How Stress Can Affect Your Sleep

You are probably right if you think you are not getting as much sleep as you did when you were younger. Numerous factors work against you getting adequate rest as you age, with aging being one of them. Other issues that interfere with sleep include illness, hormone changes, family and work responsibilities, and, most of all – STRESS!

One of every three adults does not get enough sleep, meaning less than seven hours per night. Insomnia is a medical condition defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for enough hours to feel rested the next day. Stress is a leading cause of insomnia. 

How do you know if you have insomnia and are not getting enough sleep?

Here are some warning signs to know:

  • It regularly takes longer than 15 minutes to fall asleep
  • You fall asleep during the day without trying
  • Frequent awakening during the night
  • You lie awake for long periods
  • Not feeling refreshed and well-rested in the morning
  • Trouble falling back asleep at night if you awaken
  • Difficulty trying to take a daytime nap when you are tired
  • Trouble concentrating during the day
  • Mood changes associated with being tired

Seven to nine hours of sleep is ideal for adults. Feeling stressed can cause you to get far less or, in some cases, get too much sleep. In the latter scenario, depression associated with stress can cause people to sleep for extended hours to the point of detrimental impact on well-being. Stress significantly affects the body, as does lack of sleep. The body uses sleep as the time to repair itself. 

What Is Stress?

Stress is a natural reaction (mental tension, worry, or emotional strain) to a problematic, adverse, or challenging situation. It causes the body and brain to react immediately to deal with what is causing the stress.

While it may seem counterproductive to experience stress, there are some benefits for the body. A little stress helps keep people alert, motivated, focused, and ready to respond to situations. Good stress (eustress) helps you meet your goals. It can increase your pulse and the production of some hormones, such as cortisol. Short-term or acute stress pumps up the brain, increasing awareness and concentration. Cortisol, in low amounts, has many benefits, including regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, and the sleep-wake cycle.

Low-level types of stress stimulate neurotrophins in the brain that strengthen neuronal connections. Memory and immune responses may improve in the short term in response to low-level stress. 

Examples of good stress include:

  • Getting a new job or job promotion
  • Winning a competition
  • Retiring from work
  • Getting married
  • Starting a family
  • Going on vacation

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is terrible for your body, brain, and sleep. Because the nervous system regulates breathing, heart rate, vision, and more, ongoing stress can cause many issues.

Examples of bad stress include:

  • Job loss
  • Death of someone close
  • Relationship problems or end
  • Extreme workplace pressure
  • Divorce
  • Financial troubles
  • Abuse 
  • Untreated health or mental conditions

These signs can warn you that you are experiencing stress:

  • Headaches
  • Jaw clenching
  • Teeth grinding
  • High blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Shaking
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Body aches
  • Chest pain
  • Racing heart
  • Exhaustion
  • Digestive problems
  • Sexual troubles
  • Weak immunity
  • Anxiety 
  • Panic attacks
  • Irritability 
  • Depression

Some people turn to alcohol, drugs, overeating, gambling, smoking, or shopping to handle stress. It is crucial to deal with stressful situations to help your body recover from the effects of chronic stress.

The Link Between Stress And Sleep

Stress has various ways of interfering with sleep, as it interferes with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Endocrine responses suffer, causing critical changes in hormone production necessary for optimum wellness. 

We tend to keep running different scenarios when we have a lot on our minds. Try as hard as you may, you might not be able to shut down your thoughts to allow your brain to let you fall asleep. Chronic or high-stress levels reduce your sleep by keeping you awake longer at night. 

Stress levels influence the duration of each sleep stage. People experiencing chronic stress may experience a decrease in the amount of time spent in deep, slow-wave sleep and other disruptions during REM sleep.

Increased cortisol production due to stress interferes with the body’s natural circadian rhythm, keeping you revved up and awake. Cortisol also inhibits the production of testosterone and growth hormone, interfering with their functions. Both hormones play a vital role in metabolism, which becomes an issue because sleep is when these hormones influence the conversion of food into fuel rather than fat. Stress and insomnia are associated with metabolic syndrome and obesity. 

Another problem with chronic stress is that it increases adrenaline (epinephrine) levels, which can lead to anxiety and high blood pressure. Irritability, dizziness, vision changes, light-headedness, and sleep inability can occur. Excess epinephrine can lead to heart damage. 

Ongoing stress can lead to significant mental and physical health issues in the long run. Sleep deprivation further exacerbates these risks, with insufficient sleep further increasing feelings of stress and anxiety. 

Consequences of lack of sleep:

  • Obesity

Less than seven hours of sleep inhibits the amount of time hormones such as GH and testosterone have to support healthy metabolic functions. People with insomnia and sleep deprivation are more likely to gain weight and experience health issues associated with obesity. Fatigue during the day often leads to further eating to supply the body with increased energy. The extra caloric intake also leads to weight gain. 

  • Diabetes

Lack of sleep interferes with the HPA axis, inhibiting proper metabolic processes that aid in glucose uptake by the cells. People with insomnia may have a 17 percent risk increase for developing type 2 diabetes due to poor blood sugar control. Increased weight further impacts these concerns. 

