How Chronic stress alters your body
Stress impacts everyone at some point in their life. Stress is your body’s response to perceived threats, and it’s there to protect you and keep you safe. When faced with a perceived threat, your body enters fight or flight mode. When in fight or flight, your body increases the production of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. These hormone surges create physiological responses such as increased heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, alertness, and energy expenditure. These physiological responses are helpful in small increments, such as jumping out of the way of an oncoming bike or catching a glass cup before it hits the ground.
Problems arise when you are dealing with chronic stress. When you are experiencing ongoing stress, such as financial or relational hardships, your body can get stuck in a fight or flight. Your body shouldn’t experience stress for long periods. The continuous increase of hormones such as cortisol can significantly alter your bodily functions, one of which is sleep. Stress and sleep have an interesting connection, and stress has been shown to lead to poor-quality sleep, increasing stress.
The Sleep-Stress Cycle
Stress and sleep are deeply intertwined. What goes on in your waking life impacts your sleep. And what goes on in your sleep affects your waking life. The sleep-stress cycle can be frustrating, but you can break the cycle and improve both your sleep quality and stress levels!
How sleep affects stress
Have you ever had an off day where you felt irritable and in a low mood? These experiences are not uncommon for people who had a poor night’s sleep. Disruption in your sleep pattern has been shown to reduce your resilience, being more susceptible to negative emotions and increasing the impact daily stressors have on your mind and body. (1)
Lack of sleep can alter the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. (1) The HPA axis is a mechanism that mediates the effects of stress on the mind and body. It keeps the physiological processes in check that take place when your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is activated. HPA-axis alteration due to lack of sleep has been shown to increase cortisol levels and disrupt your circadian rhythm. (1) Your circadian rhythm is your 24-hour internal clock that flows through different physiological shifts daily. This can also be why you may feel like the energizer bunny who can’t sit still while running on little sleep. Your body mainly runs on stress hormones at the beginning stages of sleep deprivation, which can increase alertness and energy expenditure. But, your body can only run on stress hormones for so long until other vital bodily functions start to break down, leading to poor health.
How stress affects sleep
When you’re stressed and in desperate need of a good night’s sleep, you may have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or even wake up exhausted. Studies have shown stress can change non-rapid eye-movement (NREM) sleep and reduce rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, two critical stages of sleep. (2) Disruptions in these stages of sleep diminish the benefits of quality sleep your body relies on to function properly.
When the stress hormone cortisol stays elevated for prolonged periods, it impacts your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour cycle that results in mental, physical, and behavioral changes. Your cortisol levels also naturally rise and fall throughout a 24-hour cycle. In a healthy individual, cortisol levels are lowest near midnight and highest near waking time, roughly around 9 am.  Since cortisol is naturally lower at nighttime to aid in optimal sleep function, it’s no surprise how elevated cortisol levels from chronic stress can interfere with your sleep quality.
Unaddressed stress can wreak havoc on your sleep quality, and good sleep is one of the most significant foundations of your health. You cannot function without sleep, so getting your stress levels in check is mandatory.
How to reduce stress and improve your sleep quality
You do not have to continue living in a chronically stressed state. There are ways to reduce stress and improve your quality of life. It’s clear how vital sleep is for your overall well-being, so priming yourself for quality sleep is crucial for your health. Below are some ways you can reduce stress and improve your sleep quality.
Morning and evening light
Sunlight helps regulate your circadian rhythm. Your body responds to sunlight as a signal to be awake and alert and to darkness as a signal to fall asleep. Your body is most sensitive to light 2 hours before bed, all through the night, and within the first hour of waking up. (4) This is why it’s essential to dim or limit your exposure to light 2 hours before you want to sleep. Artificial lights from cellphones and tablets may interrupt your circadian rhythm, delaying or decreasing your sleep quality. It’s best to limit your electronic use right before bed. Your body is also sensitive to light within the first hour of waking; it’s essential to get outside in the sun as soon as possible. The morning sun signals to your body that it’s time to be awake and alert, preparing you for your waking life.
