How Does Stress Impact Your Sleep?

by Shelly Weaver-Cather | Nov 7, 2018

It’s National Stress Awareness Day, you know, because you totally needed a reminder that stress is a thing, right?

It only makes sense that stress and sleep would be closely tied, we all tend to lose sleep when things are chaotic or something is negatively impacting your day-to-day, but the impact of stress on your health and sleep goes deeper than forcing you to lie awake at night thinking and freaking out. Cortisol, the stress hormone, has a huge affect on your health and it’s important to know what it does to your body and your sleep.

Stress has a way of taking every other issue you might be having and making it harder to get on top of them—the cyclical nature of stress and sleep issues can lead to all sorts of breakdowns in your systems.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that often gets a bad reputation, but it isn’t a bad guy all the time. It plays a really important role in sleep when everything is functioning properly—it’s the hormone that wakes you up in the morning. If your cortisol levels don’t drop in the evening, you’ll find it hard to relax and get to sleep.

A lot of factors can elevate cortisol levels, but the primary cause is anything that might trigger a stress response in your body. Typically, this is a temporary circumstance that raises cortisol levels for a short period of time, allowing them to lower when the event is over. A fender bender, missing work for a day, a fight with a loved one, all of these things can cause short-term cortisol elevation—the danger comes in when your body is put through prolonged periods of stress. Losing your job, illness, or a break up are sustained events that can cause elevated cortisol levels for longer periods.

The longer your body is in a state of stress, the more likely you are to experience symptoms of elevated cortisol levels:

  • Weight gain in your midsection and face
  • Acne
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Weakened immune system

How does cortisol affect sleep?

43% of adults report that stress causes them to lose sleep and 21% of adults report that missing out on sleep causes them to feel more stressed. It’s an ugly cycle. There’s plenty of medical evidence that the build up of cortisol in our system is keeping us up at night, among many other short and long-term issues.

Your body naturally produces cortisol a few hours before you wake up to make sure you’re starting the day alert and ready. When there’s too much in your system and it isn’t naturally lowering as your melatonin levels rise in the evening, falling, and staying, asleep becomes a challenge. One study, performed by injecting cortisol into men every hour while they slept, showed that participants had less REM sleep overall.

Sleep deprivation has a tendency to stress us out even more, which compounds the issue and creates a vicious disruption of our sleep-wake cycles.

How do I lower my cortisol?

To help break the cycle and get back to healthy, restorative sleep, lowering your cortisol levels can help. If you suspect that chronic stress is causing you to lose out on sleep, your doctor is always the best resource for steps to take to get your sleep back on track, so be sure to check in with them before changing up any routines.

Tips to lower cortisol levels:

Exercise, but don’t go nuts.

Moderate workouts that don’t cause you to physically exhaust yourself are a good way to lower your cortisol levels over time. Pushing yourself to your max might increase stress on your body, so opt for workouts that get your blood flowing without putting yourself in danger.

Try an anti-inflammatory diet.

Cortisol is a known cause for inflammation in the body and can raise your blood sugar, which has a few adverse affects on sleep. Sticking to low-glycemic foods that balance out your nutrition can help reduce cortisol levels and precent stress from having even more of an impact on your sleep.

Learn how to relax.

We’ve covered our favorite tips for relaxing here, but working in small changes to your day-to-day lifestyle can have a profound effect on your overall health and especially on your sleep.

Avoid foods and drinks with caffeine.

Caffeine in the evening can keep you up later and cause interruptions to your sleep—cutting out any interferences with your sleep-wake cycles is essential to maintaining a healthy cortisol level.