When Insomnia Strikes

The connection between stress and sleep, and how to beat it
By Adam Swenson

It’s springtime, 66 degrees at night. The frogs are croaking softly outside your window and the wind is gently rustling the newly formed leaves on the trees. The earth is whispering her soft goodnight exhala­tions and your mind is clear, your soul at ease. You drift off as soon as your head hits the pillow and sleep, sleep, sleep.

A deep, refreshing slumber on a comfortable bed with fresh sheets next to someone you love is one of life’s great luxuries, but such perfect nights are rare for all too many people. Millions of Americans suffer insomnia due to job stress, kids who can’t sleep, medical conditions, or environ­mental factors keeping them awake, among many other reasons.

While many have resigned themselves to their bleary-eyed, sleepless fate, there is good news: Most insomnia is a result of patterns that result in poor sleep, and patterns can be changed. It will take some work, but you can get a regular good night’s sleep again.

Insomnia and its causes

Most sleep experts say adults need seven or eight hours of sleep a night on a regular basis, though some people need more and some can get by on less. If you are giving yourself the opportunity to get enough sleep but find you can’t fall asleep or can’t stay asleep, that is insomnia.

Occasional insomnia happens to nearly everyone, and is not necessarily indicative of a problem with your sleep structure. The Mayo Clinic encourages would-be sleepers to be mindful of patterns. Mayo advises, “Someone with insomnia will often take 30 minutes or more to fall asleep and may get only six or fewer hours of sleep for three or more nights per week over a month or more.”

Sometimes insomnia can be the primary problem one is struggling with, or it can be a secondary problem, a symptom of other causes. Common causes of insomnia include medical conditions that create chronic pain, breathing difficulty, or the need to get out of bed frequently to use the bathroom. A schedule that rotates between day, evening, and night shifts can also wreak havoc on sleep. Poor sleep habits like caffeine too late in the day, excessive alcohol consumption, exercising too close to bedtime, or eating too much just before bed can all have a big effect—though fortu­nately those are fairly easy patterns to change.

Stress and sleep:  the connection

Probably the biggest contributors to insomnia are the trifecta of stress, anxiety, and depression. Stress affects our sleep in very specific physical ways—for a greater understanding of that connection we turned to Shawn Talbott, PhD, LDN, FACSM, a fitness guru, nutrition consultant and educator, and fellow of the American Institute of Stress.

Talbott says that “Chronic stress increases exposure to stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which stimulate the brain to be more alert and vigilant. Cortisol also interferes with insulin function, increasing levels of glucose in the blood. The combined effect of elevated cortisol and elevated blood sugar keep our minds and body in a state of hyperarousal that prevents us from relaxing enough to get a good night’s sleep.”

(As you might expect, sleep loss due to stress is a widespread problem. Statistics from the National Sleep Foundation say that 62 percent of American adults have a sleep problem a few nights a week. The American Institute for Stress estimates that 60 to 90 percent of adults are at risk for a stress-related disease, and 75 to 90 percent of visits to the doctor are related to stress in some way.)

Unfortunately the lack of sleep touches off a response in the body that makes it harder to get to sleep the next night. As Talbott says, “the mental symptoms [from lack of sleep] are only the tip of the iceberg. Lack of sleep—even missing as little as two hours for a few nights in a row, such as getting six hours of sleep instead of the recommended eight hours—sets off a stress response that affects every tissue in the body. Stress during the day can lead to restless sleep, which can lead to more stress and further sleep disruptions in a vicious cycle. Studies have shown that even modest sleep loss increases cortisol levels, raises blood sugar, stimulates appetite for sweets, and encourages belly fat storage and a prediabetic state. The presence of high cortisol and high glucose exposure creates a ‘catabolic’ state where muscles, bones, and nerve cells break down faster than they can repair themselves.”

Getting back to sleep

It is appropriate to take a multifaceted approach to dealing with insomnia. Stress reduction is obviously a key piece, but there are also good sleep habits you can learn, and ways to induce sleep naturally through your nutritional habits and supplemen­tation.

STRESS REDUCTION

During our interview, Talbott addressed a few simple ways to reduce stress. There are the standard—and often quite effective—remedies of being physically active, eating balanced meals, and getting enough sleep (if you’re able to).

He also provided what he considers his top five ways to deal with stress, as follows:

1. Have an outlet—a hobby or some diversion outside of work.

2. Do whatever you can to make the sources of your stress more predictable or learn to develop more control over those stressors. This means identifying patterns related to when your stressors might appear.

