How to Counteract Stress with Sleep

As humans in modern society, we fill our waking hours with important stuff that we need to do. It is almost our daily and collective mantra to say or feel that “we don’t have enough time” or to ask, “Where has the day, month, or year gone?”

Almost every second of 24 hours (that’s 86,400 seconds) is taken up by commitments or tasks to complete. Our morning alarm is the gunshot from a starting pistol signaling that today’s race has begun.

And the “race” almost always starts out stressful. How often do we hit the snooze button so that we can savor the next 9 minutes of semi-precious sleep? We can only deny that the day looms ahead with the magic snooze button so many times. At some point, 18 or 27 minutes later, we actually have to wake up.

Showers must be taken. Breakfast must be eaten. You may or may not have to get kids ready for school. You have to get in a car and drive to work. Coffee may be involved. These seemingly mundane tasks continue throughout the day leading to an epidemic of chronic stress that is a result of our modern societal norms. The stress is not always at a high level nor is it always negative, nor is it always recognized as stress. It is the accumulation of the little things here and there: the texts, the emails, the appointments, the kids’ practices, the meals that must be cooked, bought then eaten, the daily news, and even the vacations that must be planned. Sometimes even the vacations! We are “on” at all times. And all of this affects our health in a slow and most insidious fashion.

There are two divisions of our nervous system that can help explain the negative health consequences of how we live on a daily basis:  the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. You may remember that the sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight,” being chased by a tiger, epinephrine pumping up your blood, nervous system. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is the more calming part of the nervous system that slows your heart rate and relaxes your muscles. It is also known as the “rest and digest” nervous system. The problem with our modern lifestyle is that our sympathetic system rarely shuts off and, in a way, almost over-rides our parasympathetic system. In other words, we have a very little downtime. Downtime would be meditating or just actually doing nothing and relaxing. We almost always have a device such as a TV or a cellphone or computer on. We don’t even know what doing nothing is anymore—doing nothing seems like heresy. It’s hard to summon up the energy to walk outside for ten minutes or to have a lazy conversation on a porch or kitchen table that isn’t pre-planned.

In our modern grind, we are almost ALWAYS in a chronic, usually low-grade, state of “fight or flight” and the outcome of this is not good. The most common stress hormone is cortisol and high or constant levels of cortisol are associated with a wide range of very common metabolic diseases including obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer. If unchecked, each disease begets the next one. Being overweight can lead to hypertension which can lead to diabetes. At a certain point, whether the chicken or the egg of which disease came first does not matter.  We’ve seen this scenario over and over again with friends and loved ones being prescribed a drug which begets another drug and then the side effects of those leads to another drug. Pretty soon you need a container, then a small suitcase, to contain all the pills. To combat these stresses, we need to summon the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. This can be done with yoga and meditation type practices or relaxing, but for many people, the only time to decompress is at night when we go to sleep. Sleep is the time to put our brains to rest and replenish the energy we need to start our next day over.  Like eating, we know sleep is vital to our health and lives, but scientists and doctors don’t have great explanations when asked the question, “Why do we sleep?”

As science and medical specialty, sleep physiology is a relatively new field really only being studied for the past 40-50 years. There are patterns within our sleep, such as the different stages of sleep that we can track on a polysomnogram or sleep study, for example, most of us have all heard of REM or rapid eye movement which is the time of deep sleep and when we dream.  Many of us even track sleep patterns on our watches and cellphones. And while science has helped us immensely, in the end, we just know that we need to sleep and that without sleep, we feel bad. We intuitively know that sleep heals us. Besides proper nutrition, getting a good night’s rest is the most important thing we can do for our health.

If you are having trouble sleeping, I highly recommend learning more and a great start would be this website and also Dr. Park’s podcast Breathe Better, Sleep Better, Live Better available on Itunes.


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