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Unmask the Sleep-Stress Connection

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Posted in: Stress, Energy

Originally published for Shape by Mirel Ketchiff

Just one night of lousy zzz’s is all it takes for your stress levels to skyrocket. “The quality of your shut-eye plays a crucial role in the way you cope with stress,” explains Jennifer Martin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Lack of sleep affects the brain’s ability to regulate your emotional response to events,” she says. According to studies from the University of California, Berkeley, after that night of tossing and turning, the areas of the brain involved in processing emotions become so hypersensitive that your reaction to something stressful may be way out of proportion.

Unfortunately, the extra stress makes sleep even more elusive the following night. “Your cortisol levels are elevated and your heart is pumping faster—two things that keep you awake and impair the quality of your rest once you do drift off,” Martin says. In fact, research shows that people who slept just four hours one night had higher levels of cortisol the next night, making it hard for them to get back on track.

It’s a conundrum: you need sleep to de-stress but are too frazzled to turn in, and the lack of rest makes you even more tense. Break free of this draining cycle with these expert tips.

Work out at night—it’s fine.

It was once thought that exercising too close to bedtime would hype you up, making it harder to nod off. That’s not necessarily true, says Kelly G. Baron, Ph.D., a sleep expert and associate professor in behavioral sciences at the University of Utah. “If it’s best for you to work out in the evening, don’t skip it just because of the time,” Baron says. “It doesn’t disrupt sleep as much as we once thought.” Plus, research shows that people who go to the gym regularly sleep better than those who don’t. “Exercise is so great for sleep that it’s better to work out late in the day than not at all,” Baron says.

Get your minerals.

More than half of U.S. adults don’t get enough magnesium in their diets, according to USDA research. This mineral plays an important role in the function of the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the body’s main stress-response system. To help combat occasional anxiety and (periodic) insomnia, try eating magnesium-rich foods each day: the recommended Daily Value is 420 milligrams. Try almonds (1 ounce has 77 mg), spinach (1 cup of boiled spinach has 157 mg), soymilk (61 mg per cup) and black beans (½ cup cooked beans contains 60 mg). 

Eat foods with prebiotics.

According to research in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, raw garlic, leeks and onions are packed with prebiotics, a type of fiber that supports gastrointestinal health and makes it easier to let go of stress. Other good sources of prebiotics include raw jicama, dandelion greens, asparagus and chicory root; the fiber can be found in supplements too.

Go off track.

Thanks to the popularity of activity trackers, people are becoming obsessed with getting the perfect night’s sleep. This is a condition known as orthosomnia, according to a study at Rush Medical College. Unfortunately, “sleep is one of those things where the more you try to do it, the harder it gets,” says Baron. Instead, she says, “Try to arrange your schedule so you can spend about eight hours in bed every night, which should wind up giving you around seven hours of actual sleep,” she says. It’s fine to use a tracker to get a general sense of how many hours you’re logging each night, but remember it’s just an estimate. 

Don’t force it.

There’s no one sleep ritual that works for everyone. Some people love slipping between the sheets earlier; others would rather stay on the couch until their eyelids droop. Both ways are fine, as long as you start doing something restful about 30 minutes before you want to be asleep—whether that’s reading a book, listening to a podcast or watching something relaxing (with the screen dimmed to minimize your exposure to blue light, which can disrupt your zzz’s). If you’re not drowsy in that time frame, don’t get anxious. The more relaxed you are, the easier it’ll be to eventually drift off.

© Meredith Operations Corporation. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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