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Stress & Sleep Sabotage Your Health. Here’s How.

By Meghan Roth

This is a guest post from St. Louis Park Life Time personal trainer Meghan Roth. Her bio is at the end of this article. 

Do you exercise on a regular basis, eat fairly good nutrition, balance your daily stressors and get adequate sleep at night? Do you wake up each day energized and feeling better than ever?

If so you may be doing everything right.

If that doesn’t sound like you, this article is just for you. As a fitness professional, I speak to people almost everyday who are frustrated with feeling far from their best. I’ve been there when people are feeling their worst. And I’ve been fortunate enough to help guide people to the point of feeling their best.

In this article I am going to cover a major area of health concern; stress and sleep. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about, as I’ve seen lives change once they get a handle on their stress and improve their sleep.

Hyperarousal

In today’s world, a life without stress is darn near impossible. Stressors from work, family, financial, exercise, nutrition, and the list goes on and on.

Without finding a balance, a high-stress lifestyle can lead to chronic health problems. Poor sleep being one of them.

When chronic stress starts affecting sleep, it also affects production of hunger hormones, glucose regulation, weight gain, and the ability to regulate metabolism. So what does this all mean?

Lack of sleep often comes from a condition called hyperarousal.

When you are stressed during the day, the brain releases “flight or fight” stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline while increasing cortisol in response to the stress. Cortisol is an activating hormone that is released in response to stress.[i]

Typically cortisol levels are highest in the morning between 6:00-9:00, which wakes us up and energizes us for the day.

As the day goes on, cortisol levels should drop significantly, especially as the sun goes down. Decreasing cortisol levels allow the release of melatonin and increase in growth and repair hormones.

What happens in a hyperarousal state? Cortisol stays elevated and the body is unable to produce the same levels of melatonin that would help us fall asleep.

The pattern of cortisol release can easily be tested in a 4-point cortisol test. In fact, this is one of the most popular tests we offer at Life Time.

Hormones

Along with reducing production of melatonin, chronic stress may reduce DHEA levels, which is a precursor to sex hormones. Excessive cortisol production may limit production of sex hormones.

Chronic stress and lack of sleep also affects growth hormone release, which peaks in the first third of the night’s sleep. Growth hormone helps the body recover and build lean muscle mass.

While sleeping 8 hours is important, the time at which those eight hours take place is important as well. Ideally, bedtime should be between 9:00-10:00 pm. The first half of the night the body secretes hormones important for physical repair. The second half of the night supports cognitive health.

Of course, some days are more stressful than others. A healthy body can bounce back from increased stress and an occasional disrupted sleep/wake cycle. Chronic stress is what affects your body the most and often leads to depressed immunity, illness, and chronic fatigue.

The production of the hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin, are directly affected by lack of sleep.

Leptin is the hormone that tells you that you are no longer hungry. Ghrelin is the hormone that makes you feel hungry. With a lack of sleep, I’ve found some of my new clients are not only tired during the day, but the hormonal effects of the lack of sleep cause them to crave a lot of carbohydrate-based foods.

Elevated cortisol also decreases the production of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter. This too increases your cravings for sugars, fats, and other foods sources. I’ve met literally hundreds of people who reached for sweets to make them feel better, prior to dealing with the root of their mood issues.

Serotonin is also a precursor for our sleep hormone melatonin which even further escalates the problem of sleep at night keeping you feeling restless and fatigued.

Chronic stress can contribute to the development of diabetes over time.

High stress increases blood sugar, causing a rise in insulin levels and eventually leading to insulin resistance.

Elevated insulin prevents the body from using fat as a fuel source. Anytime insulin is released it prevents the body from burning fat. Interestingly, a lot of the fat gained from high stress levels is belly fat.

I’ve seen this with many executives, both males and females. Because of the high level of stress from their jobs, over time they often develop excessive belly fat, especially compared to the fat in their arms and legs.

Last but not least, thyroid hormones T3 and T4 are directly affected by elevated cortisol levels. Thyroid hormones help regulate metabolism. The body converts T4 into active thyroid hormone, T3, which gets blocked by cortisol.

This conversion is absolutely necessary for a healthy active metabolism. Cortisol alone can significantly lower metabolism – up to 40%![ii],[iii]

Stress is a major area of health concern because of every aspect of your health and life that it affects. Removing all of your daily stress is not necessary, or helathy. But, reducing stress can be extremely helpful.

Rather than trying to fix all of the stressors in your life to help you distress and sleep, finding a balance of stressful activities with relaxing and energizing activities is key. There is no single best solution for lowering stress levels. The following is a small list of practices that have resulted in meaningful changes in some of my clients.

Reducing Stress

  1. Mediation
  2. Mind/body exercise, such as yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi
  3. Spa Treatments
  4. Meaningful Relationships/Discussions
  5. Time in a Jacuzzi, sauna or steam room
  6. Relaxing hobbies such as reading, writing, hiking and gardening
  7. Listening to calming music
  8. Drinking certain herbal teas, such as chamomile
  9. Occasional massage
  10. Aromatherapy

One activity isn’t necessarily better than any other; it’s more about what a specific activity does for you. Give your body time to re-energize and bring itself back into balance. Prioritizing 30 minutes of relaxing activities each day is essential for distressing your body!

Cardiovascular exercise is often overlooked for its stress-reducing qualities, but simply adding in a half-hour of walking 3-4 times per week can be extremely beneficial.

Maximizing Sleep

As with reducing stress, there are a number of powerful ways to improve sleep quality. Here are some that have worked very well with my clients.

  1. Go to bed by 10:00 pm every night
  2. Reduce your exposure to bright lights 2 hours before bed, especially blue light from a television or computer screen (your brain interprets as morning sunlight).
  3. Sleep in a room that is totally dark
  4. Avoid stimulants after lunch (caffeine, sugar, nicotine)
  5. Consume lots of water – dehydration stresses your physical body. At minimum half of your body weight in ounces each day. Just don’t go overboard before bed or you’ll wake up in the middle of the night.
  6. Avoid high-intensity exercise right before bed.
  7. Keep electrical devices away from the bed (TV’s, lights, clocks, etc).
  8. Try supplementing. We have 3 powerful supplements for supporting sleep at Life Time. We just released Lean Complex – Restore, which supports deep and REM sleep.* Relora™ is a powerful supplement for calming an overactive mind.* And melatonin is a tremendous help when adjusting to a new or routine sleep schedule.*

If there is anything I’ve learned from working with my clients, it’s that no two people are alike. Some of the recommendations above will work for you and others won’t. If you give them a serious try, though, there’s a great chance you’ll be feeling and looking better than you have in a long time.

One final thing to note is that how healthy we think we are and how healthy we actually are is often two different things. I can’t recommend enough that every adult gets a comprehensive lab test on an annual basis. If your doctor will order the lab work for you, fantastic. If not, consider ordering comprehensive lab testing on your own.

[i] Chek P. How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! A C.H.E.K. Institute Publication. 2004: 188-206.

[ii] Okamoto R et al. Adverse effects of reverse triiodothyronine on cellular metabolism as assessed by 1H and 31P NMR spectroscopy. Res Exp Med (Berl) 1997;197(4):211-7).

[iii] Sechman A, Niezgoda J, Sobocinski R. The relationship between basal metabolic rate (BMR) and concentrations of plasma thyroid hormones in fasting cockerels. Follu Biol 1989;37(1-2):83-90

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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