Stress and Sleep


A good night’s sleep is critical to health and wellbeing.  Scientists have often seen a close relationship between lack of sleep and a number of health problems including high blood pressure, weight gain, weakened immune system, both short- and long-term memory issues, depression, diabetes, low sexual drives, and poor physical fitness – to mention a few.

Stress and sleep are said to exist in a bi-directional relationship.  That is to say just as stress and anxiety trigger insomnia and other sleep disorders, insomnia and other sleep disorders increases stress and anxiety.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that stress disturbs sleep.  Stress can cause increase in the activation of physiological and psychological responses, and this increased activation can cause deactivation of sleep responses.  Many scholarly articles have been written on the connection between stress and sleep.

Sleep clinics have demonstrated that stress is closely associated with disturbed sleep.  Some find it really difficult to sleep if they have a high workload or work that demands a lot of effort the following day.  In particular, anxiety or apprehension of issues or demands of the following day have revealed great connections with undisturbed deep sleep.  Sleep recordings of such individuals have clearly proved that stress is associated with shortened sleep, fragmented sleep, and in some cases deep sleep, that is stage 3 and stage 4.  Shortened or disturbed sleep cause increase in cortisol and that in itself can exacerbate effects that are most commonly associated with stress.  People who have survived traumatic events have confided that they have found difficult to get peaceful and restful sleep.  On the other hand, lack of sleep has led to significant stress.

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How does this happen?  What is happening in our body?  Well stress can cause the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to release hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones cause the heart rate to increase and circulate blood to vital organs and muscles to take on the flight or fight response.

The relationship between stress and sleep is clear: lack of sleep causes stress, and stress can lead to sleeplessness.  Therefore, if one does not sleep at night, their body boosts its level of stress hormones.  The brain chemicals connected with deep sleep are the same that tell the body to stop the production of stress hormones.  So, when the body is not able to sleep, the body activates the stress hormones.  This vicious cycle continues in such that if you have had a bad night’s sleep you cannot function properly and that increases the stress in the body, and that stress prevents deep and restful sleep.

Causal factors of  insomnia

While stress is certainly a major driver of insomnia, it is certainly not the only cause.  There are other triggers to sleeplessness.

These include:

excessive use of caffeine and alcohol, and poor eating and drinking habits;

mental health conditions including anxiety disorder, depression, or bipolar disorder;

sleep wake disorders driven by shift work, random nocturnal activities, and jet lag

sleep disorders including restless leg syndrome

other poor health conditions including chronic fibrosis of the lungs.

A little bit about Insomnia

Sleeplessness or insomnia is said to be a common issue, and approximately thirty per cent of adults in our country experience some of sort disturbed or restless sleep.

There are often biological, psychological, social, medical and even cultural factors that might affect or impair sleep.  And the lack of sleep can manifest in a range of medical, physiological and psychological symptoms.

Poor sleep makes one vulnerable to symptoms of anxiety.  These include a feeling of being overwhelmed; it induces a heightened sense of irritability and short temperedness.  One may struggle with motivation, and even have trouble concentrating or engaging in memory recall.  There is a reduced sense of energy and increased emotional reactivity.

Lack of restful and undisturbed sleep can cause lethargy.  Lack of sleep can result in increased fatigue and excessive daytime sleepiness.   It may cause you to feel drowsy, moody, sluggish, anxious or even angry.  Some might it difficult to maintain positive relationship at work or at home.  And should this be a recurring issue, it can lead to chronic health conditions. It can impair the metabolic, endocrine, and immune systems, among other deleterious effectives.

What is really challenging that those who suffer from stress and lack of sleep often do not report this problem or discuss this with their health practitioner.

In recent times, the COVID 19 pandemic has brought the respiratory system under a lot of focus.  Researchers have discovered that the way we breathe can have a huge impact on both stress and sleep.

Sleep: how much is good enough?

Most medical practitioners recommend at least seven hours of sleep per night.  Lack of sleep can lead or contribute to a range of chronic health conditions including:

Heart diseases including stroke, high blood pressure and stroke

Sugar imbalance including diabetes

Weight issues including obesity

Joint and mobility issues including arthritis

Kidney and liver diseases

Ways to reduce stress and improve sleep

There are significant changes that you can make to your lifestyle to help you to sleep.  This can also help you to reduce stress. This includes regular physical activity, having a regular schedule, eating well, and avoiding energy drinks or alcohol.  We know that meditation, yoga, or mindfulness can help many to sleep well, and stress less.

Anxiety disorders are pervasive mental health conditions and are currently the leading cause of global years lived with disability.  Medical scientists while not discarding pharmacological agents have recommended exercise as an alternative for those unwilling to initiate medication or psychotherapy.  There is strong evidence that exercise can improve anxiety symptoms.  In some cases, in clinical trials, it has been seen that exercise has proved more effective in reducing anxiety and stress.  Given its wider health benefits, exercise should be considered as a strategy to reduce stress and improve sleep, and in so doing contribute to the holistic health of individuals.

