Stress & Sleep

We all remember some pleasant mornings having the feeling of a good night sleep. For some of us this is a routine, for others less lucky, this might be an exception than a rule. No big surprise, stress has often something to do with that, for example it is common to experience insomnia before an exam or our wedding, even if some stressed people still can sleep well (or at least what they believe to).

So, it is common sense that being stressed could eventually lead to a poor sleep, but what does really happens in our brains? Without entering into complex scientific details, it is important to understand the basics of this mechanism in order to take better actions.

The stress — poor sleep vicious circle

The stress is a complex process that will spike your cortisol levels (the main ‘stress hormone’) secreted by your adrenal glands. Together with cortisol, some other hormones and brain neurotransmitters (like serotonin, adrenaline etc.) are involved in this fight or flight reaction which put our body into an alert state. The cortisol has a circadian rhythm of secretion, with a pick in the morning, then decreasing progressively during the day, with the lowest levels during the evening (our body is preparing us for sleep and might want us in a “relaxing” mode).

Moreover, the melatonin (the ‘sleep hormone’ and the main regulator of our circadian clock) is secreted during the night when the cortisol level is low, thus if the cortisol levels is too high during the night will impair the melatonin secretion.

Elevated glucocorticoids levels (cortisol and other similar molecules) will also disrupt the serotonin metabolism which will have as consequence not only a lower mood or irritability/nervousness but also waking up at 4am in the morning, without having energy refueled and/or cravings for sweet foods.

On the other hand, sleep allows us to restore our energy but will also help us coping with stress. Therefore, after a white night or a short night sleep, we not only feel tired and exhausted, but we can also feel anxious, nervous or having switch moods and sugar cravings.

In the long term, similarly as stress is the root for many disease, the sleep deprivation seems to increase the risk for diseases like depression, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, memory loss/impaired cognition and even cancer- it is shown by several studies done on shift workers such nurses, doctors, firefighters etc.

So, a vicious circle is installed and usually is difficult to say which is the egg and the chicken, since stress can lead to sleep problems which in return will exacerbate a stress status (and vice versa).

Here are some basic recommendations:

  • meditation or other relaxation technique (breathing exercise etc)
  • cooling your room temperature (ideally between 19–21C)
  • avoid exercise 2 hours before going to bed
  • avoid alcohol in the evening and other excitants like caffeine, black tea, dark chocolate etc.
  • avoid light exposure before sleeping and sleep into a dark room (melatonin needs darkness in the evening/night and natural night exposure during the day)

But as we are all unique, you can tests your hormones and molecules involved in stress and sleep — you can either see this with your doctor or check with Akesio. This will help to have personalised health program, with a data-driven approach for your sleeping problem. Most of the hormonal imbalances involved in sleep and/or stress are not a fatality and with some simple but targeted trick & tips, you can get very satisfying results.

Sleep well and enjoy your summer!



Medical Doctor, CEO & co-founder of Akesio