3. Hang out with friends: Tough times are always easier when you’re around other people.

4. Learn to tell the difference between big issues and little ones.

5. Look on the bright side … really. As simplistic as it sounds, the fact that you can look to what is improving in a given situation can help to psychologically buffer the stress in other areas.

NUTRITION AND SUPPLEMENTS

Warm milk, Talbott says, is actually a viable calm-me-down-before-bed snack. Calcium, magnesium, and the peptides (short amino acid chains) in milk all have direct calming effects on the body and the brain.

Traditional Asian remedies include magnolia bark from China, and tongkat ali from Malaysia. “Recent studies have shown the combination of magnolia and tongkat (as found in MonaVie Balance) improves stress hormone balance, which translates into daytime energy and nighttime relaxation,” Talbott says. He also recommends MonaVie Rest, a ready-to-drink tea made with fennel, lemon balm, and chamomile, relaxing herbs blended to help improve sleep quality.

Talbott also encourages eating a small amount of carbs (20 to 25 grams, about what you’d get in an apple or banana) about half an hour before bed. This will encourage the brain to naturally absorb more tryptophan, a relaxing amino acid that helps induce sleep.

B vitamins have also been shown to play a role in regulating sleep hormones: B3 has been shown to help regulate tryptophan, increase REM sleep, and lessen nighttime wakefulness; B6 is necessary for the production of serotonin, a hormone that helps calm the body before sleep.

Recent studies have shown that many people who suffer from daytime sleepiness (which often makes it hard to sleep at night) are vitamin D deficient. Folic acid deficiency has also been linked to insomnia. The takeaway? Good sleep requires proper levels of all the essential vitamins and minerals, so a high quality multivi­tamin would be a good step to take.

PRACTICING GOOD SLEEP HYGIENE

Working to reduce stress and eating right are great, but without an environment conducive to sleep they won’t be a lot of help. Some of the important factors to consider about your sleep environment are temper­ature; how dark the room is; comfort of the mattress, sheets, and pillow; and nighttime disturbances.

One couple I met recently had two cats that slept in their room, each on a kitty bed on opposite sides of the couple’s bed. The cats were feuding and would often fight on the bed, emitting blood-curdling primal yowls at 4:00 a.m.—and the couple wondered why they weren’t sleeping well. Now, clearly, most nighttime disturbances aren’t so obvious, and many can’t be helped. If the baby is crying at 3:00 in the morning, you have to attend to him. But for light sleepers, even something like the furnace kicking on or a faraway barking dog can rouse them—most sleep experts recommend that light sleepers use a white noise machine to drown out such noises. And, if you have a smartphone and don’t want to buy a white noise machine, there are many good apps out there that will do the trick.

Blackout shades are a good idea to block out all light. Even a small amount of light like an alarm clock can interfere with melatonin production, which then interferes with sleep. Of course (note to self) watching Netflix in bed on your laptop before turning out the light isn’t helping the melatonin situation either. Cool spectrum light (like sky) promotes alertness, but warm spectrum light (like fire) promotes relaxation, and TVs and other video monitors emit primarily blue-spectrum light, so it’s best to put them away at least half an hour before you go to sleep.

Keep your room cool: Studies have shown that 60 to 68 degrees is the best range for sleeping. Temperatures below 54 degrees and above 75 are disruptive to sleep. An individual’s body temperature has been linked to the amount of sleep they get per night—people whose bodies run cool are more apt to sleep deeply. If you’d rather not set your thermostat to 62 in the summer months, you could check into performance bedding products from Sheex that wick away moisture while you sleep or gel mats like the one made by ChillGel that go on top of your mattress.

It’s important to go to bed relaxed. Establishing relaxing routines you can do before bedtime has been shown to work well. And alcohol, a popular relaxation aid, can help with sleep if it’s just one drink. More than one can interfere with your sleep cycles and make you more tired.

Lastly, as Mayo Clinic points out, sleep is one of those things that you can’t do just by trying harder—in fact, trying harder often has the opposite effect. If you’re lying in bed and can’t sleep, try reading in another room until you are very drowsy and return to bed.

Take back the night

Armed with this knowledge, it’s time to take back the night. Have a glass of wine, darken that room, have an apple, and start the white noise— blissful, restful, non-pharmaceutically-enhanced slumber awaits.