It is a well-known scientific fact that sleep is important for both physical and mental health. During times when you are under extreme stress, you might find it difficult to sleep. It can lead to a cycle of worrying about not getting enough sleep, which results in more sleepless nights. This perilous cycle can impact your physical and mental health in the long run.
While experts recommend 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 35% of adults in the US alone do not get adequate sleep every night. While this often leads to feeling cranky and groggy the day after, the long-term effects of sleep deprivation can be more troubling.
Sleep and Stress, a Bidirectional Relationship
While sleep experts are yet to pinpoint the exact role of sleep, multiple research shows it facilitates a number of bodily processes. It helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cardiovascular health, affects growth and stress hormones, boosts immune system, appetite and weight control, promotes better mood and memory, and improves physical performance.
The human body’s response to sleep deprivation is an important aspect for survival. When faced with stressful situations, the brain starts to process information to help you survive the threat. While stress response is often useful, it can continue for an extended period of time and can have negative effects on both the mind and body. Oftentimes, chronic stress can lead to chronic health problems.
The Effects of Stress to the Body
As said earlier, sleep facilitates a number of bodily functions. Subsequently, not getting enough sleep can affect the body negatively. Here are some of the ways in which this can happen.
Breathing – Short and rapid breathing are common signs of stress. Those who suffer from asthma, chronic obstructive respiratory disease (COPD), and sleep apnea can trigger symptoms from too much stress.
Muscles – Muscles all over the body tends to tense up as a reaction to stressful situations. This often leads to headaches, back pain, and other symptoms. For some, stress triggers unhealthy mannerisms causing teeth grinding and headaches at night, as well as pain in the jaw, neck, and shoulder area.
Brain Functions – Sleep aids the connections in your brain helping you learn, process, and store new information as short or long term memories. Lack of sleep can negatively affect this brain’s function, making you forgetful.
Subsequently, lack of sleep can cause trouble with concentration and critical thinking. This will negatively affect creativity and problem solving.
Hormones – Stress triggers the body’s hormonal responses, increasing the production of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Though this helps in fight-or-flight situations, over-production of such hormones can lead to increase in blood pressure and heart rate.
Blood Pressure – Speaking of stress hormones that affect blood pressure, certain stress hormones can also lead to the dilation of blood vessels, causing a rapid increase of blood pressure, which also increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Mood Disorders – Lack of sleep can make you feel moody, irritable, quick-tempered, and emotional. Experts also link chronic stress to anxiety and depression.
Insomnia, the most common form of sleep disorder, has the strongest link to depression. Subsequently, insomnia is also the first symptom of depression.
Digestive System – People who are regularly sleep deprived have higher risk of becoming overweight or even obese. This is due to higher production of leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that regulates the feeling of hunger and fullness. The former tells the brain you are already full, while the latter stimulates appetite. The influx of these hormones can lead to weight gain.
Subsequently, sleep deprivation causes less production of insulin, the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar. This increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Endocrine System – Most of the body’s hormone production is related to sleep. For healthy production of growth hormones, you need 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep, which is the same amount of time for the first episode of rapid eye movement (REM). Hormones like testosterone help build muscle, repair cells and tissues, and promote growth, which are essential for children and adolescents.
Reproductive Health – Chronic stress affects sex drive for both sexes. Men, in particular, may experience lower levels of number and motility of sperm, while chronically stressed women may have problems conceiving. Subsequently, stress in pregnant women can affect the child’s development inside the womb.
Sleep and stress have a bidirectional relationship. Although the latter can affect the former, it does not have to control your life and health. Understanding how the body responds to stress can help you recognize the first signs and symptoms. The best way to get a good night’s sleep is to manage stress. Talk to your doctor for the best course of treatment and get the good night’s sleep you deserve.