How Chronic Stress Sabotages Sleep and Saps Your Vigor

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

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Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at or at your favorite library or bookstore.

How Chronic Stress Sabotages Sleep and Saps Your Vigor
Have you ever had the experience of being exhausted during the day and all you can think about is getting some sleep? And then, when your head finally hits the pillow, you’re wide awake! Logically this “dynamic duo” of fatigue plus insomnia (or nighttime restlessness) would seem to be opposites: If you’re so tired, why can’t you fall asleep? However, these conditions are commonly found together in the two-thirds of the North American population who report experiencing chronic stress and who also get inadequate sleep. The common element? You guessed it: disruptions in the body’s biochemical balance. That imbalance is characterized by too much cortisol, too little testosterone, and the cascade of metabolic disruptions that ensue.

In the previous section, I discussed what happens when stress-induced imbalances in cortisol and cytokines precipitate a downward spiral that leads to obesity. By the same token, the combination of fatigue and insomnia also sets off a vicious cycle in which stress makes it hard to relax and to fall asleep—which then leads to more fatigue. And being more fatigued after a sleepless night makes it harder to deal with stressors, which then causes even more difficulty falling asleep the next night…and the next night and the next after that in a repetitive cycle that ultimately ends in burnout.

Now you can begin to see how all these stress-driven disruptions to the hidden biochemistry within your body can have a real impact on your health, sabotaging your sleep and sapping your vigor. But how does biochemical balance fit into this picture? As you’ve learned in this chapter, stress induces a rise in cortisol-exposure levels. And one of the many effects of cortisol is to increase your level of alertness, which means that encountering stressful events in the late afternoon or early evening will cause your body to go “on alert,” much the way a zebra would jump at the sound of an approaching lion. That spike in your alertness then hampers your ability to relax and fall asleep at night. On top of that, if you don’t get to bed at a reasonable hour—early enough to allow a full eight hours of shut-eye—your cortisol metabolism doesn’t get a chance to completely “step through” its normal rhythm pattern. Within this normal pattern, cortisol levels reach their lowest point around 3:00 am. As a result, you may get only five, six, or seven hours of sleep and wake up feeling groggy after having been exposed to higher-than-normal levels of cortisol throughout the night.

Once cortisol hits bottom around 3:00 am, it tends to rise again and normally peaks in the early morning, from about 6:00 am to 8:00 am. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense, because cortisol increases your alertness. So your body’s cortisol levels rise in the early morning as a way to get you moving and prepared to face the challenges of the day. Then, as the morning wears on, between the hours of 8:00 am and 11:00 am, cortisol levels begin to drop and gradually decline throughout the day. That decline in cortisol typically causes you to feel a decrease in your energy level and ability to concentrate sometime around 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Office workers and others often call this the “afternoon slump.” This dip in energy levels is the body’s way of saying, “The day is almost over; better get ready for sleep.” Instead of getting ready for sleep, however, modern lifestyles cause most people to look for ways to boost their energy levels late in the day so they can get through afternoon meetings, soccer practices, piano recitals, business dinners, and time with their families. The average body clock really wants you to eat your last meal of the day around 5:00 pm and to be asleep by 8:00 pm. Unfortunately, wristwatches, television sets, computers, video games, and other electronics often keep you awake late into the night.

In the long run, when you sleep fewer hours than the recommended standard eight hours per night, you can experience annoying side effects, such as headaches, irritability, frequent infections, depression, anxiety, confusion, and generalized mental and physical fatigue. Not only can the lack of sleep leave you feeling lousy and low on vigor, but research shows that even mild sleep deprivation can actually destroy a person’s long-term health and increase the risk of burnout, diabetes, obesity, and breast cancer. In many ways, sleeping fewer than eight hours each night is as bad for overall wellness as gorging on junk food or becoming a couch potato!

On the biochemical level, one of the major problems with the modern “late to bed, early to rise” lifestyle is that your cortisol levels never have enough time to fully dissipate as they are supposed to do during the overnight resting period. As a result, your body never has a chance to fully recover and repair itself from the detrimental effects of chronic stress. That overexposure to cortisol throws a “monkey wrench” into your ability to maintain biochemical balance. And when your biochemical balance is out of whack, it sends your overall metabolism into a downward spiral, accelerating the “breakdown” of tissues and sending your energy, mood, and mental focus into a tailspin, leaving you with low vigor.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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