Getting crappy sleep doesn’t just make you feel, well, sleepy. Chronic sleep deprivation can harm your health and well-being in several ways. But first, let me tell you about the couple of weeks from hell I just had. Well, not literally hell, like what’s going on in the Middle East right now. But, as the woke saying goes, “It’s my lived experience.” So what went down? Besides being worked to the bone, I had to take care of my four kids while Preston (my husband) was putting out work fires himself. I’ll spare you all the mundane details. Suffice it to say, though, it was a very stressful time for me. I don’t know about you, but when my mind and body feel like a 5-alarm fire bell going off every moment of the day, my sleep quality goes down the toilet. 

In a perfect world, when we have chronic stress, we would channel (manage) the stress in a healthy way such as:

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Mindful breathing 
  • Affirmations
  • Spending time in nature 
  • Gardening
  • Journaling
  • Bowling or whatever floats your boat and brings you calmness

When we’re faced with chronic stress, we also should focus on getting more sleep. However, many of us — and I’m guilty as charged — focus merely on surviving instead of thriving. Yes, it’s challenging to feel like you’re thriving. Especially when you have huge crosses to bear. Like cooking for the family and getting lunches ready for tomorrow when all you really want to do is take a bath, lock the door, and escape from reality for even an hour. (Baths are really awesome for stress management, by the way, says this research study.) 

The Chicken vs Egg of Poor Sleep

As a Nurse Practitioner, I continue to observe how sleep-deprived many of the patients I treat are. And it’s not just because they are dealing with an acute injury. When talking to my patients or assessing their intake forms in my functional medicine practice—which doesn’t merely treat symptoms, it finds the underlying root causes and resolves them—I find out that getting poor sleep, like stress, is a chronic problem. For years and years, some of my patients only managed to get a few or a handful of hours of decent sleep a night. And unless you’re the rare person that can get away with that little sleep, that ain’t enough.

Are my patients and millions of other Americans (and me when I’m in stressed-out mode) stressed out because they’re not getting enough sleep? Or is it the other way around? Does poor sleep cause chronic stress? This chicken vs egg scenario depends on each person. For some people, poor sleep only occurs when there is a stressful situation like a job layoff, a bad fight with the spouse, etc. Yet, some people can sleep like a baby even when the sh*t hits the fan. 

No matter if you’re suffering from poor sleep once in a blue moon or chronically, one thing is for certain… Restful sleep is critical for every facet of your health and well-being. 

Sleep: The Ultimate Stress Management & Wellness Makeover Tool

For some people, the connection between sleep quality and health is no revelation. But a surprisingly large number of people still don’t realize how interconnected sleep quality and overall health are. Obviously, if you get a bad night’s sleep (or several in a row), you’re going to feel like you’re dragging through the day. However, beyond feeling lethargic (and hoping 3 cups of coffee will bring you back to life), here’s a quick overview of how sleep affects your health and wellness:

  • Impaired Cognitive Function – memory, attention and decision making all suffer, says this research study titled “The Sleep-Deprived Human Brain.”
  • Weakened Immune SystemResearch shows that sleep deprivation alters the structure of DNA inside the immune stem cells that produce white blood cells, which are immune cells. “This can have a long-lasting impact on inflammation and contribute to inflammatory diseases.”
  • Higher Risk of Heart Disease – There are several reasons why sleep deprivation increases the chances of cardiovascular problems. Here are a few: Inflammation, higher blood pressure, stress hormone imbalance, and increased heart rate. 
  • Weight Gain – When you’re wide awake at 2 a.m., what else are you gonna do besides raid the fridge and comfort yourself? Physiologically, a chronic lack of sleep disrupts hunger hormone signaling.
  • Mood Dysregulation – Something I’m all too familiar with, a lack of sleep makes you feel crappy. Not just energetically crappy but emotionally. Chronic poor sleep can lead to anxiety and depression, studies show.
  • Poor Blood Sugar Management – Because of your hunger hormones get out of whack, your blood sugar levels could become chronically elevated. This increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Hormonal Imbalance – Ladies: it’s not just the monthly cycle or menopause we have to worry about. Sleep deprivation is also like a bull in a china shop when it comes to our hormone levels. This really screws up lean-muscle-producing hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.

I could go on and on about how sleep deprivation affects your overall well-being. But hopefully, by now, you get the picture. 

The question now becomes, if you have trouble sleeping off stress, what can you do about it? 

Sleep Solutions For Chronic Stress

So what can you do if sleep eludes you? Especially when chronic stress strikes. Under extreme stress, your level of cortisol (a stress hormone) is off the charts. The good news is that for many people, this will lead to eventual exhaustion and sleep. But for some people, that day never comes. 

For starters, if you are suffering from anxiety or depression and haven’t yet sought help, medication may be the solution. Even as somebody who tries to tackle health problems naturally and holistically, I will be the first to recommend an SSRI if natural supplements such as melatonin, vitamin B1, L-theanine, 5-HTP, Valerian root, chamomile and magnesium don’t yield results.

Or maybe an actual sleep medication like Trazadone may help. 

If you like to tackle health problems naturally first before trying pharmaceuticals, perhaps one or more of these dietary supplements will help. Everybody is so biochemically unique that there should be no one-size-fits-all solutions. 

In addition to medication or dietary supplements, have you tried any of the following? 

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – This study says it’s an effective and underused treatment for insomnia!
  • Stress management techniques like the ones I discussed above as well as writing down daily “Brain Dumps.” (Contact me for more info on that. It works really well!) 
  • Sleep hygiene: make the room totally dark and cool; get in bed by 10 every night because cortisol levels start to rise again by about 10:30; and no screen time at least one hour before bed.
  • Limit naps to power/cat naps no later than early afternoon.
  • Expose your eyes to natural light first thing in the morning and during sunset.
  • Use a sound machine or app to drown out external noises.

I’m not a sleep doctor, but I am a Nurse Practitioner and Functional Medicine Practitioner. If you need help reclaiming your health and improving sleep quality, let’s talk!

Until next time, 

Jenna Witt, NP