How often do you go to bed exhausted but find yourself unable to nod off as the worries of the world churn over in your mind? Experts say that as many as half of us are now too stressed to sleep, with the average Briton hitting the sack at 11.15pm and sleeping for only just over six hours a night.
According to research by The Sleep Council, we women worry more, with 54 per cent of us claiming concerns about money, relationships and work keep us awake. Staggeringly, only 22 per cent of women who took part in the survey reported that they sleep ‘very well’ at night.
It’s not just adults who are suffering the consequences of stress. Our children are also becoming a generation of night-time worriers. In one recent survey of 700 10-14 year olds that was conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Big Lottery Fund, forty five per cent of the young respondents claimed they’d been too worried to sleep because they were stressing about friends, exams and school work.
Sammy Margo, a chartered physiotherapist and author of The Good Sleep Guide (Ebury Press), says stress is one of the most common reasons why people struggle to nod off at night. “There’s no doubt that it can trigger sleeping problems and I see it all the time with my clients,” Margo says. “Problems like job-related pressures, relationship issues and illness or death in the family can all be a recipe for sleepless nights.”
Often, she says, sleep patterns gradually return to normal when the stressful situation passes. But it’s not always the case. “If you don’t address the issues early on, they can persist long after the original stress has passed,” Margo says. And that could mean drastic consequences on our health. Researchers at the University of Surrey’s Sleep Centre have shown that sleep loss jolts the immune system into action, triggering the same kind of immediate response shown when people are exposed to stress. In other words, the less sleep you get as a result of being stressed, the more stressed your body becomes.
According to the researchers, white blood cells (one of the major cell types of the immune system) spiked after sleep deprivation. In other studies, the Surrey team have shown that genes associated with processes like inflammation and response to stress became more active when sleep is limited to six and a half hours a night, thought to be the minimum we need to stay on a physical and emotional even keel. Sleep an hour longer and the effects appeared to be reversed, they found.
Lack of sleep through stress can also raise your risk of having a stroke, even if you are relatively young and healthy. Two years ago, sleep experts at Carnegie Mellon University found that those who cut back their sleep to less than six hours a night were at quadruple the risk of having a stroke compared with those who slept seven to eight hours a night. Although they weren’t sure of the precise mechanisms that lead to the raised danger, in the 5,000 healthy subjects they studied it was suspected it was linked to the fact that chronic sleep causes inflammation, raised blood pressure and affects glucose levels, all linked to stroke risk.
Dropping from eight hours a night to six (or less) can also have a profoundly negative effect on cognitive ability in the short and long term. “We all know that you are more on the ball, and less fuzzy-headed when you are not tired,” says Professor Kevin Morgan, director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at Loughborough University. What he has shown in trials is that, the older we get, the more a lack of sleep is directly linked to a rise in forgetfulness. A team from the University of Pennsylvania showed that two hours of missed slumber in adults is enough to stop the brain from laying down and storing memories. “What this really means for modern life is that sleep is not a luxury,” says Ted Abel, the professor of biology who led the study. “It is critically important for the brain.”
So what can we do to help ourselves have stress-free sleep? From our thirties and onwards, says Professor Morgan, our daily routines should be “metronomically regulated” to aid stress-related sleep troubles. So, if you exercise, do it at the same time of the day. “Science is making huge strides towards understanding the real impact of sleep on our health,” Morgan says. “We know that if you sleep poorly because you are stressed, you will function poorly. We all need to get enough sleep.”
HOW TO DE-STRESS AT BEDTIME
Everything from your pillow to your breathing pattern can exacerbate stress at night. Here, our sleep experts advise on how to make your sleep routine less troublesome:
Check your bed and your pillow
According to the Sleep Council, you will spend over 20,000 hours in your bed during its average seven-year lifespan, so it’s worth the investment of time and effort to make sure you choose the right one. Too little support from a mattress exacerbates poor sleeping posture, making it difficult to get to sleep. “A mattress needs to be firm enough to support your spine in correct alignment, but not too hard,” says Margo.
Replace your pillows
Equally, it is important to check and replace your pillow regularly. “If your pillow is floppy or out of shape, then it needs replacing,” says Margo, who has produced her own range of anti-stress pillows available from www.thegoodsleepexpert.com . “On average, synthetic pillows last six months to two years, whereas feather pillows can last up to five or six years. To test the support of down and feather pillows, lay the fluffed out pillow on a hard surface. Fold it in half or thirds and squeeze out the air. Release the pillow. If it unfolds and returns to its original position it has support; if it stays in the same position, it is time you bought a new one.
Write things down
Keep a notepad by your bed and write down things you need to do the following day instead of mulling them over in your mind, advises Dr Chris Idzikowski of the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service. “It helps you detach from it and relax into slumber,” he says.
Breathe deeply and think backwards
As you lie in bed take deep breaths and concentrate only on your breathing to help induce relaxation. Margo suggests trying to remember your day backwards. “It sounds easy until you try it, she says. “It’s similar to the old method of counting sheep - which also works for some people.”
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a great way to help you unwind and prepare your body for sleep, says Margo. As you lie in bed try tensing and relaxing your muscles in groups from your toes right up to your forehead. Squeeze each muscle group for a few seconds and release, relaxing before moving on to the next.
Take a nap
If you get too little sleep at night, a lunch-time cat nap can help you catch up. Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey, says that most people who need to catch up on sleep "naturally feel the urge to nap between 1pm and 3pm”. Just don’t nod off for too long, says Professor Morgan. “Make sure a nap lasts no longer than 45 minutes,” he says. “If you drift off for an hour or more, you risk sleep inertia as you progress into a deep sleep.”
Do you have any tried and tested techniques for beating stress and sleeping better? Let us know below or tweet us @GetTheGloss