Is worry keeping you awake? That is, do you often find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep because of anxiety?
If so, you're not alone. According to medical experts, 1 in 6 of the UK population are regularly affected by anxiety. This may be one of the reasons that an even higher percentage of adults – 30% according to the National Institutes of Health – suffer from occasional insomnia.
All of this tossing and turning is taking a toll on our health and happiness. According to sleep specialist Dr. Matthew Walker, two-thirds of adults fail to get the recommended 8 hours of sleep a night. Over half of Americans are trying to survive on less than six hours of sleep per night, which causes them to meet the medical definition of sleep deprivation.
None of this lost sleep is necessary
Yes, we live in stressful times. There’s unexpected stresses to deal with, not to mention the normal, everyday anxiety caused by concerns like how to pay the mortgage and take care of the kids. Those anxiety "triggers" aren't going to go away.
But there ARE things we can do to reduce anxiety and get the sleep we need. In this article we'll deal with some of them, ranging from simple lifestyle changes to nutritional supplements that can help you fight stress and keep it from turning into insomnia.
What Is Anxiety, and What Are Its Symptoms?
Anxiety is a general term for multiple disorders that can cause worry, nervousness, fear, and apprehension. Anxiety is defined as: "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure."
Mild anxiety may be merely unsettling, while severe anxiety can seriously affect your life. It can certainly affect your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep, leaving you tossing and turning and waking up still tired, instead of dozing off easily and waking feeling refreshed.
Common symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety can manifest in many different ways, and present differently from person to person. Almost all types of anxiety involve a magnified sense of worry about something, but other symptoms may include:
- Nervousness, irritability and restlessness
- Trouble sleeping, and fatigue that results from it
- Feelings of fear, uneasiness, or even panic
- Cold, sweaty, numb, or tingling hands or feet
- Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- Fast heartbeat or palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Tense muscles
As clinical psychologist Steve Orma puts it, "Anxiety is an emotion that actually wakes us up. There are all kinds of physical changes happening that ramp you up, which is the exact opposite state of what you need to be in when you're trying to fall asleep."
What does anxiety do to your mind and body?
Anxiety has many effects. When you first experience stress that triggers anxiety, for example, you may notice tension in your muscles. That's because the muscles actually "seize up" as a reflex reaction to the stress. The body also responds to anxiety by dispersing additional fluids to different parts of the body, which can cause the throat to become dry, and the throat muscles to tighten.
Stress also causes an increase in the chemical cortisol, which in turn causes the liver to produce more glucose. This causes a spike in your blood sugar levels that, if not used in the form of exercise, can have the effect of producing sleeplessness.
Why sleep is important
Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, has explained in his book Why We Sleep that sleep is the most important factor to our physical and mental wellbeing – more than exercise, more than diet, and even more than our economic circumstances. "Without sleep," he says, "there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life."
Sleep – and getting the full recommended eight hours of it per night – is one of the most important factors determining how healthy and happy our lives will be. Getting enough sleep affects everything from vitality and energy to weight gain and having a healthy immune system. It affects our mental health, as well. Deep sleep – the point at which we begin to dream – is an incredibly therapeutic state of mind that helps us to build emotional resilience and handle the stresses of our lives more easily.
Things that happen to your body and your mind as a result of sleep deprivation
You've been told for most of your life about the importance of getting enough sleep. But statistics that tell us that 39% of the UK aren't getting enough sleep, and in fact are trying to survive on less than six hours of sleep per night. So we feel the need to include a few facts about what sleep deprivation does to the mind and body. We do this not to scare anyone, but to inform them about the "down side" of allowing anxiety to rob you of sleep.
Ways that sleep deprivation affects your mental and physical health include:
- It literally makes you dumber. Sleep deprivation impairs attention, concentration, reasoning, alertness, and problem solving. In addition, learning abilities become impaired, because without the brain consolidating and organising what you've learned during sleep, you can't retain new information and add it to your memory.
- Impaired judgment. The more sleep-deprived you become, the more liable you are to believe that you're "handling it," and doing fine. Chances are you aren't.
- Depression. People who sleep less than six hours a night are five times more likely to develop clinical depression. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to mental conditions such as reduced optimism and sociability.
- Increased accident risk. Lack of sleep is cited as a major cause of over 100,000 accidents each year. It's actually more dangerous than drunk driving. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, having a blood alcohol level of 0.08 (the legal limit in most states) makes you 2.7X more likely to have an accident, while missing two hours of sleep makes you 4.3X more likely to have an accident.
- Increased risk of serious illness. Sleep deprivation increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and other diseases.
- Decreased sex drive. One of the most common symptoms of sleep deprivation is lowered libido, and a lack of interest in sex.
- Premature skin ageing. Lack of sleep releases more of the stress hormone cortisol and less human growth hormone, both of which can lead to damaged skin, more wrinkles, and permanent dark circles under your eyes.
- Weight gain. Lack of sleep increases hunger, appetite, and thus increases your risk of becoming obese. Sleep deprivation also increases your cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods.
