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Stressed? Here’s How to Sleep When Your Brain Won’t Shut Down

Sleep and stress do not make for good bedfellows. Here's what you can do.

Stress and sleep do not make for good bedfellows. In general, increased levels of cortisol are inversely related to a proper night’s rest. And cortisol increases when one’s brain is running over news stories, work schedules, home school requirements, and general coronavirus-panic mode. So, what’s the key to sleep better when stressed? It’s a matter of sticking even more strictly to the rituals that lead to good sleep in the first place. Chances are they are likely not being followed due to the stress.

“Sleep is a rhythm,” says Dr. Abhinav Singh, M.D. the Medical Director for the Indiana Sleep Center. “It’s about quantity as well as quality as well as alignment. Think of it as a set of wheels or tires for a car. They have to be of good quality, they have to be the right size, and they have to be aligned right as well for it to work.” In other words, the rules for good sleep don’t change. Paying stricter attention to them, as well as finding ways to reduce daily stress, is the best way to help someone out. Here, then, are 15 tips to help you sleep better when stressed.

Get Natural Light Before Noon

The circadian rhythm, our oh-so-intricate internal clock that controls our sleep-wake patterns, is governed by sunlight. Light enters our optic nerves are then relays signals to the brain that tell it to, among other things, stop the slow-drip of the hormone melatonin and energize us for the day. Without a daily dose of bright light our bodies are thrown off-kilter. “Light is one of the most important cues for calibrating our sleep-wake system,” says Dr. Singh. “It’s about 70-percent of the equation.”

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Stressed or not, good sleep depends on receiving good light in the morning, up until about mid-day. The more light you receive the better: The ideal situation is at least two hours in natural sunlight. For those who can access it, per Dr. Singh, proper sunlight is best. Go outside if able. And when your indoors, set up shop near a bright window. Natural light not an option for that long? Dr. Singh recommends turning your monitor up to the max brightness, switching on all the lights in your home. “Whatever you can do to maximize your light intake in the hours before noon will help dramatically,” says Dr. Singh.

Limit Light in the Evenings

Just as light helps wind us up, lack of it helps power us down. Why? Less light equals more melatonin. So, once the sun as set, it’s important to avoid as much of it as you can to cycle back, especially after 6 or 7pm. No, this doesn’t mean blanketing yourself in darkness once the sun goes down. It means limiting your exposure to harsh light from screens, lamps, and other such sources, particularly an hour before bedtime.

And Yes, That Includes Light from Screens

“Staring at bright screens in darkness with dilated pupils  allows more quantities of light to enter the eyes,” says Dr. Singh. And don’t be fooled by blue-light filters or night modes: Dr. Singh cautions that, while these certainly do limit blue light, they still throw some light at your face, usually from a few inches away. “If it’s dark, and you’re looking at something that produces light, that light has an opportunity to get in and suppress your melatonin.”

Go to Bed (And Wake Up) At the Same Time Every Day

Our bodies respond extraordinarily well to routine. And while it may be tricky to condition it based on your schedule, it’s crucial to try to maintain some semblance of a standard bedtime and wake time. The average person requires between seven and nine hours of sleep. That means if someone goes to bed around 1030 every night, their wake time should be around 5:30 and 6:30 am. There’s some wiggle room, of course, but by sticking to a consistent routine — and not, say, sleeping in late on the weekends — it conditions the body to sleep better. “Try not to sway more than 10-15 minutes, if possible,” says Dr. Singh.

Now, the tricky — but crucial — part here, per Dr. Singh, is maintaining that sleep-wake time even if you’ve had a few crappy nights of sleep. “The fact is that sleep is the most innate natural drive,” he says. “If you don’t give yourself that, your body will force it from you and force you to nap in the day because you’re tired. It will force you to go to bed early. But avoid that temptation because then you’re going to hurt your drive at night and throw the system off.”

Get Moving….

Exercise is an important part of the sleep equation. Not only does it help reduce stress, but exercise, per Dr. Singh, increases the homeostatic drive, the body’s natural hunger for sleep. At least 30-45 minutes of proper exercise a day is the sweet spot, but more is better. A gret deal of research backs this up. For instance, a study from The Journal of the American Medical Association shows that a daily exercise regimen not only helped people fall asleep faster but also gave them an additional 41 minutes of quality sleep time.

…But Don’t Exercise Too Close to Bedtime

Among other things, exercise increases our hormone levels and heart rates. This is essential for a healthy life but not so useful for sleep. While this fluctuates person-to-person, it’s important, per Dr. Singh, to exercise at least four hours before bedtime. Otherwise, your body is too ramped up to fall asleep at a regular hour.

