When I talk to people with insomnia, almost everyone tells me that they can’t sleep because of stress.
It’s true. We’re busier and more stressed than ever before. Only a century ago, we humans weren’t rushing around, juggling family and work, and flying around the world. One hundred years ago, we had just started driving cars and using a light bulb. It’s crazy how much has changed in a relatively short amount of time.
The word "stress" has negative connotations even though it can be a good motivator. When I’m stressed because I’m giving a speech for Teton Toastmasters, for example, that means that I care and that I’m going to work hard to make sure I do a good job. That’s a positive result of stress. Stress isn’t always bad.
Usually when we think of stress, however, we think of it as negative. There are many definitions of stress, but I think the best one is: a condition when we perceive that the demands exceed our personal or social resources. The key word here is “perceive.” Stress is subjective, and so what’s stressful is in our minds.
Any time you feel stressed, your body responds by going into fight-or-flight mode. Your stress response is especially helpful if you’re being chased by a bear in the Tetons. But your body has the same response for any kind of stress, even when you don’t need to run from or fight something, when you’re just faced with just the stressors of modern day life.
When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your body releases hormones, such as cortisol, that prepare you to defend yourself. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure skyrockets, and energy leaves your digestive system and moves to your extremities as your body focuses on survival. Ideally, you experience an acute stressor — like being chased by a bear or running late for work — and then, when the stressor goes away, your body goes back to homeostasis. Your heart rate and blood pressure go back down, and energy goes back to digestion and other organs.
But let’s say your typical day is waking up exhausted to your alarm clock, rushing around getting ready for work and getting the kids ready for school, zipping from one meeting to the next all day, eating lunch at your desk while you continue to work, then hurrying home to make dinner and clean up and get ready for the next day. When you’re constantly stressed all day long like this, you’re constantly in fight-or-flight mode, and your body never has a chance to recover and return to homeostasis. When your cortisol levels are high all day, it’s hard for them to lower at bedtime when it’s time to sleep.
Sleep problems (as opposed to sleep disorders) occur because your body is releasing cortisol at night when it shouldn’t be. Cortisol suppresses melatonin, your sleepy hormone, and wakes you up. It can happen at bedtime, when you’re trying to fall asleep, or it can cause you to wake up in the night and have a hard time going back to sleep. In summary: Cortisol at night sabotages your sleep.
When we think of stress, we tend to think of psychological or mental stress. But there’s also physical stress. Again, some physical stress is good. For example, we exercise to strain our muscles to make them stronger. Other physical stressors include detoxing environmental toxins like pesticides and chemicals in our food, air and water. Or when your blood-sugar drops too low and your body releases cortisol because it’s stressed.
Anything that causes inflammation — such as eating foods you’re sensitive to or having a gut infection — is stressful to your body. Cortisol is also an anti-inflammatory hormone. It comes to the rescue whenever there’s inflammation, even when it’s the middle of the night and you’re desperately trying to sleep.
That’s why you have to address stress in both the mind and the body if you’re struggling to sleep. Managing mental stress during the day by taking breaks and taking time to relax will help lower cortisol levels at night so you can fall asleep easily and stay asleep all night. Reducing toxins, keeping your blood-sugar levels steady, and finding the sources of and treating inflammation will address the physical stressors that keep you awake.
In summary, stress can be good or bad. Stress can be mental and physical. Reducing all kinds of harmful stress is the key to sleeping well.
As always, wishing you a good night’s sleep.