Sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise are 3 core foundations of health. Getting enough sleep (an average of 7-9 hours per night) ensures our body’s tissues repair, our memory consolidates, it helps keep us fresh and alert, and supports us in tackling daily stress.
Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world many of us aren’t getting the sleep we need, and when we are under stress, our sleep cycle can become interrupted.
How is sleep connected to managing stress levels?
1. Emotional well-being and balance
Getting enough sleep enables us to be rational and better able to cope with stressful situations in a balanced manner. Sleep helps to reduce anxiety and depression and helps to prevent emotional sensitivity.
2. Maintains cortisol at the right level
Cortisol is the hormone produced by our adrenal glands when we are under stress and is triggered when we are in “flight or fight” mode. Imagine how useful falling asleep would be for our ancestors if they were being chased by a bear!
This is also why it can be hard to get to sleep if you do a vigorous workout in the evenings because the body has been under stress and cortisol levels can be elevated. Conversely, mild evening exercise can help induce sleep.
Cortisol, when at a balanced level, helps to regulate our metabolism, reduce inflammation, and support memory formation.
Getting enough sleep ensures cortisol is at the right level and conversely, insufficient sleep leads to the body producing more cortisol. After a bad night of sleep, we can wake up feeling stressed, which can make it harder to sleep the next evening, and then that cycle continues, which could lead to prolonged sleep deprivation.
Also, going to sleep at times that are not in line with our natural circadian rhythm disrupts cortisol levels.
3. Feeling alert and refreshed
Sleep is restorative, particularly for brain health. During deep sleep, our brain is bathed in restorative sleep waves. During sleep, toxins are flushed away that can accumulate in the brain, and we consolidate our memory. We feel fresh and energized after a good night’s sleep.
7 ways to improve your sleep cycle when stressed
1. Avoid caffeine later in the day i.e., after midday. Even if you think caffeine doesn’t stop you from sleeping, it does affect sleep quality.
2. Avoid alcohol and smoking within 4 hours of sleep time.
3. Keep a consistent sleep and wake time, regardless of weekends. Try to make it fit your natural routine, even if you are up with the larks or a night owl.
4. Take regular exercise, preferably outdoors during the day. It will help to manage stress levels, and mood and help you to fall asleep.
5. Save your bed for sex and sleep. Avoid eating, working, or watching TV in bed. This helps to associate the bed with relaxation and sleep. Only go to bed when you feel sleepy.
6. If you tend to wake in the night, avoid looking at the clock, and if you struggle to get back to sleep, get up, perhaps read a book, and then go back to bed when you feel sleepy again.
7. Create ‘worry’ time daily – write any worries in a journal, during an earlier part of the day, which helps to get them out of your head and away from bedtime.
Getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night is foundational for health and well-being. When we are under stress and pressure, our sleep cycle can become disrupted, affecting mood and well-being, alertness, and increasing cortisol levels.
There are ways to improve your sleep cycle and help cope with stress, including avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. You can write a journal, take regular outdoor exercise, and only use the bedroom for sex and sleep.
If you are feeling stressed, I hope the above tips help you to improve and prioritize sleep.
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