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How Stress Affects Sleep

“Why is my sleep so interrupted lately?”

Many once sound sleepers are now having trouble getting to and staying asleep.  When we are stressed out, our bodies produce more of our stress hormone cortisol.  In essence, cortisol is released from our adrenal glands when our sympathetic nervous system is in “fight and flight”.   It seems lately, there has been an uptick of people in fight and flight. Cortisol makes us feel awake and alert, which is not a bad thing, unless it happens all day long and then keeps us awake at night as well.  Most of us have experienced a night where no matter what we do we cannot fall asleep. Or, we may fall asleep only to wake up in a few hours and toss and turn the rest of the night unable to get back to sleep.  

The events of the past few weeks with COVID 19 are no doubt ramping up your stress response. Schools are closed, businesses are closing, and people are losing jobs.  The stress is everywhere you look. When people become stressed out, they are more likely to reach for the quick fix to feel better. For some people, that is caffeine.  For others it may be alcohol. When people struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, they tend to reach for caffeine for a boost of energy and alertness. Unfortunately, caffeine also stimulates your body to secrete more cortisol and then the caffeine actually becomes part of the vicious cycle of interrupted sleep.  Have you ever had a couple drinks before bed and noticed you didn’t sleep all that great? Yep-alcohol also raises your cortisol level. So in addition to stress raising your cortisol, so is the caffeine and alcohol. And if you are so inclined to exercise the stress away for hours, that is also raising cortisol and all of that is keeping you awake. 

Here are some tips to help lower your stress hormones:

  1. Avoid caffeine and alcohol for now, until all the added stress simmers down.
  2. Focus on eating whole foods and cut out the processed stuff.
  3. Follow good sleep hygiene.  Avoid screen at least 2 hours before bed.  Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep.  
  4. Acupuncture is great at balancing out hormones.
  5. Yoga, meditation and/or deep breathing are very effective ways to lower cortisol and get your body out of fight and flight.
  6. Movement is important, but don’t over exercise.  Excessive exercise also raises cortisol and can be a cause of frequent nighttime wake ups.
  7. Counseling.   Many are also doing telemedicine at this time.  
  8. Ask your provider about supplements that support adrenal function, calm the brain and even lower nighttime cortisol.
  9. Limit your time on social media or just avoid altogether.  
  10.  Get outside in nature
  11.  Laugh… a lot. 

The bottom line is that we all have stress and feel stress.  But implementing some of the above measures will help your body handle the stress much better and allow your body not to jump right to fight and flight so quickly.  If your baseline mood is more calm, your body won’t overreact. And, here’s a hint for all the parents out there: When you are more calm and less on edge, your kids are too.  They feed off your energy. I may be speaking from experience. ☺

Written By:

Karen Callagy, PA-C

Adult Functional Practitioner

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