In today’s modern world we are expected to be available 24-7 to answer our phones, work a 40+ hour work week, on top of being a parent, social media star, and volunteer in our free time. The growing demands have lead to high rates of chronic stress and anxiety. It is well known that stress has a negative impact on health, but you may not know that feeling anxious and stressed day-to-day could be the cause of your sleeping issues.
The Sleep Cycle and Stress
The body’s sleep-wake cycle is controlled by its internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, which signals the release of the hormone melatonin at night to promote sleep, and the release of the hormone cortisol in the morning to promote wakefulness. Ideally, cortisol peaks in the morning and slowly decreases through the day and is the lowest at night. This cycle, however can be altered by both stress and anxiety, which activate the fight-or-flight response causing a surge of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which throw off the natural cortisol release curve (3). Although feeling stressed about work, relationships, and money are not usually immediately life-threatening, your body responses the same way it would if you were in grave danger, like running from a predator.
This altered cortisol pattern can result in high levels of cortisol at night, which can bring on symptoms of difficulty falling and staying asleep, trouble unwinding, ruminating about the day, or what needs to be done tomorrow, resulting in poor sleep quality. This is commonly followed by waking unrefreshed, feeling tired during the day, and experiencing issues with concentration (1). If stress and anxiety persist, cortisol production can burnout and result in low morning levels of cortisol, which makes it difficult to get out of bed (3). This creates a vicious cycle of fatigue, sleep deprivation, and more stress!
Importance of Sleep
Getting a full night’s rest is essential to all aspects of health and wellness. It is the time when the body repairs, the brain resets, and the body prepares for the next day (8). Sleep deprivation is detrimental to health and comes with a number of health risks.
Risks of sleep deprivation include:
- Increased risk of chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease (8,10)
- Decreased immune system (5)
- Weight gain and overeating (8)
- Decreased mood and cognition (1,7)
What to Do?
Fortunately, mother nature has provided us with natural ways of reducing the stress response and achieving a night of restful, restorative sleep. A class of herbs, known as hypnotics, encourage relaxation, reduce anxiety, and promote sleep. Valerian is a clinically studied hypnotic herb that has been shown to improve overall sleep quality, decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, and reduce the frequency of waking through the night. Furthermore, unlike traditional sleeping medications, Valerian has no side effects, is non-habit forming, and will not cause morning drowsiness (2,4).
Melatonin is a hormone our brain naturally produce to promote sleep. It is also a potent antioxidant, which when taken as a supplement, can help restore sleep cycles and prevent sleep deprived induced cognitive impairment (11).
L-Theanine is an amino acid that can be found in herbs like green tea. Research shows that it helps to decrease the stress response, and calm anxiety through modulating the brain’s signal molecules, known as neurotransmitters, that control brain excitation and brain relaxation (6).
Other strategies to help restore proper sleep cycles include (9):
- Engage in regular exercise
- Decrease blue light exposure at night
- Do not consume caffeine late in the day
- Adopt a consistent bedtime
- Our sleep-wake cycle is disturbed by chronic stress and anxiety.
- Increased cortisol makes it more difficult to fall asleep and decreases sleep quality.
- Low morning cortisol makes it more difficult to wake up and produces daytime fatigue.
- Sleep deprivation comes with numerous serious health risks.
- Natural strategies include Valerian, Melatonin, and L-theanine as well as lifestyle changes.
- Bassett, S. M., Lupis, S. B., Gianferante, D., Rohleder, N., & Wolf, J. M. (2015). Sleep quality but not sleep quantity effects on cortisol responses to acute psychosocial stress. Stress, 18(6), 638-644.
- Bent, S., Padula, A., Moore, D., Patterson, M., & Mehling, W. (2006). Valerian for sleep: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The American journal of medicine, 119(12), 1005-1012.
- Dahlgren, A., Kecklund, G., & Åkerstedt, T. (2005). Different levels of work-related stress and the effects on sleep, fatigue and cortisol. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 277-285.
- Edwards, S. E., da Costa Rocha, I., Williamson, E. M., & Heinrich, M. (2015). Valerian Valeriana officinalis L. Phytopharmacy: An Evidence-Based Guide to Herbal Medicinal Products, 383.
- Irwin, M., McClintick, J., Costlow, C., Fortner, M., White, J., & Gillin, J. C. (1996). Partial night sleep deprivation reduces natural killer and cellular immune responses in humans. The FASEB journal, 10(5), 643-653.
- Kimura, K., Ozeki, M., Juneja, L. R., & Ohira, H. (2007). L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biological psychology, 74(1), 39-45.
- Krishnan, H. C., Noakes, E. J., & Lyons, L. C. (2016). Chronic sleep deprivation differentially affects short and long-term operant memory in Aplysia. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 134, 349-359.
- Markwald, R. R., Melanson, E. L., Smith, M. R., Higgins, J., Perreault, L., Eckel, R. H., & Wright, K. P. (2013). Impact of insufficient sleep on total daily energy expenditure, food intake, and weight gain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201216951.
- Mawer, R. (2018 November 2) 17 Proven Tips to Sleep Better at Night Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-tips-to-sleep-better
- Mullington, J. M., Haack, M., Toth, M., Serrador, J. M., & Meier-Ewert, H. K. (2009). Cardiovascular, inflammatory, and metabolic consequences of sleep deprivation. Progress in cardiovascular diseases, 51(4), 294-302.
- Zhang, L., Zhang, H. Q., Liang, X. Y., Zhang, H. F., Zhang, T., & Liu, F. E. (2013). Melatonin ameliorates cognitive impairment induced by sleep deprivation in rats: role of oxidative stress, BDNF and CaMKII. Behavioural brain research, 256, 72-81.