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06 April 2018

Breaking the Vicious Stress-Insomnia Cycle

stress blogOh the misery of falling into bed, physically and mentally exhausted, only to lie and wait…..and wait… for the blessed wave of sleep to wash over our mind, allowing us to fully rest and recover from the strains of the day and prepare us for the next. How cruel and seemingly paradoxical, to be unable to obtain the very thing we need and the thing that we were indeed designed to do.

As it’s Stress Awareness Month we thought it was a good time to stop and look at how  stress and insomnia have become inextricably and desperately linked. Stress, whether it be mental or physical stress (such as nutritional deficiency and hormonal imbalance etc.) can cause us to miss out on one of the most important mitigators of stress – sleep. And insomnia invariably leads to stress -  a vicious cycle that can be very difficult to break – unless you know how.

First the question must be asked: why can’t I sleep when I obviously so desperately need to? Am I just not tired enough? Is the mattress not right? Do I need to find a different partner? This is getting tongue-in-cheek but the dark reality of stress and insomnia is that because of a lack of understanding of the cause, sometimes very drastic changes are considered whilst the elephant in the room has been missed all along.  And the elephant in the room is….you.

Or to be more specific, your internal, metabolic, physical health.

That’s right, your sleepless nights have more to do with your physiology than your psychology. That fact comes as a huge relief to most of the insomniacs I see and can save you going down the rabbit warren of trying to eliminate and excavate every stressor in your life (which, by the way, is impossible). 

So, what on earth is keeping you awake and mentally alert at night, just when you want it the least?

The answer is hormones. Namely, cortisol and adrenaline. Yes, these pesky fight or flight hormones, can rise at night and with it bring crystal-clear mental alertness, and if you are unlucky a racing heart too.

The key to getting your sleep back and managing stress better can be in understanding how to hack into your own physiology and knock these hormones on the head.

Both of these hormones are produced in the adrenal glands and can be released in response to perceived stress (mental) and physical stress (nutritional deficiencies and hormonal dysfunction are the key ones). But even if your main issue is the former, there is still help at hand, as you shall see.

Here are our top suggestions for hacking into your own physiology, reducing your stress hormones and getting your sleep back (as you will see, some of our suggestions are contrary to popular dietary advice which has no doubt contributed to the insomnia epidemic):

1 – Ditch the low carb’ diet. Carbohydrates are essential for good sleep and low stress hormones. As we eat during the day, carbohydrate energy that is not needed in that moment of time is stored away in our liver in the form of glycogen. As we sleep, our brains continue to use as much glucose at night as during the day, hence why we need a carbohydrate reserve as provided by glycogen. But what happens when not enough glycogen has been laid down during the day, either due to insufficient dietary intake or because of high stress levels (which can burn glycogen faster), and there is not enough (8 hours’ worth) to see us through the night?

Your brain and other vital organs cannot be allowed to starve and so your body has built in emergency mechanisms which makes it scavenge fuel from your muscles and fat instead. And this emergency mechanism comes in the name of adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones cause the break down and liberation of energy from these alternative sources and save the day (or night) but at a cost: mental alertness.

2 - Salt your food to taste or add extra salt if you feel very adrenaline-driven. There is a little-known fact that salt has a calming effect on the nervous system as it helps to inhibit the release of adrenaline produced by the adrenal glands. Adrenaline is a fight or flight hormone and can be responsible for anxiety, shakiness, cold sweaty hands, palpitations and mental alertness – not exactly something you want in high amounts at night. Salt is something I have noticed, for a long time now, helps me personally have a more restful night’s sleep.

3- Eat enough protein. Protein deficiency is common as many people prefer the easy cereal, bread, pasta basis the meals. But protein deficiency can also cause a rise in cortisol levels and hormonal imbalance as the liver is starved of vital protein to carry out all of its tasks, many of which are heavily involved in the role of hormone metabolism. Eggs on toast instead of cereal for breakfast, cheese on oatcakes for lunch and other protein such as meat or fish or lentils (soaked from the morning) are simple ways of increasing your protein intake.

4 – Don’t ditch the dairy, unless you have to. Having a hot, sweet milky drink before bed aids sleep in several ways. The milk sugar, lactose, like all sugars, lowers adrenaline. Milk contains anti-stress minerals such as calcium and magnesium, that benefit cellular energy production and keep the compensatory stress hormones low. A deficiency in either of these minerals can be a causal factor in insomnia. The natural protein and fat content of the milk helps to maintain blood sugar. Adding honey to a warm milky drink will further reduce those troublesome night-time fight or flight hormones. Try goat’s milk as an alternative.

5 - Get an Epsom salt bath. Add two or three mugs of Epsom salts in a hot bath with a handful of bicarbonate of soda which helps to facilitate the absorption of magnesium across the skin. Add a couple of drops of Chamomile and or Lavender essential oil to your bath for extra relaxation. If a bath is not a good option for you, consider a high-quality magnesium supplement. Magnesium is excellent at keeping stress hormones down and giving an over-all, calm and balanced feeling. 

6 – Turn off all the screens at least an hour before bed, get your mug of hot, sweet milk and open a book. Blue light blocks the flow of melatonin, your key sleep hormone. The old ways, like reading from a paper book, are often the best.

7 – Consider taking an adaptogen. Adaptogens are herbs which increase the body’s resilience to stress by restoring physiological balance and protecting the body from the harmful changes that occur with chronic stress. They moderate the stress response, lower fight or flight hormones and protect the immune system. They can improve energy, lift mood, reduce anxiety, improve mental and physical performance. There are several herbs which are classed as adaptogens. Ashwagandha (Latin, Withania somnifera) and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) are just two of our favourites and are available in most good health shops. Adaptogens can be really incredible at giving you an increased sense of resilience and well-being and I highly recommend them where chronic stress is a concern.

This is really just a glimpse into the ways in which you can influence your own physiology and consequently lower stress and improve sleep.

The most liberating thing I have experienced, and helped other people to experience too, is that if you are physically, robustly well, and properly nourished, you can cope much better with the unavoidable stressors around you. And that will lead to an all-too-wonderfully refreshing and utterly necessary full-night’s sleep.

You could call it an inside-out approach. Get the internal environment right and you will sleep well and handle your external environment better too.

Sophie Lamb, Done Counting Sheep Ltd

Sophie is a Director of Done Counting Sheep, a natural sleep remedies company she created with former client and insomniac Sarah Brown.  Sophie is a Medical Herbalist with over 15 years’ experience successfully helping clients, like Sarah, achieve better health - and sleep - using herbal wisdom and scientific rationale.  The company’s website and blog – Done Counting Sheep – shares the tips, products and advice that work for them and their clients to help other sufferers get back to sleep naturally, too.