sex.

  1. Use your bed for sleeping and sex only.

Do not do any other activities in bed as you may start to associate the bedroom with more stimulating activities and not as the place to sleep.

  1. Avoid using loud alarm clocks.

Waking up suddenly can be a shock to your body. If you are regularly getting enough sleep, an alarm clock should be unnecessary. Sleeping through an alarm or needing an alarm daily indicates that you may be sleep deprived. If you do use an alarm, you should awaken just before it goes off.

  1. Try to get to bed before 11 pm – optimally, by 10 pm.

Since the invention of electricity, we have begun to stay up later and later. This has resulted in a society that is, for the most part, sleep deprived. Our stress glands, the adrenals, recharge or recover most between 11 pm and 1 am. Therefore, it is best to go to bed before 11 pm to rebuild your reserves. Growth hormone, which is essential for repairing lean body tissues like muscle and bone, is also released during sleep.

  1. Nutrition
  • Make sure you have a starchy carb in the evening – not in the morning. Do not go starchy carb free – it raises cortisol. White beans – contain phosphatidylserine, which lowers cortisol – so this is your best choice.
  • Dairy products- whey sources including ricotta cheese, Greek yogurt, whey protein shakes – dairy and whey is found to lower cortisol
  • Flaxseed – Compared to the pre-treatment baseline diet, flax significantly reduced stress measurement markers – including blood pressure during mental stress. Use 2 to 3 tbsp ground flax seeds daily.

14. Recipe for Adrenal Repair.

This is a great option for your 3-4 PM meal. Great for sleep preparation and tasty too.

  • 3/4 to 1 cups Greek Yogurt –
    • Greek yogurt contains the richest amount of whey, which naturally helps to balance cortisol.
  • 8 to 10 Toasted walnuts and/or pecans –
    • Both of these nuts have cortisol balancing properties, antioxidants and essential fats to improve blood sugar balance
  • Shaved dark chocolate or 2 squares of dark chocolate  –
    • Chocolate boosts mood, balances cortisol – even in pregnant women (they have happier babies – its proven!!). It also helps blood sugar and insulin balance and aids digestion, which is often in of need of support in those with adrenal fatigue.
  • 1 small Sliced kiwi or 1/2 cup strawberries – Your top two fruit selections for a dose of vitamin C

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