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How stress affects your sleep

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Do you find it hard to sleep when there's a lot on your mind? Andrew Cate looks into the impact that stress can have on your sleep.

Stress triggers a raft of physical, emotional and hormonal changes in your body. For example, hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are released to help the body deal with stress.

Cortisol is also released as part of your daily hormonal cycle, where cortisol levels rapidly increase within 30 minutes of waking, and then return to baseline levels approximately one hour later. 

Called the cortisol awakening response, it's thought to provide the necessary energy for shifting from a resting to an active state and there is some research to suggest that this response can vary depending on the anticipated demands of the day, and exposure to long-term stressors.

How does stress impact on sleep?

A study published in Stress investigated how stress can alter the cortisol awakening response.

Researchers followed 42 young men during their preparation for a highly competitive exam and 21 men of a similar age who were not studying for the exam.

The cortisol awakening response of the exam group was significantly lower than the non-exam group, and the effect was most pronounced in the students who felt the most ‘stressed-out’.

The researchers speculated that this may be due to an overproduction of cortisol during sleep-  the stressed out exam group also woke up earlier and had shorter sleep time than the non-exam group, although this was not thought to effect the cortisol awakening response.

Reduce your stress for a better night’s sleep

Try the following to help reduce stress, and minimise the impact it has on sleep quality and duration.

Ease your mind before bed

When you're lying in the dark trying to fall asleep, it's just you and your thoughts. Combine this with stress, and you may experience excessive thinking and worrying in bed, making it hard to fall asleep.

Comfort your mind before you go to bed by mapping out a plan of action for the day ahead. You may also find some relaxation techniques helpful, which can calm the mind and distract you from worrying thoughts.

Find ways to help you unwind

Strategies like listening to soothing music, meditation, massage and a warm bath are all methods that may help you to unwind. They may also help you fall asleep if practiced immediately before bed.

Experiment to find what works best. Avoid using alcohol, cigarettes or indulgent foods to help you cope with stress, as these can lead to other health problems.

Get your sleep habits right

Follow all the basic principles of getting a good night's sleep. This includes sleeping in a cool, dark and quiet room, getting up at a similar time each day (don't sleep in on weekends) and avoid alcohol, caffeine and food at least 2 hours before bed.

Daily physical activity, a healthy diet and natural sleep supplements may also prove beneficial. Good quality sleep will help your body to better cope with stress.