Avoid Overly Long Naps

There’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned power nap, which can help stressed out individuals. But, contrary to popular belief, the proper power nap should be no more than 20-30 minutes. The actual length depends on such factors as when you actually fall asleep and how deeply you sleep, but that’s the sweet spot for achieving a boost of alertness without any of the lag that might occur if you wake between sleep cycles. But sleeping too long — too often — during the day can throw off your internal clock, leading to difficulties sleeping at night. If a regular napper has no problem conking out at night, that’s fine. But for those who are struggling, limiting the length of the daily nap could aid the actual long, restorative sleep they need.

Watch When — And What — You Eat

Dr. Singh has a rule he tells all of his sleep center patients: Don’t eat when it’s dark. Eating later in the evening has been shown to lessen sleep quality and increase hormones that inhibit sleep in the first place. If you’re indulging in a bag of chips or pint of ice cream, that’s going to rev up your blood sugar levels, which correlate to more trouble sleeping.

That said, Dr. Singh understands that these are stressful times. Even he has been snacking more. The key, then, is to not over indulge in carbs and eat healthy, natural foods that are high in protein and fiber. Want something sugary? Have an orange.

The thing is that poor sleep is bad for our waistlines in general. Sleep deprivation makes us crave fatty, carb-loaded treats. The healthier one eats and the better they time their meals, the more likely they are to achieve good sleep.

Don’t Overuse Your Bed

There’s a phrase the sleep health community likes to repeat over and over again: The bed should be used for two things — sleep and sex. It comes from the concept of stimulus control. The better someone can connect their bed as a place for sleep, the more their brain begins to understand that it is a safe place for rest. In other words, if, when working from home, someone lays down on their bed doing work all day, that’s not creating the proper connection.

Have Sex

Speaking of sex, it’s a great way to reduce stress and ready the body for sleep. Why? Well, the hormone oxytocin spikes after sex (it’s responsible for, among other things, that woozy, calm feeling of post-coital bliss) and the stress hormone cortisol decreases. The one-two punch has proven effective for getting those Zzzs. Not to mention that good sleep increases the body’s energy level and paves the way for more sex. It’s a mutual relationship.

Check the Thermostat

A person’s bedroom environment impacts the way they sleep in several ways. One particular thing to watch out for: temperature. A study from the journal Sleep found that temperature effects the way one sleeps more than noise. That’s because increased body heat is inversely correlated to good rest. So what’s the right setting? It’s up for debate but the general consensus about ideal temperature for sleep is 70-degrees Fahrenheit.

Take Time to Handle Your Stress

Stress is a sleep killer. And only those who take measures throughout the day to stay in control of their levels can stop it from interfering with their rest. We have a list of 22 stress-relief activities that take 5-minutes or less. Finding what works for you is paramount. Maybe it’s breathing exercises, banging out a few quick rounds of pushups, doing some body-scan meditation, listening to some soothing music, or catching up with friends and family. Anything that helps lower cortisol levels is good for sleep.

Stop Reading the News So Much

Racing thoughts can severely ruin someone’s nightly wind-down. Media burnout is real. We have 50,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day swirling around in our heads. If the majority of them are dedicated to political calamity? The result is not good for anyone — especially busy parents who already need to juggle an extreme amount of thoughts. Don’t read the news first thing, (definitely don’t read it right before bed), silence push notifications, and take other measures. The key is to not ignore it, but find the right balance that works for you.

Rethink that Afternoon Coffee

A late day coffee or caffeinated beverage might power you through to the finish line, but it’s not going to help you wind down at night. Coffee, for all its focus-enhancing, energy-producing powers stimulates the nervous system. In already amped-up, stressed-out folks? Only more so. Coffee stays in the blood stream for about six to eight hours. And studies show that caffeine intake six hours before bed can lead to a poor night’s sleep. Stick to decaf if you can.

Have a Proper Wind-Down Routine

Say it with us: Good sleep requires good structure. One of the most important parts of that for anyone, but particularly those feeling particularly stressed out, is a proper wind down routine.

“The brain is very, very fertile when it comes to conditioning routines,” says Dr. Singh. “Structure is the gateway to good sleep.” Dr. Singh’s version of a wind-down routine, which he teaches to all of his sleep center patients, is dubbed “4-Play.”

The four steps of the routine are shower, journal, read, and breathe. Each should be done for 10 to 15 minutes. A warm shower relaxes the body and helps release melatonin; journaling helps get out all the thoughts, lists, errands, and whatever else might be swirling around in the brain; reading focuses and relaxes the mind; and breathing or meditation exercises center the mind preparing it for good rest.