I need to start with a full disclaimer, I am writing this on 3 hours sleep. Not for a lack of trying, my sleep habits simply seem to be all over the place lately. This is the second time this week alone where I have been unable to fall asleep before 5 am, simply due to not being tired when I should be and being unable to turn off my mind. So when I have to get up a measly few hours later, it makes the days rough to say the least.
The unfortunate thing is, I think a lot of people are in the same situation currently. At this point in the pandemic, the overall feelings of uncertainty, overwhelm and lack of normalcy is having an effect on everyone. This toll manifests differently in each person, but for most people, whether they are aware of it or not, their sleep is being negatively impacted.
The thing is sleep and stress are highly related, in fact they create an incredibly viscous cycle. Sleep is essential to help recover from stress, but good quality sleep is hard to come by when we are stressed. This is because cortisol, our stress hormone, along with melatonin, regulate our circadian rhythm. This circadian rhythm is our 24 hour internal clock that tells us when it's time to wake up and when it's time to get to bed. Cortisol tells us when it's time to be awake and melatonin tells us when it's time to be asleep. When our cortisol levels are dysregulated due to stress we are going to feel tired when we are supposed to be awake and feel wired when we are supposed to be asleep.
Cortisol is meant to spike at 6am to act as a jolt to help us get out of bed in the morning, then slowly decreases until 10pm at night where it's at its lowest. At this point it begins to slowly rise again to prepare us for our next early morning wake-up call. Melatonin, the hormone that signals when it’s time to be asleep, has the opposite pattern where it is lowest in the morning and throughout the day, however starts to rise after 6pm, to help us get ready for bed.
Our body knows when to release cortisol and melatonin based on cues from our environment. Basically, our body syncs these hormones to the rising and the setting of the sun. As it gets light in the morning, that's our body’s cue that it is time to ramp up our cortisol, to get us out of bed. And as it gets dark in the evening, that's our body’s cue to start to release melatonin so we can get back to bed.
When our cortisol patterns are out of whack because of chronic stress, your body's circadian rhythm will be off as well. Some typical signs of cortisol dysregulation are waking up feeling exhausted and having a tough time getting out of bed in the morning despite getting your regular amount of sleep and also being unable to fall asleep in the evening despite feeling tired. Simply put, we are tired when we are meant to feel awake, and we are awake when we are meant to feel tired.
We can help resolve these sleep issues using two approaches:
Manage our stress. You can better manage your stress through reducing our day-to-day stressors or adding in some stress relief practises into our day routine. This will evidently help reduce the dysregulation of cortisol, so our sleep patterns are not as affected.
Reset our circadian rhythm. This can be achieved by re-aligning ourselves with the natural rhythms of the sun, so our body can start to release cortisol and melatonin more on a more regular pattern. This will mediate the impact of stress on our sleep patterns.
An ideal solution would be to pair both of these strategies for a more long lasting outcome. Managing our stress is a very personalized approach as our stressors and how we choose to deal with them is unique to everyone, however there are many strategies to help reset our circadian rhythm that can apply to most people. There are a variety of things we can do upon waking, throughout the day and leading up to our bedtime, to regulate our circadian rhythm. Our blog article next week will do a deep dive into these strategies to get you closer into your normal sleeping routine, even in a pandemic. Stay tuned!