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Women stretching on her bed

Does sleep deprivation induce stress, or is it the reverse?

It's chicken and egg – but whether it's stress that's giving you sleepless nights, or insomnia that's making you stressed, you need to break the cycle.

More than 63 per cent of us are unhappy with the amount of sleep we get , according to one survey, and 74 per cent actively worry about not getting enough.1

Regularly suffering from a lack of sleep puts us at greater risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and mood disorders like depression and anxiety.2

Is it stress or insomnia?

Not everyone who has problems sleeping is under stress - there are other causes including noise, medication side effects, pain conditions, shift work, menopausal night sweats, light pollution or even an uncomfortable bed. But often people who are under constant or severe stress will develop insomnia because it's difficult for them to switch off, relax and sleep.

Research shows how just one night of sleeplessness can affect cognitive tasks3 - setting off a cycle of stress and sleep problems.

How do you know if your insomnia is stress-related? Experts suggest asking yourself when it started. If it comes and goes and coincides with stressful periods (as opposed to being a persistent problem), you have your answer.4

What is it doing to you?

One of the first signs you are stressed is lying awake worrying, your brain racing or waking early - and the cycle continues. The onset of depression is also linked to stress exposure,5 and between 60 and 90 per cent of people with depression are estimated to suffer with insomnia.6

We all know how a poor night's sleep can affect our mood - making us irritable and snappy with the people around us. There's also evidence that being sleep-deprived makes us less empathetic towards others7 and less able to regulate our negative emotions.8 If we become chronically sleep-deprived, these negative effects on our psychological health appear to be cumulative. One theory is that being constantly deprived of sleep over time causes our brain to become rewired, making us more vulnerable to mental health problems.9, 10

Even short-term sleep deprivation can have a significant effect on mood. A US study carried out on healthy adults allowed participants just four to five hours sleep a night over a week and these people reported feeling more stressed, angrier, and mentally exhausted. As soon as they went back to getting a normal amount of sleep, their mood lifted dramatically. 11 Experts suggest dipping below six hours a night puts you at risk.12

7 ways to break the cycle

So how can you break the vicious cycle of sleep problems and stress?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Manage your stress levels: Try deep breathing, yoga, meditation and mindfulness, exercises and/or talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).13 And learn to say no when you are overloaded.
  2. Tackle any worries: If you are worrying about paying the bills or arguing with your partner, face up to the issues and get some help from the Citizen's Advice Bureau or Relate.
  3. Get treatment for depression: See your GP and talk about your feelings - you may need counseling or a course of anti-depressants. If you are going through a difficult period, for example a bereavement or divorce, counseling can help.
  4. Establish a sleep routine: Try going to bed and getting up at the same time daily and creating a winding-down routine such as taking a bath, sipping chamomile tea and not using any technology for an hour before bed.
  5. Reserve your bedroom for sleep: Avoid all waking activities in the bedroom including talking on the phone, using your laptop or tablet and watching television.13
  6. Check your diet: What we eat (and when) impacts on the quality of our sleep.14 Foods containing an amino acid called tryptophan found in turkey, chicken and dairy products;15 and the sleep hormone melatonin found in small amounts in cherries, bananas and grapes may help. A diet low in magnesium has also been linked to insomnia, so eat more magnesium-rich foods such as leafy green vegetables.16
  7. Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol: They are both stimulants and will keep you awake.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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