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Too stressed to sleep? Tips to help you sleep better

By Jeanne Van Zyl for CNM (College of Naturopathic Medicine).

too stressed to sleep image

A combination of chronic stress and disrupted sleep can be harmful not only to your emotional well-being but also to your physical health, especially if it continues over an extended period of time.

Stress is often the primary cause of sleep deprivation.  Conversely, sleep disturbance places a great demand on the system as a whole, and thereby reduces our physiological and mental capacity to cope with daily stress.

An integrative approach requires stress management strategies combined with sleep promoting strategies, to ensure that both concerns are addressed and mitigated. Suggested strategies are:

  • Avoid stimulants close to bedtime: Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are mental stimulants and may disrupt the normal sleep cycle. Try to avoid stimulants for at least 6 hours before bedtime.
  • Physical activity: Regular exercise promotes a healthy circadian rhythm, reduces the stress response, increases mood-enhancing hormones and enhances cognitive function. High intensity exercise is best in the mornings, whereas relaxing exercises can put your mind at ease at night.
  • Sunshine: Daily exposure to natural daylight is essential for the production of serotonin (the ‘happy hormone’), which is the pre-cursor hormone for melatonin (the ‘sleep hormone’). When the levels of these hormones are inadequate an individual might struggle to cope with stress (low serotonin) and also struggle to fall asleep and remain asleep (melatonin). Even a ten minute exposure to direct sunlight can significantly increase serotonin and melatonin levels. Avoid bright screens (computer screen, television, etc.) and artificial lights at least an hour before retiring to bed, as this might reduce the production of melatonin. Dim the lights in your house at night to create a relaxing atmosphere.
  • Release your concerns: Before retiring to bed, write down the current relentless concerns that prevents your brain from switching off, and allow yourself to deal with them tomorrow, with fresh mental energy.
  • Deep breathing: 5 minutes of deep breathing before retiring to bed can significantly calm the nervous system.  Try:  4 seconds inhaling through the nose, hold the breath for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds through the mouth.
  • Comfort: Aches and pains may be due to an uncomfortable mattress. Exchanging it for a more comfortable mattress may be a long term investment in your sleep and health.
  • Herbs: Some popular examples of herbs that have been shown to promote sleep, include Valerian root, Passionflower, Avena sativa (which is also found naturally in whole rolled oats) and hops. See a Natural Health Practitioner who can recommend a suitable herbal remedy.
  • Dietary guidelines: Go for nutrient-dense meals, including protein, fibre, and healthy fats to provide sustainable energy, suppress appetite and regulate blood sugar levels throughout the day. Eating a heavy meal after 7pm at night will activate digestive processes and possibly disturb the circadian rhythm. If you’re hungry later on, eat a sliced banana with a nut butter spread (which promotes melatonin production and stabilises blood sugar levels) and add a soothing herbal tea (chamomile, chai or lemon balm tea).
  • Magnesium: Waking up during the night may indicate a magnesium deficiency, so include lots of leafy greens in your diet. If necessary, consider a high quality magnesium supplement.
  • Stop trying so hard: Allow sleep to overtake you and embrace the joy of entering into a recuperating night’s rest!


Jeanne Van Zyl  lectures in Nutrition for CNM (College of Naturopathic Medicine). To find out about CNM training in a range of natural therapies visit  www.naturopathy-uk.com

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