A clinical trial done with middle aged and older adults with sleep problems was done to understand the effectiveness of exercise and training program.  Now what we do know is that age can play a strong factor is sleeplessness.  We know that the inability to fall asleep or to maintain restful sleep increases with age.  This can play a big factor in the quality of life.  Trials have demonstrated that exercise and exercise programs does help prevent the treat sleep disorders as well as the depression associated among the elderly.

There are also some relaxation exercises that have also demonstrated its effectiveness in reducing stress and improving sleep.  These are usually low impact exercises, they can be self-directed, and can be easily incorporated into busy modern lives.

Autogenic training is a form of relaxation that is not that well known but has been shown to have some positive results in reducing stress and improving sleep.  These take the form of using a series of exercises to focus the mind’s attention to specific physical sensations in the body in order to relax both the body and the mind.  These exercises often use visual imagery and verbal cues to relax the body, quieten the mind and calm the nerves.

In today’s busy world, many among us are using biofeedback.  This is a technique that collects information about the body and it alerts you to take steps to relax both mentally and physically.  Biofeedback works through the use of sensors that track and measure different physical functions.  This may include heart rate, body temperature, muscle contraction and breathing.  Some sophisticated biofeedback can monitor sleep stages and patterns.


Other ways to reduce stress and improve sleep:

Another recommendation is to improve your diet and adopt a healthier diet.  This includes lowering or avoiding caffeine, artificial sugar and preservatives, as well as drugs and alcohol.  One habit to adopt is to chew the food well and eating mindfully.  This includes not taking work home or checking emails while not at work, or eating and working.  A lot of people indulge in either emotional eating or not eating at all depending on their temperament.  So one of the things to absolutely avoid is not to indulge in eating mindlessly.

It is never easy to rid oneself of the habit of emotional eating especially if that has been the coping mechanism for a long time.  Some people can bring back a bit of discipline in their lives by either keeping a food journal, or monitoring what they eat, or identify situations and developing ways to counteract that trigger. Again, can I say this is a vicious cycle – stress induces binge eating, and binge eating further exacerbates stress – and both lead to lack of restful sleep.   We know that for some emotional eating is a learned behaviour and often adults do give children treats to counteract a challenging situation – and these habit changing can be really hard, but not impossible.

Another way to reduce stress and improve sleep is by breathing properly.  There are particular breathing exercises in both Yoga and Pilates that have shown considerable success in tackling sleeplessness.  It is important to consciously feel how you breathe.  If you breathe slowly and take in low breaths through the nose it can help the body to release and reduce stress, and to improve sleep.

Meditation to improve sleep and reduce stress

Meditation can help the body to cope with stress and to quieten body and mind to a restful sleep.  Meditation has been shown to increase melatonin in the body, and increase serotonin.  Meditation has also been shown to activate parts of the brain that control sleep and decrease blood pressure.

Through mediation one can not only manage stress but also promote sound and restful sleep.  Medication can even help to reduce chronic and intermittent pain; limit daytime fatigue; ease nausea; improve cardiovascular function; and treat a range of mood disorders.  Some have even used meditation to quit smoking and excessive drug and alcohol use.  We know that smoking, excessive drug and alcohol use are all contributors to insomnia and sleeplessness.


Natural remedies to reduce stress and improve sleep

There are many home remedies to improve sleep and reduce stress.  Some sip the chamomile tea and other burn incense.  There are some natural sleep aids that are actually backed by science.  One of them is melatonin.  Melatonin supplements are generally safe and may improve the overall quality in individuals suffering from sleep disorders.  Valerian root is a herb native to Asia and Europe that is commonly used to promote sleep.  Magnesium is a mineral that has an important function to pay in brain and heart health, and it is said to increase brain levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that assists in calming the brain.  There are studies that link insufficient levels of magnesium to troubled sleep and insomnia.  Lavender is a plant that produces purple flower and an oil that appears to be very effective for those suffering from mild insomnia, and mild anxiety disorder.  Passion flower is also linked to improving sleep and often comes in the form of tea and oil.  Glycine is an amino acid that is seen to hold an important role in the nervous system and recent medical studies have demonstrated that it can improve sleep.

There are many other natural sleep promoting supplements like Tryptophan, Gingko Biloba and L-Theanine.


We have discussed the relationship between stress and sleep, broad range of practices one can engage in to reduce stress and increase sleep.

Sometimes we may just need a little more help.   Despite all that you are doing something is not working.  And in these times, it is important for us to identify the presenting issue, and then tailor your medication to achieve the best result.  You will find that once you find a solution to your most pressing problem – whether it be stress or sleep – it will undeniably have an effect on the other as well.

It is important to remember that each one of us is unique and we respond in our own unique ways so choose a path that is right for you, and always check in with your medical advisor.

It is always better if we can try to adjust our lifestyle as well as choose some supplements that help to give you a hand up to your desired state of being.

When in doubt, talk to your medical advisor or speak with our natural health practitioner.