How do stress and sleep play into each other?
You may have heard that stress impacts sleep, and you know deep within yourself that it’s true. We all do. But the truth is that we just do not give it the utmost focus as it needs. Stress and sleep are deeply bidirectional. Lack of sleep is a stressor, which can impact your digestion and make any symptoms that you may have much worse. Stress prevents you from sleeping and staying in high stress will just not allow for deep sleep, which is critical for systems healing. What do we need to know? Where do we need to begin?
What does perpetuating stress do to you?
It is very important to understand how stress impacts your physiology and psychology. Before we get into that, please do not wear your stress as a badge of honour. It is very easy to talk about stress as something to be proud of, and we are all guilty of doing that, but the impact remains deeper.
1. When our brain perceives anything as stress, based on how we've responded in the past, the first thing it does is shut off functions that are not required for a time of stress, beginning with digestion. Digestion requires that we be in a Parasympathetic Nervous System functioning state, or the rest and digest mode. If we end up staying under constant stress, then our body does not get the signal to rest and digest, leading to poor digestion.
2. When we keep staying in fight or flight stress mode, we produce a greater amount of cortisol. Due to this, we produce fewer lymphocytes, which are our immune soldiers. Our ability to fight pathogens is greatly reduced. Our body is then at risk for illness, infection, and disease.
3. Cell recovery takes place when we are in a Parasympathetic Nervous System functioning state or the rest, digest and recover mode of the Autonomic Nervous System. By staying in a state of constant stress, we stay away from our body's ability for cell recovery. With free radical damage increasing, our body starts to think that it is ageing. We require a reduction in stress and an increase in phytonutrients to recover.
4. Constant stress makes our muscles tense and guarded. Depending on the muscles that hold tension in our body, we can feel the impact as anything from constant migraines to stiff neck and shoulders or tension in any part of our body. This not only makes us feel stiff everywhere and unable to stretch, it also makes us extremely prone to muscle damage and injury with exercise and movement. With exercise sometimes becoming another source of stress, it also becomes a vicious cycle. Rather than taking on a form of exercise which causes more stress, those that allow us to relax muscles can be more beneficial to someone who is in constant stress.
5. With constant stimulation from a fast-paced world filled with stressors from work, food, electronic equipment, media and even community, our hyper-stimulated mind forgets how to wind down and rest. Rather than a delicate balance between work and rest, it stays in a state of permanent alert, impairing recovery for anything.
6. In both men and women, constant stress affects the reproductive system function. It's not only about reproducing, but stress impairs the functioning of the reproductive system, upsetting hormones, and causing further stress with a normal female cycle, causing further symptoms like fluid retention.
7. Stress makes it harder to breathe or can cause hyperventilation or rapid breathing, sometimes triggering an asthma attack. The connection between stress and breath is profound, which is also why deep breathing can positively impact stress.
8. In stress, with Cortisol release, our body speeds up our heart rate, raises our blood pressure and causes vasoconstriction, putting our bodies at risk for heart disease. All that should happen only in moments of stress, happens constantly.
9. The liver produces more glucose. This physiological response to stress can put us at risk for Type II diabetes.
Tips for managing stress to sleep better
There are simple steps that you can take that will help tremendously. It is not how much you do that matters, but how you include them every single day. When you create this daily routine, a dinacharya, for yourself, it gently prevents you from slipping into a high-stress mode.
1. Just as stress impacts digestion, supporting digestive health helps with managing stress, stress and digestion are deeply interlinked. How we digest our food is how we digest our life experiences. Avoid eating small meals all through the day. Grazing disrupts digestive function and creates stress in the gut. Eat three meals that are wholesome and balanced.
2. The power of taking a pause is profound. Schedule a time each day when you can stop everything, and sit in silence, practice slow breathing, or play a guided meditation while you lie down or lean back on a chair. If you are stopping to focus on your breath, a great practice is to close your eyes, consciously slow down your breath for eleven breaths, and smile to yourself at the end of it. The greater the difference in length between your inhale and exhale, with the exhale being longer, the better your vagal tone. Vagal tone is your ability to shift from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state. A sympathetic state is one in which you are under stress.
3. The inability to dial down stress represents high Vata. Vata is the force that regulates the nervous system. Avoid aggravating Vata by multi-tasking, eating cold foods, eating excess salads and smoothies, scrolling social media, and allowing your body to become dry. Calm down Vata with weekly oil baths, eating warm food, and being very conscious of the time you spend scrolling social media. Be very strict about not doing this between sunset and sunrise.
4. Include calming movements such as yoga, taichi, swimming, and walking. Movement is needed to help us, but aggressive exercise when the body is already unable to calm down is detrimental to all health. A slow yoga practice without too much movement, where you stay in poses, can be very calming. The power of yoga in helping to calm down stress is unimaginable!
5. Create a ratriacharya, an Ayurvedic night-time routine, where you are conscious about dimming the light, disconnecting from work, giving yourself some time to relax, take a warm bath, and eating a wholesome balanced dinner is very helpful.
The power of age-old customs like yoga, breathwork and meditation are game-changing. Most of us know about them, we speak about them, but do we really take the time out in our day for them? There lies the difference between those who stay stressed and those who have great resilience to stress. Is that going to be you in the coming months?