Hacking Your Stress to Improve your Sleep
Are thoughts keeping you up in the night? Waking up to plan your day? Feeling stressed before bed? It’s time to look at how stress is impacting your sleep!
We all know that sleep is important for our health yet it is often one of the first things we compromise when we feel busy and overwhelmed. To make matters worse, stress is often the culprit when we find ourselves unable to fall asleep or stay asleep.
Let’s break down this relationship between your sleep and your stress levels.
To begin, sleep is regulated by a 24 hour sleep-wake cycle or an internal clock known as our circadian rhythm. This cycle is regulated by two major hormones – melatonin & cortisol.
Melatonin is regulated by light. When there is light out, melatonin is blocked and you should be awake. Melatonin should be low during the day and high during the night.
Cortisol has the opposite pattern. It is high during the day and low during the night. Cortisol helps produce energy to keep you going while you are awake. It has no business being there at night time. To make matters worse, if you are highly stressed during the day, you will use up all your energy stores and then later wake up in the middle of the night because your blood sugars are low.
Cortisol also suppresses the release of melatonin.
This leaves many of us with insufficient melatonin in the evening and even worse, way too much cortisol when were are trying to sleep.
Not to worry - Here are some easy and practical tips to hack your stress and improve your sleep:
1. Get as much sunlight as possible
Your circadian rhythm is regulated by sunlight so getting sun during the day can help improve your wake & sleep cycle. Whether you are getting sun outside or through a window, any amount can help!
2. Eat more protein and less carbs at dinner
Eating a carb heavy meal in the evening can cause your blood sugar to drop in the middle of the night, waking you up. Instead ensure your meal has a good amount of fat & protein and limit your starch in the evenings to help you sleep through the night
3. Breath work or meditation
Take a deep breath and audibly sigh it out. Then breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat this cycle 10-20 times before bed.
Meditation and breath work reduces your blood levels of cortisol helping you fall asleep. This is because deep breathing stimulates a relaxation nerve at the back of your throat called the vagus nerve. Stimulating this nerve causes full body relaxation – perfect for sleep!
4. Write it down and let it go
Don’t let planning and worries keep you up at night. Write down your to-do lists and thoughts keeping you up and let them go for the night. They will be there in the morning after a good night sleep.
Another great writing strategy is to write down 3 things you are grateful for each day. It can be big things and it can be small things but gratitude also stimulates relaxation centers in your brain, helping you get to sleep better.
5. Shut down that phone
Turn off your phone at least 1 hour before bed and download an app that decreases your exposure to blue light. Your phone tricks your brain into thinking it’s still day time, preventing your melatonin levels from rising.
Also consider switching your phone to airplane mode at night so you aren’t woken by notifications and other buzzing from your phone.
6. Calm down that nervous system with GABA and L-theanine
Both of these are parasympathetic neurotransmitters which are a fancy way of saying relaxing signallers. The combination helps you calm your mind and sleep through the night.
Plus they have a relatively short effect in your body and there are endogenous substances so they won’t leave you feeling drowsy in the morning!
7. Remember your sleep hygiene
The most ideal environment for sleep is cool & dark.
It is also important to keep the bedroom as a place for sleep and sex only! If you aren’t tired, you shouldn’t be going to bed. Start to relax outside of the bedroom and when you feel sleepy head into your room. This teaches your body that when you are in your bedroom, it is time to sleep!