Stressed out about Sleep

Stressed out?

Stress is wreaking havoc on your sleep!


Sleep is a complex physiological process involving the restoration and renewal of the body. I feel from my many conversations with people and clients that the concept of sleep and good sleep is commonly misunderstood. Many view sleep as a passive shutdown process, however, while we sleep our bodies are actually active. During sleep our bodies are cleaning up cellular garbage, repairing your body, processing of experiences and the consolidation of memories. Your sleep is dictated by what we call our circadian rhythm, it is basically a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It is a mechanism that can be greatly altered due to a number of lifestyle factors. Anything that dysregulates your circadian rhythm will in turn be detrimental towards sleep quality.


What is stress and how does it affect your sleep?

If we are going to discuss good sleep and how to achieve it, one of the first things we will need to cover is stress and the major effect that the various forms of stress can have on your sleep.

Stress can be considered anything that places additional load on the human body. Stress is commonly discussed in the context of mental and emotional stressors, for example, “I am stressed out with my massive workload” or “ I am feeling very worried about my mothers health”. However, we also need to acknowledge other factors such as diet, injury, alcohol that can add additional stress. These are factors that are typically not identified or discussed but are all equally associated as stressors on our bodies.


Adrenal Fatigue Bell Curve:

In the early phase, when your body is exposed to chronic stress you may find it hard to fall asleep and often will wake up early before your alarm. On the other side of the bell curve, on that slippery downward slope, when you are severely and chronically stressed, you may fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow and wake up feeling groggy (bit like a good hangover feeling) and want to sleep past your alarm. This is because the body is now in a deep state of chronic adrenal dysregulation and your cortisol and melatonin are not functioning well, and as a result your circadian rhythm is muddled up. While I have discussed adrenal function and fatigue in a previous post there is one important concept I would like you to remember with regards to the effect of stress on sleep. The concept is: cortisol has an inverse relationship with melatonin (sleep hormone). Therefore when cortisol is high your melatonin is low and when low this will decrease ability to get to sleep and most of all quality of sleep (as seen in this diagram below)

Stress can be derived from four main factors:

  1. Lifestyle: Negative habits such as going to bed late or something as simple as not drinking enough water.
  2. Metabolism: Your current diet & digestion
  3. Environmental: Electromagnetic radiation from devices (mobile phones, laptops, ipads)
  4. Mental & Emotional: Excessive mental and emotional load.


All of these have a similar effect on your body and induce the upregulation of your stress hormone cortisol. I have discussed  cortisol and it impact when dysregulated in previous posts.

It is vital to be able to regulate your stressors to allow the body to regain a natural sleep cycle. To do this you must first identify your lifestyle stressors. These will vary greatly from person to person. In the context of this article it is difficult to offer you a detailed approach, as an individualised approach is needed for each person. As general rule of thumb if you are dealing with stress your need to find a way that will allow you to down regulate the stress in your life, or preferably remove the stressors all together.


What you need to keep in mind is that there is an endless number of stressors that may be affecting your sleep In the last article we discussed the environmental stressors from technology. In the next article we will aim to dive deeper into other key stressors, including mental, emotional and lifestyle factors. As we discuss them what you will notice is that there is a lot of overlap across them.