What to do when anxiety is keeping you from sleeping
Because anxiety is triggered by what we're thinking and worrying about – often obsessively – the Good News is that we can help to banish the anxiety by changing what we're thinking about. Sleep specialists often recommend the following tips for dealing with anxiety that is keeping you awake:
- Pinpoint the source of your anxiety as a first step to banishing it. That is, if you can identify what is worrying you before you go to bed, you are less likely to lay there dwelling on it, unable to sleep.
- If you feel really anxious, don't stay in bed tossing and turning, hoping that you'll eventually get so tired you'll fall asleep. Sleep specialists warn that doing this can become a habit, and turn going to bed into an anxiety trigger in itself.
- Try to make the cause of your anxiety more tangible by writing it down. On a pad of paper, list all of the things that are worrying you, whether they're about your job, your relationships, or just your inability to fall asleep. But then don't try to solve these issues in the middle of the night. Instead, return to the list the next day.
- If you consistently find it difficult to fall asleep on your normal schedule, consider the time you go to bed. Many people get into bed simply because it's "bedtime," not because they're tired. Waiting a little longer until you're really tired can help to calm a racing mind and allow you to drift off to sleep more easily.
- If all else fails, engage your mind by reading a book, the more boring the better. Don't watch TV or gravitate to the computer or your smartphone – that will just wake you up even more.
In many cases, the effects of anxiety on sleep are aggravated by poor sleep habits. So in addition to the above tips about dealing with anxiety per se, here are a number of general suggestions about things you can do to make it easier to get the sleep you need:
- Develop a regular sleep schedule, and stick to it. If you can, try to avoid staying up late and "sleeping in" on weekends, because a regular schedule is better for both falling asleep easily and feeling better during the day.
- Try to avoid alcohol, caffeine, smoking, and heavy meals in the evenings.
- Light significantly affects your sleep cycles, so increase your exposure to light during the day and reduce it at night by avoiding TV and computer use before sleeping.
- Try to create a bedtime routine that allows you to "wind down" before going to sleep. Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool. Take a relaxing bath, and try to avoid thinking about stressful topics. Read a book, practice gentle yoga, or listen to quiet music before going to bed, rather than watching TV or exercising.
Finally, consider your diet
We've already mentioned that eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime can cause sleeplessness, but the actual foods you eat and drink can affect your sleep as well.
Many people who have trouble falling asleep, for example, drink alcohol before bedtime, thinking it will "relax them" and help them fall asleep more easily. In reality, consuming alcohol within two hours of going to bed is more likely to disrupt your sleep than enhance it. Alcohol's effects actually increase anxiety, and have a physiological "rebound effect" that can cause you to wake up more frequently in the middle of the night.
Same with coffee, black tea, and other forms of caffeine. They are stimulants not only on a physical level, but on a mental level as well. If you're already anxious, caffeine can increase both the number of thoughts racing through your mind and the worries they trigger.
Instead, you might think about adding some of the following to your diet:
- More complex carbohydrates like whole-grain breads and cereals, because they boost production of the brain chemical serotonin, and thus calm you down.
- Salmon is a good source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Both help to regulate the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which can help to calm and relax you, and also enhance the brain's ability to adapt to changes.
- Yogurt and other probiotics can help to reduce anxiety. Studies have shown that individuals who consumed probiotic yogurt daily were better able to cope with stress than those who didn't. Yogurt also has a positive effect on the areas of the brain that control emotion, and has been associated with lower anxiety levels.
- Chamomile and green tea have also been found to reduce anxiety.
Natural supplements that can reduce anxiety and aid sleep
Finally, there are dietary supplements that can have a profound effect on reducing anxiety and making it easier to get the healthy sleep you need. We feel that one of the best is our Utmost Me product, Neuro Rest. 100% natural, vegan, and gluten-free, our Neuro Rest formulation contains a full range of ingredients that have been proven to be one of the most effective anxiety-reduction and sleep-aid supplements on the market. These ingredients include:
- Magnesium, to reduce tiredness and fatigue.
- L-Tryptophan, an amino acid that increases production of the chemical serotonin.
- 5-HTP, which also increases serotonin production, has a calming effect on the brain, and helps to reduce anxiety and insomnia.
- Montmorency cherries, high in melatonin, which is critical in regulating sleep and wake cycles.
- Grape skin also a natural source of melatonin.
- Watermelon, high in L-tryptophan and a natural source of mood-boosting magnesium.
- Chamomile, which calms the mind and reduces anxiety to promote better sleep.
- L-Taurine, an amino acid that has a naturally calming effect on the nervous system.
- Biotin, a B vitamin which helps maintain a positive, relaxed mood by contributing to normal psychological functions.
The standard recommended dosage of Neuro Rest is two 200mg capsules, taken orally before bedtime: take 1 capsule of Neuro Rest for the first 4 nights, then increase to 2 capsules on night 5 onwards. This will help get your body familiar with increased levels of 5-HTP slowly and with the natural conversion process of 5-HTP to serotonin for a great sleep foundation.
Visit the Utmost Me Sleep Blog for more articles on everything related to sleep; from bedtime routines to sleep nutrition.