By Benjamin Semmens, Registered Nutritionist (BHSc)
We’re back again with another edition of Friday Q&A where we answer all of your health and nutrition-related questions.
This week, Mary got in touch with the 13 Seeds team and asked: I’ve been having a lot of difficulty sleeping lately and experiencing really bad anxiety. Are these related?
Short answer: Absolutely.
Anyone who experiences anxiety knows how debilitating these worrying thoughts can be, and can leave you ruminating for hours on end—struggling to get anything else done.
It’s also no secret that not getting enough sleep can be pretty stressful, but did you know that poor sleep is also linked to many common mental health conditions, including anxiety?
Sleep and anxiety have a bidirectional relationship, which means that not getting enough sleep can lead to anxiety, while having anxiety can also lead to a lack of sleep—and the cycle goes on and on and can have a long-term effect on your physical and mental health if left untreated.
Ready to snooze peacefully once again? Read on for more insight on how sleep and anxiety are connected, plus a few helpful tips to relieve your night-time anxiety.
What’s the link between sleep and anxiety?
While experts used to assume that sleep complications were a symptom of anxiety, it’s now becoming clear that sleep issues may actually be one of the contributors to different mental health issues, including anxiety, which affects one in four people in Australia.
Stress and anxiety have the same effects on our bodies by triggering the release of stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol. When these hormones are released in the bodies, they activate our fight-or-flight response that leads to an increase in blood pressure, and heart rate that disrupts our sleep. Simultaneously, this lack of sleep can also lead to even more anxiety and fuel the cycle further and further. (1, 2)
While it may feel like you switch off when you’re sleeping, your brain is actually working its way through different sleep stages which work together to boost your brain health (including your emotional and mental health). (3, 4)
It’s vital to get plenty of sleep during your REM (rapid eye movement) cycle in particular, which is your deepest stage of sleep which helps your brain process thoughts, memories, and emotions. Not enough REM sleep may lead to a lower mood, low emotional reactivity, and even an increase in suicidal thoughts. (5)
How to get better sleep to reduce anxiety
The first step to managing anxiety is understanding it. Get to know your triggers. Are you stressed from work? Do you have a history of trauma? Relationship issues? Take some time to be introspective and figure out what the underlying cause may be.
There can also be external factors including diet and lifestyle, but make sure to consult a health care professional if you have any questions or can use some more guidance.
Single or double shot?
There’s nothing like that first sip of coffee in the morning, but it’s not news that caffeine and anxiety are pretty close pals. It’s known to trigger a big release of adrenaline, which isn’t a bad deal during the day, but it can induce anxiety and sleep issues in the evening. Stick to one or two cups of caffeinated beverages a day and consume before midday to avoid restless sleep. If you still have cravings for the taste of coffee, you can always go for a decaf in the afternoon.
The alcohol dilemma
We’ve all been there. You come home after a long day of work and the first thing you do is reach for that enticing bottle of wine. But did you know that drinking alcohol can actually worsen your anxiety by altering your brain's chemical levels which support your mood and serotonin? If you’ve recently been experiencing an increase in anxiety, try taking a break from your night caps and keep track of your mood.
Get your body moving
Exercise could be considered one the best natural solutions in preventing anxiety and improving sleep. It’s linked to increase your body’s anti-anxiety and anti-depression neurochemicals including serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. It’s also known to activate and strengthen the areas of your brain that are linked to our fight/flight responses, which in the long run, reduces anxiety. (6)
If you’re new to anxiety, no need to stress because research has shown that you can feel its mood boosting effects after just one session—low or high intensity, any type of training will lead to lower anxiety and better sleep. (7)
Meditation has been proven to reduce anxiety and help improve sleep because of one key factor: mindfulness. When you’re mindful, you focus in on the present moment, rather than anxiety-inducing thoughts about the past or future. This practice has shown to increase the amount of gray matter in the brain, which is linked to increased emotional regulation and heightened focus. See for yourself—starting today, start meditating for only five minutes each day and see how it can help you get a better good night’s sleep.(8) You can also learn more about mindfulness and the positive effects of meditation with the help of a therapist.
A 2019 study found that older adults who consumed more saturated fats and added sugars reported higher levels of anxiety. (9) When you eat a well-balanced diet consisting of wholefoods (ie. fresh produce, protein, legumes etc.), you can help to regulate your blood sugar levels and provide important nutrients for your brain to reduce anxiety. It’s also essential to get essential fatty acids (fatty fish, algae, hemp seeds etc.) into your diet which help promote good brain health. (10)
At the end of the day, there’s nothing more important than getting a good night’s rest. While anxiety can be difficult to manage at times, there are diet and lifestyle choices that you can make to help reduce symptoms naturally. By avoiding stimulants, participating in regular exercise, meditating, and eating a well-balanced diet, you’ll notice a significant improvement in your sleep. If you are still having issues recharging at night, make sure you speak to your doctor for more guidance and to explore other options, including therapy.
Congratulations to Mary who won a $20 gift voucher just for asking Ben a question! If you have any other questions or need some extra support with your health, feel free to email our head nutritionist Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscribe to our blog for more updates.
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.