Written by Benjamin Semmens, Registered Nutritionist (BHSc)
Hey guys, welcome back to another edition of Friday Q&A, where our head nutritionist Ben answers your health and nutrition questions each week!
This week’s question came from Lara who explained “I’ve been feeling really stressed and anxious lately and struggling to sleep – what can I do?”
With the current situation of COVID-19, it’s no wonder that we’re all feeling more stressed and anxious! The problem with stress is that it can cause sleep issues - this relationship becomes even more complicated because poor sleep can make anxiety worse!
When you’re stressed your body releases stress hormones aka cortisol to help you deal with stressor eg. you’re more focused, you’ve got more energy, and your eyesight and listening becomes sharper.
This is all part of fantastic evolutionary process in your body called your ‘fight or flight’ response that is perfect for dealing with short-term stressors.
But if you’re stressed all the time and in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’, how the heck are you meant to sleep? we need the exact opposite conditions to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep!
As you can imagine being in this heightened state constantly is incredibly exhausting for your body, making sleep even more essential! Unfortunately, getting sleep when you’re stressed is even harder!
In this blog you’ll learn all about how stress affects your body and your sleep, and how you can manage stress to get a better night’s rest.
Congratulations to Lara who won a $20 gift voucher just for asking Ben a question! You can send your questions to email@example.com
How does stress affect your body?
It’s first important to discuss the importance stress, as stress is not always a bad thing – in fact we need it to some extent! When you’re faced with a stressful situation your body releases a stress hormone called cortisol.
It’s completely normal and healthy that when you wake in the morning your cortisol levels peak and gradually decline throughout the day. This helps you to get out bed and feel motivated to tackle the day.
But when you’re in constant state of stress your cortisol becomes dysregulated. For example, it might be low in morning and then peak at night. If you’re the type of person who drags yourself out of bed in the morning but are hyperalert at night or you just feel flat all the time, then chances are you may have a cortisol problem!
Photo credit: https://experiencelife.lifetime.life/article/the-cortisol-curve/
Stress: good and bad?
Short term (acute) stress is healthy, for example when you’re running late, your heart rate is high, you’re breathing becomes faster and you’re hyper focused to help get you to where you’re need to be on time. Once you’ve arrived, your body gradually decreases the release of cortisol and now, you’re back to feeling (relatively) normal.
Chronic stress is where things can become complicated, examples include financial concerns, relationship issues, work problems and trauma. Your body typically internalises these stressors and over time this can lead to feelings of fatigue, depression, anxiety and worthlessness. Chronic stress can also cause cortisol dysregulation making your sleep even worse!
How does stress affect sleep?
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that can be caused by chronic stress that is estimated to effect around 10 -30% of adults! Insomnia causes many sleep complications including problems with falling asleep, staying asleep and sleep quality (1).
To make matters worse, many restless nights accompanied by insomnia can cause a variety of complications during the day such as fatigue, attention problems, reduced performance, irritability, anger, mood disturbances, low motivation, reduced energy and increased risk of mistakes and accidents.
If you have insomnia, you’re also at a greater risk of developing chronic health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression/anxiety, and obesity (2).
Can sleep help stress?
Adults are suggested to get around 7-9 hours of sleep a night and getting enough sleep you can help to manage your stress. Unfortunately, getting a good night’s rest can feel impossible when you’re stressed out! That’s why it’s essential that you manage stress to help improve your sleep to reduce your stress levels.
How can I sleep when I’m stressed?
What you do during the day can dramatically help to manage stress that in turn can improve your sleep! Here are a few simple tips to help manage stress.
1. Eat these stress reducing foods!
There are a bunch of foods that can help to reduce stress and improve sleep by supporting neurotransmitter pathways. Key nutrients include B vitamins, magnesium, protein, and essential fatty acids. The best way to get these nutrients is by eating green leafy vegetables, nuts, seed, wholegrains, legumes, lean proteins, fatty fish and hemp seeds (3, 4).
2. Move your body!
Exercise helps to reduce stress and boosts your mood that can help you to sleep at night. When you exercise your body releases endorphins, chemicals in your body that make you feel good! Exercise also releases dopamine, the reward chemical in your brain that reduces anxiety and increases feelings of happiness.
Lastly, exercise also boosts serotonin, a brain chemical that improves your overall sense of well-being and mood that can also help to improve your sleep cycles affected by stress and anxiety (5).
3. Practice relaxation techniques
There are many relaxation techniques that can help to reduce stress and improve sleep. Meditation is one of the most common and scientifically proven techniques to manage stress. When you meditate you bring your thoughts to the present moment rather than focusing on the past or the future that can induce anxious thoughts. Guided meditation apps are a great way to get started (eg. headspace) (6).
Yoga is another popular relaxation technique that encompasses meditation, breathing, and body work that can help to reduce stress. There are many different types of yoga, however some practices such as yin yoga are really focused on helping you to relax and unwind.
You don’t have to go to a yoga studio, all you need is a computer with YouTube and a yoga mat where you can find thousands of yoga lessons (7).
If you don’t have time to do meditation or yoga, you can even do quick and simple breathing techniques such as the 4-7-8 method that involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 7 seconds, then slowly breathing out for 8 seconds that can help to reset your nervous system into a calm state to help you sleep better (8).
4. Write a daily journal
Journaling is a great technique for reducing stress. When you write a journal, it helps to release emotions by taking all your worrying thoughts out of your mind and into your journal.
One of the most common forms of journaling is writing down your thoughts and feelings, alternatively you can write a gratitude journal where you write down the things you are grateful for in life that are proven strategies to manage stress. Regardless of what type of journaling you do, the process of putting pen to paper can help to reduce stress and improve sleep (9).
5. Alternative stress management techniques
If you have tried all the above, then you can try implementing alternative stress management techniques. First, you need to try to recognise where your stress is coming from as generally there’s a source (eg. relationship problems, work problems etc).
Once you identify the source of your stress come up with a plan to minimise the stress by either minimising it or removing it, if you can’t do either of the former then you need to learn to cope with it (using these tips!).
Creating achievable goals can also help to minimise anxiety, when you accomplish goals, it releases dopamine in the brain that makes you feel good that is the antidote to stress.
When you’re feeling stressed, it’s important that you don’t isolate, instead seek support from your family and friends that can help to guide you with these anxious thoughts. Even one conversation with a loved one can dramatically reduce pent-up feelings of anxiety.
6. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
If you are still having problems with anxiety and poor sleep, you can try cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with a trained psychologist. CBT focuses on changing behaviours by improving your regulation of emotions to develop healthy coping strategies when you’re feeling stressed or anxious.
CBT has also shown to be an effective treatment for insomnia related issues. Speak to your doctor about a mental health plan who can help you find a psychologist that is right for you (10).
Stress is completely normal, and as you now know we need stress. Acute stress is healthy and helps you perform; however chronic stress can have disastrous consequences on your health and your sleep. To fix the sleep, you have to manage the stress.
This may seem difficult but using our stress management tips overtime can make a real difference to help you feel less stressed and better rested to live life to its fullest! If you need further support with sleep hygiene, check out this blog.
If you have any questions or need support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article does not constitute medical advice and does not take into consideration your personal circumstances. Please see your medical professional before implementing the above