Stress and the modern world go hand in hand. This is why most of us don’t consider it a problem until it starts to affect our health. In an effort to be more productive, we sacrifice our sleep and this is where the problems start. Inadequate sleep quickly increases our stress levels which in turn affects our mental and physical health. It is important to understand the link between sleep and stress so that we can change our sleep schedules to improve our health and productivity.
Effects of Sleep on Stress and Mental Health
To understand the effects of sleep on stress, we need to look at the mechanism of stress response. The stress response in humans is regulated by a chain of chemical reactions. The brain first releases a peptide hormone called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). As the name suggests, the main purpose of this hormone is to stimulate the release of other hormones. CRH triggers the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which signals the adrenal gland to release adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones. The result is that you feel heightened levels of stress. When the levels of these stress hormones remain elevated for a prolonged period, the risk of developing a stress disorder increases. Sleep plays a vital role in reducing stress levels as it brings stress hormones back to healthy levels. Regular sleep can also help to promote mental health and prevent stress disorders.
Sleep is our body’s natural mechanism for coping with stress, both physical and mental. When you deny yourself adequate sleep, you’re simply increasing the risk of a stress disorder. Researchers discovered that just 24 hours of sleep deprivation has a tremendous impact on the body. They found that this period of sleep deprivation led to elevated levels of 3 stress hormones – cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Furthermore, the participants of the study also exhibited lower attention and working memory and were more susceptible to making errors. If you have inadequate or impaired sleep, you may also have trouble retaining and recalling information, as stress hormones disrupt the storage of short-term memories.
The impact of chronic or frequent sleep deprivation is far worse than acute sleep deprivation. Getting inadequate sleep on a regular basis hijacks the natural stress reduction process. Under normal circumstances, your cortisol levels are lowest around midnight but sleep deprivation can keep them elevated. This means that your body is unable to “wind down which creates a vicious cycle of further sleep impairment, fueling increased stress levels. When you are deprived of sleep on a regular basis, chronic stress can also give rise to anxiety disorders. This has been suggested by several studies, including one that appeared in the journal Sleep. According to their research, the risk of anxiety disorders could be 17 times higher in insomniacs as compared to healthy sleepers.
Improve Sleep Quality & Duration to Beat Stress
While there’s no denying the vicious cycle, you can take steps to improve sleep quality and duration, despite the stress. Here’s what you can do:
Follow a Sleep Schedule
Conditioning is an important way to deal with behavioral problems and is often used in behavioral therapy. It can help significantly when dealing with sleep impairment and stress. Follow a regular sleep schedule as this will reinforce the circadian rhythm which is your natural sleep cycle.
Reduce your intake of stimulants such as tea, coffee, and other caffeinated beverages at least 3 to 4 hours prior to bedtime. Similarly, it would be a good idea to avoid any nicotine products during these hours. Alcohol is also best avoided despite the fact that it may seem to have a sedative effect. Although it makes you drowsy at first, it activates the sympathetic system once blood alcohol levels drop.
Indulging in high-intensity exercise late in the day can be counterproductive but working out earlier enhances the quality of sleep. Studies suggest that regular physical activity or exercise can significantly improve sleep quality even in patients suffering from sleep disorders. If you’re exercising later in the day, a short walk or yoga can help to lower stress levels and prep the body for sleep.
Prepare for Sleep
This goes hand in hand with conditioning, but it’s aimed at gearing your body toward sleep, not just your mind. Turn off your laptop and phone a few hours before bedtime, as blue light from digital screens suppresses melatonin production. You can also dim the lights in your house an hour before bedtime to prep yourself for sleep. Also, make sure to have your dinner a few hours earlier to lower the risk of acid reflux and indigestion.
These steps can help to improve your sleep pattern and in turn, reduce your stress levels. However, if you continue to face sleep problems, talk to your doctor as you may suffer from a sleep disorder. Sleeplessness is linked to stress and anxiety disorders which is why an early diagnosis is vital to your physical and mental health.
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