One reason? If you guessed stress, spot on. The Sleep in America® poll 2020 found that as people reported greater amounts of stress, the number of days they felt sleepy rose. And the latest Stress in America™ survey shows that stress is at an all-time high these days, especially since the pandemic began.
But what really is the connection? Why does stress mess with sleep so much? More importantly, given that it’s impossible to be human and not get stressed, how do you keep it from sabotaging your sleep? Experts weigh in.
It makes sense that stress would affect your sleep. After all, with so many things pressing on your mind, the brain would naturally find it impossible to take a break, which would make falling or staying asleep a challenge.
The issue, however, goes deeper than that, as there are actual physiological changes happening in your body that make sleep difficult when you’re stressed; and many of them boil down to a hormone called cortisol. “When you’re stressed, your body naturally produces cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, and this causes a significant jump in alertness, hence the lack of sleep,” says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, sleep psychologist, and author of several books, the latest titled, ENERGIZE!.
Trouble is, the longer stress lasts, turning into what experts call chronic stress, the higher your cortisol levels rise, and your sleep suffers even more. “Many of us are sitting in a state of sympathetic overdrive most of the day where there’s so much fight, flight or freeze going on that we don’t allow the body to get into a rest-and-digest response,” says Katie Takayasu, M.D., integrative medicine physician in Stamford, Conn., and author of Plants First.
The ability to sleep and relinquish to rest, after all, is dependent on your body’s ability to relax, and if you can’t achieve that, sleep will be next to impossible. What’s more, it’s a commonly accepted fact that everything feels scarier – or worse – at night than it does during the day. In other words, what makes you mildly stressed during the day might suddenly morph into your biggest stressor at night, and there’s a reason for that. “At night, you don’t have all of the distractions that you do during the day,” Takayasu says. As a result, your mind fixates on that one issue – or issues – and without anything to shift its focus, blows it out of proportion.
This isn’t to say, of course, your stress isn’t real. Yet you’ve got to be able to harness it to get the sleep you need, which is critical for your health. “Sleep deprivation affects you in many ways, and it all depends on the level of deprivation,” Breus says.
Sleep deprivation, for starters, has physical effects like decreasing your immune functioning, reducing bone density, and harming your heart, as well as emotional effects, including making your outlook more negative, Breus says. There are even cognitive effects that run the gamut from having trouble focusing to not remembering well. You can gain weight from not enough sleep, too.
As if that’s not bad enough, poor sleep can sideline your otherwise healthy intentions to exercise and eat healthy. “You lack the motivation to do these activities so they don’t get done,” Breus says, adding that sleep deprivation can also set you up for injury. And when you’re sleep deprived, “your brain craves high-fat and high-calorie foods,” he adds, something he wrote about extensively in The Sleep Doctor’s Diet.
All is not lost, though, as there are ways you can salvage your sleep without having to withdraw completely from the world. The solution lies in prepping for sleep from the minute you get up.
- Begin your day with a stress-reducing activity. Breus recommends yoga, stretching, breath work, meditation or walking.
- Stop or reduce caffeine. By 2 p.m., at the latest, 12 p.m. if you can handle it. Better yet, get rid of caffeine completely. “All it does is increase stress,” Breus adds.
- Deal with intrusive thoughts that don’t serve you at night. Make a list of the things that are bothering you and identify the next step to tackle each one, Takayasu says. It might also help to tell yourself you don’t need to problem solve at this moment, something Takayasu does when she has to talk herself down off the ledge in the middle of the night.
- Exercise. It not only improves your sleep quality but can also help you decrease stress and anxiety, both of which can interrupt sleep.
- Get outside. Nature is a natural stress buster, and studies show that even just 10 minutes in a natural setting can lessen the effects of mental and physical stress. Other studies have linked daylight to better sleep.
- Yes, having sex can help too. Sex can reduce the stress hormone known as cortisol, which can make it easier to fall asleep and improve your quality of sleep.
- Add infrared therapy to your routine. Although research is still in its infancy, it’s possible that infrared therapy may improve the amount and quality of sleep. "The mechanism for this effect has not been firmly established but may be related to the ability of infrared to act as an "exercise mimetic,” says Michael R. Hamblin, Ph.D., distinguished visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. “Infrared radiation can increase blood flow and oxygen metabolism in the muscles and the skin and could trigger a biochemical cascade resulting in improved sleep.”
Takayasu agrees. “Ultimately, the reason it may be helpful for sleep is related to the relaxation response,” she says, adding that she loves using infrared therapy. After all, when you sit in a space where you’re in tune with your body’s rest-and-digest response, sleep may come easier.
This comes with a caveat, though. Body temperature plays a role in how well you can sleep, and to elicit sleep, your body temperature naturally drops before sleep, Takayasu says. Because of that, you may want to finish your infrared therapy session 90 to 180 minutes before bed to allow time for your body temperature to drop.
In the end, if you want to use your sauna to improve sleep and can follow the above guidelines, you’ve got the doctor’s okay. “If (infrared therapy) does reduce stress and it’s done about 90 minutes before bed, then this lowered stressful state could lead to an easier time falling and staying asleep, assuming there’s not a big temperature change due to the light exposure,” Breus says.
Sauna for less stress and better sleep? Sounds like a perfectly healthy prescription.