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Stress & Sleep

This information provides a general overview on this topic and may not apply to everyone. The information is NOT a substitute for you visiting your doctor. However, as Medical Science is constantly changing and human error is always possible, the authors, editors, and publisher of this information do not warrant the accuracy or completeness of this information nor are they responsible for omissions or errors as a result of using this information.

Stress & Sleep

Doctors have known for many years that lack of sleep can cause foggy thinking and poor concentration. More recent research has shown that lack of sleep can also lead to potentially serious health problems. For example, chronic lack of sleep can place you at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Cortisol, a stress hormone that regulates the blood sugar glucose, seems to be to blame. Prolonged sleeplessness causes the body to continuously release cortisol into the bloodstream. This, in turn, causes a rise in glucose in the blood that prompts the body to release more and more insulin in an attempt to lower the glucose level. Over time, the increased production of insulin leads to insulin resistance, a condition in which the cells no longer respond to the effects of insulin; insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes. An excess of insulin in the blood also encourages the body to store fat, boosting the risk of obesity.

The chronic release of stress hormones caused by sleep deprivation affects your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and infections. Also, because your immune system helps your body fight cancer, reduced immune system function from insufficient sleep can put you at increased risk of developing cancer.

Chronic lack of sleep can also accelerate the aging process. When you don't get enough sleep, your brain doesn't make the normal amounts of hormones, producing hormone levels similar to those of a much older person. However, subsequently getting a full night's sleep reverses this aging effect, returning hormone levels to normal.

To get a full night's sleep, try going to bed earlier than you usually do. Use some of the time you might spend relaxing in front of the TV for needed sleep. Keep your bedroom cool (but not cold); most people find it difficult to sleep in a room that is too hot.

If you have trouble getting a good night's sleep, the following strategies may be helpful:
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day — even on weekends — so you can program a sleep schedule into your body's biological clock.
  • Allow enough time each day for at least eight hours of sleep.
  • Engage in relaxing activities before bed. Read a book, listen to soft music, or do relaxation exercises.
  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex so your mind associates your bed with sleeping and relaxation.
  • Drink a glass of fat-free milk before bed. The amino acid tryptophan in the milk will help make you feel sleepy.
  • Don't take work-related reading material to bed with you.
  • Don't watch a TV show or read a book that is stimulating, frightening or violent right before bed.
  • Don't exercise late in the day. Exercise increases alertness.
  • Don't drink alcohol late in the evening. Alcohol disrupts the sleep cycle.
  • Don't drink anything containing caffeine and don't smoke for a few hours before bed. Caffeine and nicotine both stimulate the central nervous system.
  • Don't go to bed hungry or on a full stomach. Being hungry stimulates you, while being full can make you uncomfortable.
If you continue having difficulty sleeping and it affects your daily routine, talk to your doctor. Insomnia may signal an emotional problem such as anxiety or depression.

No one can avoid stress, but you can deal with it in effective ways that can help prevent health problems. You can learn coping mechanisms to help you manage your time better and change your response to situations that tend to cause you stress. You also can learn how to relieve stress and tension by counteracting the stress response with the relaxation response. Manage Your Time

You will feel that you have more control over things if you can manage your time better. Set goals and break large projects down into smaller, more manageable tasks so you feel that you're accomplishing something. Organize your closet, your desk, your kitchen, and any other storage area so you can find things right away. Plan what you're going to wear the next day the night before so you don't have to rush in the morning. Do tedious tasks first to get them out of the way and limit procrastination. Establish a routine and follow it. If you can, delegate tasks to others. All these techniques can save time and minimize stress.

Exercise Regularly
Regular, vigorous exercise defuses stress by boosting the brain's output of chemicals that counteract the effects of stress hormones. Exercise also gives you a sense of accomplishment, which increases your self-esteem. Improved muscle strength and fitness and the potential for weight loss can also make you feel better about yourself. Exercise fights depression and makes you more alert.

What kind of exercise is best?
A combination of aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging or swimming and strengthening exercises such as weight training provide the most health benefits.

Get More Sleep
Getting more sleep will help improve your judgment and make you feel better during the day. A good night's sleep will also keep down the levels of stress hormones. Try to get at least eight hours of sleep most nights.

Try not to think about your problems late at night. You will probably sleep better if you can relax for a few hours before going to bed. For many people, worries and concerns can seem overwhelming in the middle of the night.

Eat a Healthy Diet
Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet that contains plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Avoid high-sugar, high-fat snack foods, which usually are also high in calories. That doughnut may give you a short-term boost but will soon make you feel weak and irritable as your blood sugar level plunges a few hours later. Limit your consumption of foods or drinks that contain caffeine; avoid them completely in the late afternoon and evening. Drink alcohol only moderately (one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men) because it can disrupt your sleep. Also, because alcohol is a depressant, it can trigger depression in susceptible people.

Maintain a Positive Outlook
A negative attitude can make every task seem daunting. Although it can be difficult if you're feeling low, try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. For example, look at obstacles as challenges and defeats as opportunities to try harder. Avoid negative people because it's easy to be drawn into their pessimistic way of thinking. Seeing the humor in a situation can help lighten your mood.

Be Assertive
To get what you need, be assertive but not aggressive. Aggressive behavior can be unhealthy for your relationships as well as for your health. Learn to ask for what you want. Don't be afraid to say no to additional work you can't possibly handle or to the person who always wants to chat during the workday and keeps you from doing your work. Keep in mind that being assertive doesn't mean being angry or rude, taking advantage of someone, or hurting someone's feelings.

Make Time for Leisure Activities
Plan some time each day for yourself, even if it's just a few minutes to read a book or magazine or take a long bath. On your days off, do something fun with your family or a friend. Take a vacation every year or at least try to get away for a long weekend. If you can't leave town, take time off work to relax at home, finish projects, or enjoy hobbies or other activities.

Concentrate on the Present
Don't brood about things that happened in the past. Holding on to regrets, anger or old grudges is especially harmful because it can keep you from enjoying life. Don't worry about the future. Think about the future in terms of changes you can make. Try not to worry about circumstances you cannot control.

Take Action
Once you have decided what to do about a problem, act quickly and decisively. Being proactive can give you a sense of accomplishment and can often immediately eliminate a source of stress. However, don't act impulsively especially if you are angry. Wait until you have calmed down and worked out a sensible plan before you take action.

Don't Play the Blame Game
Avoid blaming other people for your problems. Even if you have been treated badly, holding on to feelings of anger, frustration or hostility can be harmful to your health. Also, blaming other people prevents you from making positive, constructive changes that can help you avoid similar problems in the future.

Get Help
If you feel that you can no longer cope, get help. Talk to your doctor, contact your hospital social services department, or go to a community mental health agency for a referral to a mental health professional. You also may benefit from joining a support group for people who have similar problems. Your doctor may recommend counseling to help you learn more positive ways to deal with stress or may prescribe medication such as an antidepressant. Medication can sometimes be useful in treating stress, but is most effective when used in conjunction with one-on-one counseling or therapy.
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Last modified October 2015