Allostatic Load: How Stress Affects Sleep
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Stress is a natural response that can help you survive and function in your daily life. Your body has mechanisms in place to experience some stress. But too much stress can have a negative impact.
When you’re stressed, your body enters allostasis, a state that helps it adapt and restore homeostasis, a more balanced state. Too much stress can impair your ability to adjust because, over time, you can build up something called an allostatic load.
What is the allostatic load?
Experiencing high levels of persistent stress comes with consequences. The wear and tear it causes is your allostatic load.
Too high of an allostatic load may happen when you experience:
- Poor quality sleep
- No exercise
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- An unhealthy diet
- Work stress
- Anxiety disorder
- Impactful life events
Your body is constantly responding to its environment. If it’s been under so much constant stress that it has trouble adjusting, you may experience allostatic overload.
Stress vs. allostatic load
There’s a distinct difference between simple stress and allostatic load. Allostatic loads involve two things.
First, you must experience a stressor that’s difficult to manage. In other words, you struggle to cope with stress.
Then, within 6 months, you experience one or more of the below:
- Restless sleep
- Touble falling asleep
- Waking up too early
- Low energy
Also, you may find yourself unable to function socially or at work. Everyday life may feel overwhelming, too.
How does the allostatic load affect sleep?
When you feel stressed out, you may lose sleep. Those feelings of anxiety and depression can lead to tossing and turning.
The hormone cortisol releases in response to stress. It then causes a flight or fight response.
As a result, relaxing the mind for sleep becomes difficult. Sleep disorders such as insomnia may occur, also.
How does the allostatic load affect depression?
A recent study suggests that depression is a disorder of allostasis. It theorizes that since depression affects the whole body, poor allostasis may be to blame for its symptoms.
Symptoms of depression include:
- Loss of sleep
- Changes in weight
These signs suggest that multiple parts of the body are feeling depression’s effects.
How does the allostatic load affect inflammation?
When stressed, your immune system responds to keep you safe. Inflammation is one way it reacts to stress.
Its response might be chronic inflammation. That’s important because long-term inflammation in your blood vessels and tissues may lead to cardiovascular disease.
Naturally, your body may raise your blood pressure briefly to help restore homeostasis. But, over time, persistent high blood pressure requires medical treatment.
How to reduce the allostatic load and stress
Your allostatic load is your body’s response to pressure and tension. You may manage this stress on your own or with help.
Here are some tips and tricks to help.
- Take a break. Give yourself 5 minutes to breathe deeply to promote relaxation. You can also use this time to take a hot bath or listen to your favorite music.
- Move your body. Take a walk, stretch out, or attend an exercise class. When you do an activity you enjoy, stress may fade away.
- Talk to a loved one. Take time to speak with loved ones about your anxiety or simply catch up. Their love and support can help.
- Set a routine. Humans naturally thrive in routines. So, if you feel your life is a bit chaotic, setting a daily routine that includes regular rest, mealtimes, and exercise is therapeutic.
- Speak to a mental health therapist. Speaking with a mental health therapist might help when your stress is unmanageable on your own. They may also provide you with coping mechanisms for stress.
Can good sleep hygiene reduce stress?
Good sleep hygiene may help lower your stress level. A nice night’s sleep could help prepare your mind to respond to tricky situations or even avoid them in the first place.
There are many ways to improve your sleep hygiene. To help, consider these tips:
- Fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day.
- Turn off all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Stick to bedtime routines like reading a book or taking a warm bath each night.
- Prioritize exercising during the day so you can rest well at night.
- Avoid drinking alcohol before bed.
- Ensure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool.
- Try not to eat large meals or drink lots of liquids before bed.
- Don’t take in any caffeine after 3 p.m.
- If you can’t sleep, get up and try something relaxing like meditation until you’re sleepy.
Your allostatic load can have a big effect on your health and well-being. If your body’s working overtime to maintain homeostasis, it may be less and less adept at adapting.
Your health can be negatively impacted if this delicate balance is harder to achieve. For example, stress may lead to poor sleep, chronic health conditions, and depression. Looking to lower your allostatic load? Effectively managing your stress and prioritizing good sleep hygiene can help.
Barrett L, et al. (2016). An active inference theory of allostasis and interoception in depression. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2016.0011
Chand S, et al. (2022). Depression. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430847/
Guidi J, et al. (2021). Allostatic load and its impact on health: A systematic review. https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/510696
Jun J, et al. (2016). Stressful sleep. https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/47/2/366
Maron F, et al. (2018). Hypertension linked to allostatic load: from psychosocial stress to inflammation and mitochondrial dysfunction. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10253890.2018.1542683
Stress. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/howrightnow/emotion/stress/index.html
Thau L, et al. (2021). Physiology, cortisol. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/
How to Change Your Sleep Habits for the Better
It’s totally possible to change your sleep habits. With just a few tweaks to your routine and some patience, you can get on the path to better sleep.