There are alternatives if you live in an area that doesn’t get much natural sunlight due to overcast or other weather conditions. Although you should always find time to get outdoors daily, artificial light can also benefit you. Turn the room light up bright in the morning and sit under them. Bright Light Therapy can also be used when you cannot get the sunlight you need. BLT improves mood and other psychiatric disorders such as seasonal affective disorder and depression. (5)
Talk to someone
Things get heavy when you hold them in. Talking through something you’re dealing with with a trusted family member, friend, or therapist can help relieve stress. Therapists are trained to help individuals work through things contributing to chronic stress. Through therapy, you can gain proper stress management tools, so you become more resilient and are less impacted by inevitable daily life stressors. If you’re sticking with a trusted friend, gravitate toward those who are good listeners and who are not afraid to show compassion. This alone can help us deal with minor stressors.
Your body is made to move. Exercise has been proven to improve sleep quality, and it’s also a favorable complementary treatment for sleep disorders such as insomnia. (6) The benefits of implementing exercise into your day-to-day life are endless. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults 18–65 years old do moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes five days a week or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 minutes 3 days a week. (7) Try to avoid vigorous exercise less than 4 hours before you plan on going to sleep. Although exercise improves sleep quality, doing it too close to bedtime if possible. It can disrupt your body’s natural rhythm and decrease sleep quality. Choose activities you enjoy to make it easier to commit to, such as yoga, brisk walking, or playing a sport. Movement looks different for everybody!
Meditation is an incredible tool used to reduce stress. Consistent use of meditation apps have been shown to reduce stress and improve the quality of life for users. (8) Orbit Telehealth offers many on-the-go guided breathing and meditation videos for you to unwind throughout the day. Meditation impacts your mind and body in the opposite way stress impacts it. Meditation helps drop you into rest and digestion, calming your fight or flight response and bringing your body back to a healthy base level.
Improve your sleep quality today
Difficulties with sleep and chronic stress can impact your quality of life. Developing proper sleep hygiene and stress reduction habits is crucial for your overall wellbeing. Contact us today if you would like more information on how Orbit can help you achieve better sleep and reduce stress.
- Geiker, N. R., Astrup, A., Hjorth, M. F., Sjödin, A., Pijls, L., & Markus, C. R. (2017). Does stress influence sleep patterns, food intake, weight gain, abdominal obesity and weight loss interventions and vice versa? Obesity Reviews, 19(1), 81–97. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12603
- Sanford, L. D., Suchecki, D., & Meerlo, P. (2014). Stress, arousal, and sleep. Sleep, Neuronal Plasticity and Brain Function, 379–410. https://doi.org/10.1007/7854_2014_314
- Hirotsu, C., Tufik, S., & Andersen, M. L. (2015, November). Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep science (Sao Paulo, Brazil). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688585/#:~:text=Typically%2C%20the%20nadir%20(time%20point,about%209%20a.m.%20%5B4%5D.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, April 1). Effects of light on circadian rhythms. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved December 16, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/emres/longhourstraining/light.html#:~:text=The%20light%2Fdark%20cycle%20of,day%20to%20be%20more%20alert.
- Blume, C., Garbazza, C., & Spitschan, M. (2019, September). Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie : Schlafforschung und Schlafmedizin = Somnology : sleep research and sleep medicine. Retrieved December 16, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6751071/
- Lowe, H., Haddock, G., Mulligan, L. D., Gregg, L., Fuzellier-Hart, A., Carter, L.-A., & Kyle, S. D. (2019). Does exercise improve sleep for adults with insomnia? A systematic review with quality appraisal. Clinical Psychology Review, 68, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2018.11.002
- Physical activity guidelines resources. ACSM_CMS. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2022, from https://www.acsm.org/education-resources/trending-topics-resources/physical-activity-guidelines
- Huberty, J., Green, J., Glissmann, C., Larkey, L., Puzia, M., & Lee, C. (2019). Efficacy of the mindfulness meditation mobile app “calm” to reduce stress among college students: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR MHealth and UHealth, 7(6). https://doi.org/10.2196/14273