It is now widely accepted that our health and sleep quality are heavily linked, with one significantly affecting the other. Why is this and what can we do?

Addressing the issue of stress and poor sleep can be a difficult one. Often it is a chicken and egg scenario. We all know that stress can lead to sleepless nights and worry. However if sleep quality remains poor over a prolonged period, it can worsen our mood, concentration and stress levels. It is important that we recognise adequate sleep is not only good physically – but mentally too.

When we experience increases in stress/anxiety it brings on significant changes in the brain, particularly the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. One primary consequence is the increase in Cortisol production. This is an important hormone produced by the adrenal gland (situated just above our kidneys). Cortisol is responsible for helping us to manage short term stressful situations, often referred to as a “fight or flight” response. It does so by shutting down or reducing the function of certain body parts (e.g. digestive system, immune system) and increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. Thereby preparing us to “fight or fly”.
In small doses, it can be extremely helpful. However, the production should slow down once the danger has passed.

We are seeing more and more individuals who are chronically exposed to stress and therefore Cortisol production. It is as though their body is stuck in the “fight or flight” mode and cannot come back down to a normal level.
Prolonged exposure can lead to a number of health problems:

– Anxiety
– Depression
– Headaches
– Increased blood pressure
– Concentration issues
– Insomnia
– Digestive or gut problems

Lack of sleep has been found to have links to increased cortisol production. A study conducted on rotating shift workers found significantly increased levels of Cortisol after they had slept following a night shift. The shift workers did not report any stress or anxiety at the time. This suggested that the steep rise in cortisol was secondary to fatigue following poor sleep after a night shift.  This link has also been found in those who admit suffering with insomnia which is not secondary to stress, depression or anxiety. 

So what can we do to help ourselves? 

Here are some top tips for improving your sleep:

1) Develop a consistent bedtime routine
2) Reduce screen time (Ipads, Iphones, TV etc) an hour or so before sleep
3) Reduce alcohol, caffeine and nicotine close to sleep time
4) Get up at the same time each morning (yes, even at weekends!)
5) Sleep in a cool, dark environment
6) Address the stress/anxiety triggers if this is applicable. Visit your GP if you feel you are struggling and they can discuss the best options with you. 
7) Exercise regularly, but not too close to bed time to avoid a sudden spike in energy before sleep!
8) Try relaxation techniques or reading. These can help to make you feel sleepy. 

By far the most important take home message is to try and identify what triggers your sleeplessness. Is it stress? Is it a lack of routine? Or perhaps it is using your phone just before you close your eyes. Either way, recognising this can be the first step to implement change and ensure Cortisol levels are not at a detrimental level in the body. 

Finally, it is important to seek the right guidance. The above may help to begin with but also seek professional, medical help if you do not feel things are improving. 

Thanks for reading. 

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