How Stress Affects Sleep, and Why It Doesn’t Have to

Everyone has stress in their lives, but managing stress well can help keep it from having unhealthy effects and interfering with sleep!
How Stress Affects Sleep, and Why It Doesn't Have to
Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health

Sleep is important, but it tends to be in short supply, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [1]. One reason, for many people, may be too much stress [2]. Everyone has stress in their lives, but managing stress well can help keep it from having unhealthy effects and interfering with sleep.

Getting enough quality sleep may help with weight management, chronic disease prevention, and general well-being. For many people, better stress management can be a simple way to improve sleep. Here is how sleep and stress can interact, what you can do about it, and how Lark can help.

How Stress Can Affect Sleep

It turns out that stress is associated with insomnia, or trouble sleeping. To understand why and how stress might affect sleep, these are some effects of stress on the body [3].

  • Indigestion, including stomach ache, heartburn, and higher risk for ulcers.
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Tensed muscles, leading to pain, headaches, and injury risk.
  • Increased cortisol, which raises blood sugar levels.
  • Shallow breathing.

With effects like these, it is little wonder that restful sleep may be in short supply when stress is overwhelming. Have you ever tried to sleep with a pounding heart, acid reflux, and a headache? Plus, negative thoughts during the day due to stress can lead to nightmares at night.

How Sleep Can Affect Stress

Stress affects sleep, and sleep affects stress. Lack of sleep can increase stress hormones and the perception of stress as it becomes more difficult to handle challenging situations during the day. The increased stress due to lack of sleep can, in turn, lead to further trouble with sleep. 

High stress levels and poor sleep can work together to get you into a cycle. Still, there are actions you can take to break the pattern. For example, better stress management can lead to better sleep.

Many experts recommend getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep a day, but Americans report sleeping, on average, 6.7 hours. Being short on sleep goes beyond zapping energy, blurring thinking, and increasing risk of accidents. It also interferes with weight control, can raise blood sugar and blood pressure, and increases risk for infections, since the body produces immune factors called cytokines while you sleep. In addition, sleep deprivation can raise stress.

In one poll reported by the American Psychological Association (APA)[4], people who reported sleep less than 8 hours a night were more likely than people who slept more than 8 hours a night to:

  • Lose patience with their children or spouses.
  • Feel irritable.
  • Exercise less.
  • Lack motivation or energy.
  • Have more stress than a year ago.

Lark can help you keep track of sleep to help you stay aware of how much you are getting and how your trends may be changing over time.

A Bedtime Routine to Reduce Stress and Improve Sleep

Establishing a bedtime routine can help reduce stress and improve sleep quality in just minutes a day. A bedtime routine involves doing a series of actions that are the same or similar each day in the time before you go to bed. Eventually, the brain and body will recognize the bedtime routine and realize that it is time to get ready for sleeping.

A bedtime routine can be personalized, but there are some tips to consider.

  • Turning off screens, including phones, televisions, and laptops, at least 30 minutes before bedtime can help you fall asleep faster.
  • Pre-bedtime activities can be relaxing, such as aromatherapy, a warm bath, comforting music, and reading.
  • Herbal tea can be relaxing (be sure it contains no caffeine).
  • Chatting with family members or playing with a pet can help unwind.
  • Before bed is a good time to check in with Lark, log any additional foods or activities that you had not already logged, and jot down any notes.

A bedtime routine that includes relaxation techniques can help relieve stress, which can further contribute to better sleep.

All-Day Stress Management to Improve Sleep

Better sleep does not just start at bedtime. During the day, using stress management techniques can help reduce the effects of stress, including on sleep. The following can reduce stress.

  • Being active. Lark suggests hitting at least 30 minutes per day of physical activity, and more is better.
  • Deep breathing.
  • Visualization.
  • Eating healthy. Sugary foods can increase stress, while more nutritious foods can keep mood more stable.
  • Enjoy the sunshine (with sunscreen, of course). Sunlight in the daytime can help with sleep at night.
  • Meditation.
  • Yoga.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation.

Lark can help you track physical activity and diet, as well as provide feedback to help you choose the best foods for stress management, weight control, and overall health. Lark can also guide you through stress management techniques so you can handle stress better and have a better chance of getting the sleep you need.

Sleep is essential for staying healthy and feeling your best. Stress sometimes gets in the way, but there are steps to take to prevent stress from interfering with sleep. Lark is at the ready to help you with stress, sleep, and other aspects of health!