The role of chronic stress in sleep disorders.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the nation's mental health. The implication of several national lockdowns has had a negative impact on many people’s emotional wellbeing and mood.
With many more of us living very busy lives, chronic stress is unavoidable. Additionally, our constantly connected world also means that we are relentlessly bombarded by a constant stream of information, social media, ultra-targeted ads, and mostly negative news. This has had a huge impact on anxiety levels nationwide. We see it first-hand in our clinic every day. The ill-effect restrictions and a constant atmosphere of fear, social distancing and social isolation can have on our clients is truly significant. With many people working from home, routines have changed dramatically. Some people also have homeschooled their children and this has a huge cost. The price to pay is chronic stress and poor eating and sleep patterns.
A recent study revealed that 84% of self-employed people have been affected by poor mental health in the last 12 months. The IPSE, the UK's only not-for-profit membership organisation for the self-employed, exposed a 300% rise. 64% said financial worries was their most concerning problem.
The impact of mental ill health
Snacking has also become a national pastime. Considering that most snacks are ultra-processed, usually made of sugar and grains, low-quality chocolate (for chocolate-flavoured snacks), and a long list of additives, it is not surprising that many people have reported an increase in weight. Vegan and so-called healthy snack are no better if the first ingredient is sugar, no matter the type (e.g., cane sugar, beet sugar, dates, honey or Maltitol).
An instant reward for the brain, sugar is thus highly addictive. It can disrupt circadian rhythms and affect your sleep. High blood sugar is indeed a problem. Insulin is produced to reduce the concentration of sugar in the blood to acceptable levels. However, this usually create a negative output (a delayed response: insulin is still produced while blood sugar levels have already stabilised). Whenever blood sugar levels drop the brain instructs the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones to increase blood sugar levels but also leads to more snacking. This creates frequent and severe blood sugar fluctuations (a major cause of stress to the body).
Since sugar is the preferred source of fuel for the brain, repetitive hypoglycaemic episodes can have severe consequences on the long-term, affecting every system in the body, particularly the central nervous system. This translates into lower cognitive function (poor memory and concentration), brain fog and fatigue. Never quite feeling your best, tired, and unable to sustain enough energy, your mood may also be impacted. You may become more prone to anxiety and even depression.
Chronic stress, anxiety and depression affect the HPA axis. If left unaddressed, over-activation of the HPA axis can generate physiological changes in the brain and affect your behaviours and sleep, reducing sleeping time and quality of sleep. You may find difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Not feeling refreshed upon rising can lead to abuse of (or addiction to) caffeine, sugar or other stimulant, in order to sustain energy levels at the most crucial time of the day: the morning. A time when cortisol levels are at their highest. Cortisol is what wakes up in the morning and provide enough energy to go about our day. This is why you may, at time, feel ‘fine’ even without breakfast.
Stress-induced insomnia is indeed a problem because stress leads to poor sleep and chronic sleep depravation is a major stressor for the body. Furthermore, natural repair and healing processes mostly occur during the stages of deep sleep. Missing out on sleep can, therefore, affect every organ and tissue in the body. Debris, toxins and waste are excreted from the brain under the action of the glymphatic system, the immune system of the brain. The glymphatic system is only effective during deep sleep. Accumulation of metabolic waste and toxins in the brain can affect the way we think and feel, and can lead to neurodegeneration and mental disorders on the long-term.
Conditions linked to cognitive dysfunction include all forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson’s disease. This is why stress-induced insomnia should not be ignored. The priority should be to address the causes of stress, re-align circadian rhythms and re-establish healthy seeping patterns.
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. Centre for Mental Health. (2017). Mental health at work: The business costs ten years on [Internet]. Available from: centreformentalhealth.org.uk
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Registered Naturopath, Nutritional Therapist, Iridologist, Lecturer, NLP practitioner and Personal Performance Coach.
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