Stress and Sleep Support During Stay-in-Place
By Aidanne MacDonald-Milewski, ND • April 29, 2020
Stress tends to carry a lot of weight both physically and emotionally. It’s a necessity that challenges us all to grow in life but can become problematic when it’s either all-consuming or we aren’t able to process it properly.
Life in general is stressful, especially now that each of us is forced to process changes to our routine due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Stress can manifest in many ways, but in order to manage it properly, it helps to have a solid understanding of what happens in the body as it responds to stressful events.
Cortisol is a hormone expressed from the adrenal glands in times of stress or fear. In someone with low levels of stress, cortisol is highest in the morning to wake you up and get you going, and gradually tapers throughout the rest of the day. When elevated, cortisol raises blood pressure, raises blood glucose levels, increases heart rate, and promotes a “fight or flight” feeling or jitteriness. With regards to the nervous system, this is referred to as being in a highly sympathetic state. When this happens, your body is not receiving signals to digest, sleep, think or fight off infection well.
High cortisol itself has been shown to inhibit your own internal melatonin production, which promotes restless and poor-quality sleep. Poor sleep, poor digestion, and elevated cortisol can all lead to reduced immunity.
The good news is there’s a lot that can be done to lower cortisol levels!
Mindfulness & Relaxing the Whole System
Mindfulness is a practice that brings awareness to the present moment. This includes being aware of both internal and external stimuli at any point in time. It is not the same as meditation, although meditation is a form of mindfulness that focuses on mental clarity. The literature consistently shows that those who practice some form of mindfulness have lower sympathetic nervous system activity and thus lower cortisol levels than those who do not.
The task of remaining calm in our current state of affairs may seem to induce stress on its own. By practicing different mindfulness techniques, however, you should be able to ultimately find a coping strategy that brings you both joy and peace. The key is to find the proper technique. For some that is yoga, for others it’s a quiet body scan. Whichever form you choose, take 5-30 minutes out of your day to take time for yourself
If you’re completely new to mindfulness, here are some resources to get you started!
Calm App – this app is a meditation app that’s useful for promoting a sense of calm before sleep!
Stop, Breathe & Think App – this app is great for mindfulness and checking in with how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally in your busy day
Thought Journaling – find a pen & paper and simply write, without judgement or filters, what you’re feeling. Then allow time to make a connection between your written word and how you feel physically. I’ve found this to be a powerful tool in connecting the mind and body for those who find it hard to sit still with their thoughts.
Yoga with Adriene – She has wonderful at home videos that you can access on YouTube suited for anyone from beginners to proficient yogis. These sessions last anywhere from 10-50 minutes! Click here for a practice specific for relieving anxiety.
Mindfulness is a big piece of the relaxation puzzle but sometimes additional support is needed to help the body relax physically.
L-Theanine is one of the main amino acids found in green tea that acts as a non-drowsy relaxant. It has been shown to take us from our “awake and agitated” beta-brain wave state and increase alpha-brain wave activity which is the “awake but resting” state we are in when we’re calm.
Magnesium is a nutrient that not only helps relieve muscle tension but also calms the nervous system.
Adaptogens are botanical medicines that help the body physically “adapt” to stress. We can’t always manage our daily stress but we can help in guiding the body through it. My favorite adaptogenic herbs to balance cortisol include Ashwaghanda (Withania somnifera), Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). All three are roots that can either be steeped into a tea or found in capsule form. Ashwaghanda is a grounding adaptogen and particularly useful in those who feel jittery or who have a coexisting thyroid condition. Eleuthero is warming and supports the effect of other adaptogens it’s paired with. Rhodiola is uplifting without being over stimulating, and is useful in those who feel depleted. Please consult your Naturopathic Doctor if you believe any one of these would benefit you.
Phosphorylated serine (Seriphos) is another adaptogen that is actually an amino acid rather than an herb. It acts especially well at night to lower elevated cortisol and support quality sleep. It has also been shown to support neuronal plasticity meaning it may have beneficial effects on memory as well. If you’re interested, be sure to consult your Naturopathic Doctor for an appropriate dose of Seriphos for you!
We all have a routine that has recently been disrupted. Often, the first things to be disrupted with change in routine include the diet, exercise and sleep.
With regards to the diet, high sugar intake specifically acts to raise cortisol levels. Sugar also acts to suppress the immune system. If possible, avoid overeating foods high in carbohydrates and instead replace these foods with crunchy, vegetable-based snacks such as green beans, carrots, celery, kale chips, etc.
On the flip side, carbohydrate intake that is too low can also raise cortisol short term. Therefore, when you do choose a carb, ensure it comes from a whole food source such as quinoa, rice, millet, couscous, amaranth, teff or other whole grains.
Please see this link if you’re interested in either general or immune boosting snack & meal ideas!
Sleep is another lifestyle factor that is strongly dependent on consistent routine. Snoozing may seem tempting when you don’t have to report to the office for work but this can disrupt your daily cortisol curve. What I’ve found to help me when I struggle with routine related sleep changes is to ensure that I go to bed and wake up at the same time daily. I push myself to wake up with my alarm and have a large glass of water before starting in on my day. It may take a few days to a week for your body to adjust, but it will eventually and will be worth all the effort for a good night’s sleep.
Also, be sure to eat at the same time as you would normally throughout the day and adequately hydrate! Stop using any screens one hour prior to sleep, as the blue light (even with a filter on) can suppress your own melatonin production. Make sure that your sleeping area is clean and that exposure to light is minimal.
Through any difficult time, it’s important to remember and lean on the support systems you have if needed. We are happy to continue filling that role at Lakeside Natural Medicine and are here to support and empower you during this challenging time. Stay healthy and take this opportunity to focus on what you need in order to find a place of calm and peace through the external chaos.
 Pascoe MC, Thompson DR, Ski CF. Yoga, mindfulness-based stress reduction and stress-related physiological measures: A meta-analysis. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2017;86:152-168.
 White DJ, De klerk S, Woods W, Gondalia S, Noonan C, Scholey AB. Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an L-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(1)
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.