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Sleep, Stress and Glycemic Control

Optimizing our environment & finding practices that provide our bodies with the rest and recovery we require to be at our best

Sleep

The old adage “I’ll sleep when I am dead,” has been adopted by many in society. I even had that mindset at one point, especially during undergrad. Unfortunately, those who live by those words, will find themselves living a life shorter than those who prioritize sleep. How so? Sleep is a time where our bodies recover. Whether it is from an intense workout you completed a day or two prior, or from another stressor you experienced during your day, be it at work, school, your commute, etc. You may be killing it in the gym, but you will not make progress at the level you could be if you are not sleeping well or long enough. Research from the Sleep Foundation states that adults should be sleeping anywhere from 7 to 9 hours a night. While there is a very small subset of the population who may be okay with 6 hours of sleep, they make up only 1% of the population. I know what you’re thinking. You regularly sleep 6 hours or less a night and feel just fine, you must be included in this elite 1%. Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist, states, “it is far, far more likely that you will be struck by lightening than being truly capable of surviving on insufficient sleep thanks to a rare gene.” (Why We Sleep, 2017) Unless you get your genome sequenced and can verify you have a gene called BHFHE41, (aka DEC2) it is best to stick with the general sleep recommendations of 7 to 9 hours, sorry. So, what if we are not achieving 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night? What are the risks?

Health Risks Associated with Poor Sleep

Those who do not get enough sleep may be at an increased risk for:

Lack of sleep, in this case, 6 hours or less, is associated with poorer health outcomes. 

Future articles will dive into the mechanisms of how lack of sleep increases your risk for these diseases and conditions.

For now, what are some steps we can improve our sleep?

Practicing what is called Sleep Hygiene.

  • Creating a cool, dark, & quiet bedroom, free of gadgets
  • Staying off of electronics/screens a couple hours before bed
  • Wearing Blue-Light Blocking Glasses in the evening if on screens
  • Using blue-light dimming software, i.e., f.lux, Iris, or activate on blue-light filter on IOS or Android device
  • Taking a hot bath/shower
  • Get sunlight during the day
  • Avoiding caffeine after 12pm
  • Avoid alcohol before bed
  • Keep a consistent schedule: bedtime and wake time

 

While this list may seem overwhelming, maybe just start with one item on this list and notice how you feel.

Once this one practice has become habitual, we can try adding another one.

Next, stress.

Stress

Just like sleep, the stress response serves a purpose.

However, society is operating in a chronic state of sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) activation and we have a hard time activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest).

First we will look at what is happening on the physiological level when we are stressed.

The following processes are occurring:

  • Increased Cortisol – Stress Hormone
    • Increases blood glucose to the brain
    • Alters immune function
    • Decreases digestion
    • Decreases reproductive function
    • Decreases growth, think about children/teens
    • Opposes insulin
  • Epinephrine (Adrenaline) is released
    • Increases heart rate
    • Elevates blood pressure
    • Boosts energy supply – freeing stored glucose for use
    • Increases strength and performance
    • Decreases pain
  • Norepinephrine is released
    • Heightens awareness and focus
    • Increases blood flow to muscles
    • Increases lipolysis for energy – triglycerides in blood
 

In the context of imminent danger, we definitely want all of these processes to occur. It greatly increases our chances of survival and/or allows us to protect someone we love.

Is it necessary in the context of driving in traffic, when you are feeling financial pressure, or studying for an exam?

No, not at all.

Imagine what the long term consequences would be if your body was always in the stress response?

Chronically high blood sugar: diabetes

Chronically high blood pressure: increased risk for stroke and cardiovascular disease

Altered immune function: getting sick all the time

The list goes on.

I get it, this is easier said than done though. Life trials are a reality.

So how do we manage the worrisome thoughts and stress response when it arrises?

Worrisome Thoughts & Feeling Stressed

Ever have a thought that pops into your head and all of a sudden you notice your heart is racing, you feel some slight tension in your neck and/or shoulders, and you now cannot get it out of mind? Maybe it is something negative, a conflict with an individual in your life, or a task you need to complete.

I’ll be honest, that happens to me quite a bit.

Here are some practices that can be helpful in those situations:

  • Using prayer, meditation, or mindfulness
  • Meditation Apps: CalmHeadspaceOak
  • Simply naming the feelings and/or sensations
  • Having a regular practice of gratitude journaling
  • Performing a body scan meditation
  • Box breathing
  • 4, 7, 8 breathing
  • Alternate nostril breathing
  • Belly breathing

This is not at all an exhaustive list of techniques that can be useful, but can be a great starting place if you currently do not have a practice or tool in those situations.

These practices work by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) and suppressing the sympathetic nervous system.

Gratitude journaling retrains your mind to look at the positives in life, which greatly improves our wellbeing and mental health.

Similarly to sleep, I will write future articles touching on the specific science of the mentioned practices and their influence on stress physiology and the science of stress on our health. So stay on the lookout for those!

What to do from here?

Don’t stress! Just kidding!

But seriously, do not let the information on how sleep and stress impact your health discourage you.

First, ask yourself, “What is going well in my life?” or “What am I doing well with regards to sleep and stress management?”

Next, find something from the sleep hygiene list and/or the stress management tips that you could apply now. There are many free meditation and deep breathing apps you can download today that can get you closer to your health goals.

Let’s start making changes!

Some ways I can help

Issue Practice
Unsure about how much sleep I need per night
Experimenting with different sleep durations & testing for improvements through reflexes & based on how you feel
Cannot imagine giving up caffeine or not drinking caffeine in the afternoon
Perform short-term experiments to establish caffeine sensitivity & evaluate how improving sleep quality may affect need for caffeine, Strategically reintroduce
Alcohol helps me fall asleep, why would I not drink it before bed
Explore other ways of relaxing and winding down & learn about alcohol’s affects on REM sleep
Have tried meditating in the past and I did not enjoy it
Identify other forms of mindfulness that you may enjoy & establish what you are wanting to gain from the practice
Unsure about what to start with, improving my sleep or managing my stress levels?
Establish what feels doable, right now, and what would provide the most immediate benefit