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The Stress / Sleep Deprivation Cycle

Stress is a natural part of life, and it does serve a purpose. The body releases stress hormones to heighten your senses in an effort to survive life-threatening situations. Today, however, instant access to information, growing job pressure, and any other number of modern problems can cause a stress response even if there’s no physical danger. The lack of sleep that results can influence all aspects of your health from appetite to muscle recovery and critical thinking skills to emotional control.

Stress-related sleep deprivation kicks in anytime you’re getting less than a full seven hours of sleep. At that point, the brain and body change how they function.

The emotional center of the brain, called the amygdala, becomes oversensitive to any negative thoughts, emotions, or events. Normally, the prefrontal cortex, or logic center of the brain, applies reason to your emotions. However, when you’re tired, it becomes less active, and the connection between these two parts of the brain weakens. Over time, the amygdala can even increase in size if it spends too much time in a stressed, overstimulated state.

Pretty soon you find yourself stuck in a high stress, sleep deprived state that feeds on itself. As bleak as that may sound, there are ways to break the cycle. A two-sided problem requires a two-sided answer. For stress-related sleep deprivation, it's a combination of stress management and building healthy sleep habits.

Ways to Reduce Stress

Stress relief can come in many different forms. We have three suggestions here, but any activity that helps you feel calm and relaxed can be used as an effective stress reliever. Just be sure to make time for your favorite stress-relieving activities because even 15 minutes can make a difference at bedtime. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Meditation

Meditation was once considered a mystic Eastern practice, but today it’s worked its way into mainstream culture. Studies have shown that it can reduce the size of the amygdala and strengthen the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Essentially, meditation can help you handle negative experiences by putting your logical brain back in control. However, meditation does more than affect your emotions.

It has also been shown to decrease pain perception. Aches, pains, and injury can interfere with sleep as much as stress. A regular meditation practice can help you bring both under better control.

2. Yoga

Yoga, like meditation, has been in practice for centuries. Yoga has been shown to reduce stress-related inflammation while improving mood and reducing fatigue, all of which can help you sleep better. While any type of yoga is good for you, if you’re looking to reduce stress before bed, methods that use gentle poses with deep meditative breathing like mindfulness meditation are the most effective.

3. Regular Exercise

Exercise fills your body with feel-good endorphins that stay with you for hours. It can also act as a powerful distraction. Whether it’s focusing on your breath as you run or feeling every stroke while you swim, exercise forces you to stay in the present moment, which can decrease stress hormones in the body. With exercise, you get an added “sleepy” bonus because the fatigue it causes reduces insomnia too.

After starting some stress-relieving techniques, it’s time to develop habits that support healthy sleep.

Developing Healthy Sleep Habits

As a caregiver, you may have a fluctuating sleep schedule. Give yourself time to develop new habits and realize that if you’re caring for another person, there will be nights that your schedule may be put to the side. That’s OK. Whenever possible, try to follow habits that support deep, restful sleep like:

A Regular Bedtime:

The human body uses 24-hour cycles to correctly time repeating behaviors like meal timing, hormone release, and, you guessed it, the sleep cycle. By keeping a regular bedtime, you support these natural cycles and strengthen your body’s response to them.

A Personalized Bedtime Routine:

Bedtime routines work. That’s all there is to it. A bedtime routine should include activities that relax your mind and body, relieving pent-up stress. It’s a great time to meditate or do a few quiet yoga poses before bed. Whatever activities you choose to include, be sure to start your routine at the same time and perform the activities in the same order each day.

More Time Outside:

The body uses natural light to sync your sleep/wake cycle with the day/night schedule. More time outside can actually increase the amount of sleep hormone released as the sun starts to go down.

Healthy, Evenly Spaced Meals:

Healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and lean meats provide the nutrients your body needs to create sleep hormones. Meal timing also influences the timing of your sleep-wake cycle. As you eat healthy meals on a regular schedule, you’ll help solidify your sleep cycle.

Turn Off Electronics Early:

In the technological age, electronic devices fill our days. However, many of them, including televisions, smartphones, and laptops emit light on the blue wave spectrum, which suppresses sleep hormones. Try to shut them down two to three hours before bed to prevent a delay in your sleep onset.

Keep in mind that if you are still fatigued and struggle to sleep after consistently reducing stress and following good sleep habits, you may have an undiagnosed sleep disorder. There are many home devices that can help you sleep better so don’t be afraid to talk to your physician if you or your partner suspects something more than stress is at work.

Not only does reducing stress lead to better sleep - it can also keep you physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to care for another person.

Guest Post provided by Samantha Kent who is a researcher for SleepHelp.org.

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