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  • Writer's pictureTenille Sonnichsen, RD

Sleep and Stress

guest post by Allie Buxton, MPH, student B.Sc. Applied Human Nutrition

Are you having trouble falling or staying asleep? Or perhaps you are waking up groggy and not feeling rested, even after getting a full 8-hours.

Elevated stress may be the culprit interrupting your sleep.

How our bodies respond to stress

You are likely familiar with the “fight-or-flight” response – when our bodies perceive danger, they release hormones that prompt physiological changes to help us respond to the situation. This physiological reaction is stress. We experience a stress response whenever we feel threatened or uncomfortable, either physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Prolonged stress, known as chronic stress, can impact our physical and psychological health.

Repeated activation of the stress response contributes to the development of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and obesity, increases the risk of anxiety and depression, and weakens our immune system.

Stress also influences our eating patterns. We tend to crave sweet and comforting foods when we are overwhelmed or stressed. This is because consumption of sugar-containing foods releases hormones that counteract those involved in the stress response. Chronic stress may result in the overconsumption of sugary, high-fat foods that increase our calorie intake. This extra energy can contribute to the storage of extra body fat, increasing the risk of developing chronic disease.

How stress can affect our sleep

The stress response can affect our ability to both fall asleep and stay asleep. We often dwell on stressors at night; those same hormones that help us flee from danger also make it difficult to settle into deep sleep.

Exposure to chronic stress can also interfere with sleep continuity. When we are stressed, we tend to wake up more during the night, which disrupts our sleep cycle and leaves us feeling tired the next day.

Why sleep is important

Sleep plays a vital role in our health and wellbeing. Sufficient and high-quality sleep protects our mental and physical health and quality of life.

Sleep is important for healthy brain function and emotional wellbeing. Lack of sleep can heighten feelings of stress and anxiety. When we are well-rested, our emotions are more stable, and we are better at coping with change. We may feel more attentive, creative, and better at decision making and problem-solving after a good night’s rest.

Chronic sleep deficiency has negative implications for physical health. An increased risk for heart and kidney disease, diabetes and stroke are linked to sleep deprivation. Our immune system also relies on sleep to properly function; ongoing sleep deprivation can make it difficult to fight infections and stave off illnesses.

Stress and sleep affect our overall health and wellness. This thought may seem stressful in itself, but there are a number of actions you can do to reduce your stress, improve your sleep, and improve your wellbeing:

1. Create (and stick to) a schedule

The pandemic has disrupted our lives and many of us are facing additional stressors on a daily basis. Creating a schedule with time set aside for work, meals, hobbies, movement, and sleep can support a sense of routine and normalcy, which may help reduce stress and improve sleep.

Going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time (even on weekends!) can regulate your internal clock and help you fall asleep and sleep soundly through the night.

2. Connect with others

Stress may tempt us to shut ourselves off from our social networks, however, social supports are essential for maintaining physical and mental health. Research supports that positive and high-quality social supports can enhance resilience to stress. Connecting with others gives us feelings of support, empathy, and companionship, which can improve our perspective and ease our stress.

3. Disconnect from the world

While it is great to connect with the world, taking time to relax, reflect, and disconnect can reduce our stress. Minimizing screen time, especially before bed, and engaging in relaxing activities, such as journaling, or meditation can help us disconnect from stressors, rejuvenate our mental energy, and improve our sleep.

Keeping track of your thoughts in written form can reduce stress and anxiety, and let you unload the worries that sneak up at night. Journaling can also keep track of sleep habits and evaluate common patterns or issues with your sleep.

Working meditation into a bedtime ritual helps separate sleep time from activities that cause excitement, stress, or anxiety, which can make it more difficult to fall asleep, maintain deep sleep, or remain asleep.

4. Check out your surroundings

Our physical environments influence our physical and mental state. Being mindful of how your surroundings affect you can help minimize environmental stressors.

If you have space, designate an area of your home for work and another for relaxation. This separation can help you physically and mentally disconnect when you need to. If space is limited, try removing distracting or stressful features in your environment and use your senses to create a relaxing atmosphere.

Turning down the temperature, lowering the lights, and minimizing noise can promote relaxation and help you sleep more soundly at night.

5. Incorporate movement into your day

Movement can mitigate some of the negative effects of stress and improve sleep quality. Exercise distracts us and redirects our focus away from our stressors. Activity reduces the levels of stress hormones in our body and causes our brains to release endorphins, which improve our mood and ease stress.

Research suggests that engaging in at least 30-minutes of moderate aerobic exercise can have a positive effect on both mood and sleep. Choose an activity that you enjoy and try to get moving daily.

6. Eat to reduces stress

Eating nutritiously can help your body protect itself against stress. Take time to eat meals incorporating vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and protein to help you feel satiated (full) longer, reduce snacking, and limit the intake of processed sugars and high-fat foods. Also try to avoid or limit your intake of caffeine and alcoholic beverages, which can increase feelings of anxiety and the stress response.

Want to learn more about lifestyle factors affecting your health and wellness?

Get on the fast track to achieving your goals with the perspective and accountability of a Registered Dietitian today.

Yours in health,



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