  • Heart Disease

Sleep disturbances can have a damaging effect on the heart. Fragmented sleep (frequent awakenings) can increase inflammation buildup in the arteries. That can lead to atherosclerosis (plaque buildup) and hardening of the arteries. Circulation becomes difficult as the heart pumps harder to push the blood through the smaller spaces. 

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) also increases the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension), heart attack, and stroke. Obesity contributes to the worsening of OSA. 

  • Stroke

Blocked arteries can disrupt blood flow to the brain, leading to a stroke. Adults with reduced sleep who suffer from other complications listed here are at an increased risk for a stroke. 

  • Arthritis

Having arthritis can be exacerbated by sleep problems because poor sleep can worsen joints. Increased stiffness and pain decrease exercise and movement, which are crucial for helping with hormone balance. Depression and disability risks increase. 

  • Impaired Immunity

The body undergoes many areas of repair and regeneration during sleep, including the immune system. Crucial white blood cell production can decline if testosterone and growth hormone levels become too low. People who sleep less than six hours are more likely to suffer from impaired or depressed immune system responses, making them more susceptible to illness. 

  • Depression

Individuals dealing with chronic anxiety are more likely to be depressed, including developing signs of major depression. While lack of sleep increases mood changes, feeling depressed can worsen sleep. It begins a vicious cycle with no end unless action to reduce stress and improve sleep is taken. 

  • Kidney Disease

Although more research is necessary, preliminary studies associate chronic insomnia with chronic kidney disease development and progression. There is no current link between insomnia and end-stage renal disease. 

  • Negative Mood

Being positive and upbeat when you are tired and stressed is hard. Adults who are sleep deprived are more likely to feel frustrated, anxious, irritable, angry, or sad. 

  • Low Energy

Lack of sleep reduces the energy the body has available during the day. Prolonged stress can drain the adrenal glands of cortisol, leading to low energy, brain fog, food cravings, and fatigue. When you add sleeplessness, the body has to overcompensate during the day by binging on sugar or caffeine to stay awake. Those rapid highs are followed by dramatic lows as the sugar and caffeine wear off. 

  • Difficulty Concentrating

People who sleep less than seven hours a night may find it harder to concentrate on and learn new tasks. Forgetfulness and trouble thinking clearly often accompany sleeplessness. Increasing sleep helps to improve learning, insight, cognitive processing, and memory. 

Other Reasons That Cause Insomnia and Sleep Apnea

Adults with sleep apnea are at risk of significant health issues, as they may stop breathing for periods throughout the night. Loud snoring is often a sign of sleep apnea, which can worsen due to certain conditions. 

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type, occurring when relaxed throat muscles block airflow to the lungs. 

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is caused by a lack of signals from the brain to the muscles in control of breathing. 

The most common sleep apnea symptoms include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Gasping for air while asleep
  • Dry mouth
  • Stopping breathing during sleep
  • Insomnia
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Excessive sleepiness during the day
  • Morning headaches 

Obstructive sleep apnea has multiple factors that contribute to its risk, including:

  • Excess weight

Obesity leads to fat deposits throughout the body. Excess fat around the upper air can increase obstruction in breathing. 

  • Medical conditions 

Adults with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, asthma, and prior stroke history have an increased risk of OSA. Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome are also more likely to receive a sleep apnea diagnosis.

Hormonal changes and disorders also contribute to OSA. Sleep apnea and testosterone deficiency in men do have a connection. Low testosterone levels may contribute to the development of sleep apnea due to poorly regulated body fat distribution. Find out more about the link between them.

  • A narrowed airway

Some people have narrow throats or enlarged adenoids or tonsils which can block the airway. Thick neck circumference may cause narrow airways. 

  • Age

Older adults are more likely to have sleep apnea than younger adults. 

  • Gender

Men have a two to three times greater incidence of being diagnosed with sleep apnea. In women, those who are post-menopausal or overweight see their risks increase. 

  • Use of alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers

Consuming alcohol or medicinal substances such as sedatives and tranquilizers can cause the throat’s muscles to relax, worsening OSA. 

  • Smoking

People who smoke have three times the risk of developing OSA due to increased fluid retention and inflammation in the upper airway. 

The primary risks for Central sleep apnea include:

  • Gender: Males are more likely to get CSA than females.
  • Age: CSA risk increases from middle age on.
  • Stroke: Having had a previous stroke increases CSA risk.
  • Narcotic use: Opioids increase central sleep apnea risk. 
  • Heart disorders: Risk increases in adults with congestive heart failure. 


Nearly half the adults in the US report getting less than good sleep quality, with stress being a leading cause of lying awake at night. Lack of sleep further enhances stress, causing many people to feel like they are on a hamster wheel – going round and round and never getting anywhere. Stress increases, sleep worsens, and stress increases even more. 

The fewer hours you sleep, the greater your risk of developing potentially debilitating physical and mental health issues. Adults who get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night typically report lower stress levels and better quality of life. 

Taking the necessary steps to reduce stress and improve your sleep duration and quality can dramatically impact your overall health and well-being. 

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