Stress & Sleep

Sleep is well known as being an essential part being healthy – both physically and mentally.  As you sleep, your body goes through different sleep stages that each have different functions.  They are generally split between Non-REM & REM stages.

Non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement)

The first stages of sleep (NREM) are where you drift off – where you float in and out of consciousness and, if stressed, is perhaps one of the most challenging stages of sleep. Cortisol (the main stress hormone) is working hard to keep you on high alert which can make it difficult for you to actually get into the next stage of sleep.

All being well, when you do drift into a deeper sleep, your body goes to work on making repairs to organs, muscles and all other cells.  Your immune system gets strengthened and your bodies functions slow down and ‘rest’ whilst your mind has a chance to start filing and sorting memories from the day.  This sorting also includes deciding what to store and what to delete.

(REM (Rapid Eye Movement)

The last stage of sleep is what is referred to as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and is the most active part of a full sleep cycle within the mind, your body however is usually very still.   Your eyes dart about behind your eyelids (hence the name REM) and, this is normally where you dream, as the mind starts to re-energise itself.  Most people will wake up immediately after the REM stage and it can be useful to know that each full sleep cycle lasts approximately 90 minutes – so it’s actually normal to slightly wake up several times in the night.  Generally though, we only wake up for a few seconds (so often don’t even notice) before we head straight back to sleep.  Then when we’ve had enough sleep cycles (or the alarm goes off!) we wake up properly.  Where cortisol can cause havoc is by causing you to wake up  properly (& check for threats!) after each cycle, which leads to a restless night and what is often referred to as a broken nights sleep. 

When experiencing periods of high stress and overwhelm the body responds with the physical stress response.  The release of hormones such as cortisol causes changes in the body which include increased bursts of energy and awareness – states needed to allow you to run from or fight any perceived threat.  The hormones that help you sleep, and do all the above, generally cause cortisol to go down however when we are inadvertently triggering our stress response too often, we end up with an excess of cortisol (& similar hormones) so normal effective sleep becomes more difficult.

You can see how lack of sleep and high stress levels can become a vicious cycle, so it’s important to find ways to break that pattern.  Here’s a simple guide to ensure you are maximising your chance for good quality sleep.

  • Structure:  Your body naturally works well with structure and patterns and will, in a relatively short period of time, adjust itself to any pattern you set.  Regular bedtimes, waking up times are a great way to do this.  There will always be the odd exception but wherever possible try and stick to it.

  • Number of hours: Spend some time discovering just how many hours of sleep you need.  That’s NEED not ‘can get by with’.  Sleep, sadly, seems to be the one essential part of our life many of us sacrifice – even before food and water – yet it’s up there as one of the most essential things we need.  And we all need different amounts. The official guideline is somewhere between 7 – 10 hours per 24 hour period, however I know people who struggle to function on less than 12 hours and I equally know people who run amazingly well on just 6 hours or less.  One of the easiest ways to discover your ‘number’ is to track your sleep for a while, notice when you naturally wake up on days you don’t have to.  Spot the patterns, especially on the days when you feel great, healthy and running on all cylinders.  This may take some discovering but it’s worth tracking and seeing what you need.

  • Minimise screen time: We all know this but how many of us do this?  Screens (phones, tablets, TV’s etc) all emit a type of light that causes confusion in our circadian rhythm (the system that tells our body when to release ‘sleep’ and ‘wake up’ hormones when needed).  You generally need an hour or 2 before bedtime without these lights for it to work its magic.

  • Write stuff down: A big part of what can keep us awake is running through things in our mind.  Our brain spends part of our sleep time organising and sorting through things – and quite often writing stuff down can help make sure we don’t forget the stuff we need to remember.  By dedicating 10-15 minutes a day to processing these thoughts, writing a to-do list or possible solutions can be a healthy way to deal with stress and prevent it from interfering with your sleep.

  • Temperature: Did you know that if it’s too warm in your bedroom – this is more likely to cause sleep problems than external noise.  Everyone is different but generally you recommended temperature for good quality sleep is between 15 – 19 degrees.

  • Watch your caffeine: Seems obvious but caffeine is a recognised stimulus therefore having it within 4-6 hours of when you want to sleep can cause problems depending on how sensitive you are to it.

  • Relax: Again, another obvious one.  If you know something relaxes you (bubble bath, warm cup of camomile, reading a book etc) then introduce it into your bedtime routine… help your body as much as you can to do what it needs to do.

There are lots of other things you can do too – such as spraying your pillow with lavender, have a relaxing massage, avoid eating big meals late etc etc… find what works for you and prioritise your sleep as much as you do food, water and even brushing your teeth. 

Sweet dreams