A classic side effect of a stressful day or event is that come bedtime, you’re battling with a mind that simply won’t turn off to fall asleep or that wakes you multiple times throughout the night.
If this has been you, staring at the ceiling wishing desperately that you were asleep, you know firsthand the negative impact stress can have on sleep. So, what’s happening on a biological level to cause this situation? And what stress-reducing options are available to start remedying it? First, let’s take a look at how your sleeping pattern normally works when not adversely affected by stress…
We all have an in-built body clock, called a circadian rhythm. This term is used to refer to the different physical and mental changes we cycle through each day, in response to the cycles of day (light) and night (dark).
When in balance, your body produces two primary hormones that govern this rhythm:
Cortisol is a stimulating hormone that your body starts producing as the sun rises and the light prompts you to wake up and start your day. Peak levels of cortisol should occur in the morning, and then slowly start to drop off as the day heads into evening, leaving you ready to enter sleep.
Melatonin is a sleep-promoting hormone that starts to be produced in response to the sun setting and darkness falling.
Levels of melatonin should be highest at night, helping you sleep, and should drop off as cortisol starts to rise again come morning.
However, for many people, due to various reasons, this rhythm becomes disrupted. This can look like:
- cortisol levels peaking later in the day, leaving you feeling tired in the morning, but wired and alert in the evening; and
- melatonin levels peaking lower or later, leading to poorer sleep quality or quantity, adding to that feeling of sluggishness in the morning.
One of the biggest triggers causing this imbalance is…you guessed it, stress.
IS IT SLEEP TIME ON THE CIRCADIAN CLOCK?
Our circadian rhythms were designed to have us starting the day awake and energised, and slowly start to feel sleepy and ready for bed come evening. It’s this cycle that allows us to live our days productively but also have a restorative sleep each night. Going through a stressful day or period can then begin to disrupt this natural cycle, where higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline during the day leads to the improper or diminished production of sleep-promoting melatonin at night.
YES STRESS = NO SLEEP
Stress evokes the fight or flight response by our sympathetic nervous system. This system produces the stress hormone adrenaline, and further increases cortisol production. Together, they stimulate the body, keeping it on high alert, primed and ready to fight or flee from the perceived stressor.
While useful when actually necessary, these high levels of stress hormones produced throughout the day can impair your circadian rhythm from cycling properly, resulting in melatonin production being affected at nighttime. This becomes a recipe for your body clock to be disrupted and poor sleep to ensue.
GOODBYE STRESS, HELLO SLEEP
If you feel your stress levels could be interrupting your circadian rhythm, leaving you unable to sleep properly, here are my suggestions for supporting sound slumber:
- Withania Somnifera
If a stressful day or event leaves you feeling on edge or anxious, withania is a potent herb commonly used to reduce anxiety. While it works on your brain to do this, it also dials down your stress hormones, helping both your mind and body to calm down, allowing you to fall asleep more easily. And the bonus is that, because it works as an adaptogenic herb, it also provides us with energy when taken in the morning.
Did you know that magnesium is required by the trillions of cells in your body to carry out hundreds of different processes every day? Magnesium is involved with the metabolism of your foods, hormone production, stress modulation, muscle relaxation, bone health, and sleep regulation and yet 33% of the Australian population are low in this vital mineral.
A herbal medicine well known for its calming influence at bedtime, lavender offers wonderful sedating effects. If you struggle to fall asleep, take some lavender 30-to-60 minutes before bed, or if you struggle to stay asleep, take it as you go to bed.
This herb works to increase the activity of your body’s main mood-soothing neurotransmitter, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), helping you to feel calm and collected as you wind down after a long day. This herb is also safe for children, if monitored by your naturopath.
- Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment, drawing your attention away from mental chatter and anxious thoughts by tuning in to your physical senses (i.e., what is happening in your environment and body). I’d suggest doing this 30-to-60 minutes before wanting to go to bed, to support your cortisol and adrenaline dropping, and your melatonin levels rising. Look out for Cassie’s piece in our latest magazine for access to a free guided mindfulness meditation!
Having your mind know that everything it was worried about is down on paper, or taking comfort knowing you’ve already created the to do list for tomorrow, allows it to wind down and fall asleep much easier.
Feeling stressed is certainly a part of life at times, but it’s up to each of us to find what soothing and stress-busting supplements and practices will reduce this stress to ensure we’re still getting a good night’s sleep. If you suspect your circadian rhythm has become out of balance due to longer-term stress, seek the support and guidance of your naturopath who can work with you to holistically address your stress and support your sleep. Creating a nourishing plan to address your stress can then mean looking forward to that peaceful, sound slumber that we all need.