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by Kim Painter
Updated August 19, 2022
Losing sleep through stress and anxiety? You are not tossing and turning alone.
According the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, difficulty sleeping and changes in sleeping patterns are common reactions to stress. And the sleep we are losing could take a toll on our brains, research suggests.
"Sleep loss means mind loss," says John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules. "When you sleep poorly, your mood, memory, creativity and problem-solving capabilities [all] suffer.”
Most of us realize that when we are too tired, we struggle to focus, making it harder to learn new information – meaning that it may not make it into our long-term memory banks. Scientists also believe that when we are asleep, our brains perform key tasks in creating long-term memories.
But that’s not all. Research suggests that toxins in our brains are flushed away during our sleep. A lack of sleep might interrupt that process.
Other health effects of sleep deprivation can include weight gain, hardened brain arteries and a dampened immune system, something no sleepless person wants to hear.
Breaking the sleepless cycle
The problem: Worrying about how sleep might affect your immune system might make it even harder for a stressed-out person to fall asleep.
So, how to break the stressful cycle?
Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and board-certified sleep specialist based in Los Angeles, suggests you start with the basics – all the things known to promote healthy sleep in any circumstance. You should:
If you still can’t get to sleep, you may need to address your stress and anxiety directly.
Breus recommends several relaxation techniques for people suffering from stress-linked insomnia. The easiest to try: deep breathing exercises. Many people, he says, find it helpful to take a series of even, slow breaths, in and out, several times a day or whenever they are feeling anxious or stressed.
Breathe your way to slumber and other techniques
Or you can try a more structured breathing exercise.
One popular method is called 4-7-8 breathing. Here’s how to do it:
In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed …
Breus recommends trying the method just before bedtime. “In a way, you’re mimicking the breathing patterns of sleep onset, and nudging your body and mind toward its all-important period of rest,” he wrote in a blog post at his website, thesleepdoctor.com.
Other stress-reducing techniques that might help you sleep:
• "Sleep problems and risk of all-cause cognitive decline or dementia: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis," Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, December 2019. This review of 51 studies found a link between sleep problems and cognitive disorders. All of the studies included were population studies, however, so cause and effect cannot be determined. Read the full study.
• "Role of sleep deprivation in immune-related disease risk and outcomes," Communications Biology, November 2021. This review of human and animal research found that good-quality sleep helps support proper immune system function. Read the full study.
• "Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance From the Adult Brain," Science, October 2013. In this animal study, researchers found that during sleep, the brains of mice can remove accumulated neurotoxic waste products. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)