Stress & Sleep are Toxic Bed Fellows (Detox? Or Not-To-Tox? Part 4)

Stress kills sleep.  Poor sleep kills health.  And who wants poor health?  Here’s why managing stress and getting restorative sleep is mission critical.

This is Part 4 of the series: ‘Detox? Or Not-To-Tox? In the first three parts we talked about the tedious ritual of ‘detoxing’ and ‘cleansing’ and the longer-term restorative benefits of nutrient-dense, traditional foods.

Read PART 1 here: Part 1: ‘The Detox Treadmill!’

Read PART 2 here: Part 2: ‘Detox De-Bunked!’

Read PART 3 here: Part 3: ‘Nourish Deeply!’

If you haven’t caught the series yet, please have a look – we’ve put together loads of plain speaking on why we get ‘toxic’ and how we ‘detox’.

Now in this article we will be moving onto what some might argue are the most important factors in achieving true robust health – stress and sleep! 

“No matter what diet you follow, how much you exercise and what supplements you take, if you’re not managing your stress you will still be at risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity” (Chris Kresser)

Managing Stress

We need to recognise two things:  1) stress kills and 2) the stress that we are dealing today is a million miles away from that of our fore-fathers’ back in the day (not many of us are chased by bears on the way to work!).

Day-in and day-out we endure:

  • Psychological/emotional stress from lack of purpose; dysfunctional relationships; money worries; unfulfilling jobs; disconnection from family and community
  • Physical/environmental stress from heat/cold; altitude; pollution; the side effects of toxic pharmaceuticals; personal and home care products. The physiology of chronic stress not only promotes and underpins disease, but actually prevents the process healing itself.  And if we do nothing else – we need recognise the truth in the wisdom “we are what we eat” (and digest and absorb) and avoid the foods that stress our body – processed, chemically ‘enriched’ and ‘fake’ foods, vegetable and seed oils and fluoridated, contaminated tap water.

How does ‘stress’ hurt us?

When our body is in a state of chronic ‘stress’ (some acute stress is ok) it’s flooded with catabolic hormones, which breakdown muscle for energy, reduce our thyroid function and slow, or shut down, important metabolic processes.  These hormones also provoke systemic inflammation, which pre-disposes us to developing chronic illness.

We’re not even aware of how hard our body is working to cope chronic stress because it’s all done unconsciously by the complimentary actions of our very smart Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

Our ANS: two ‘complimentary’ systems that FIRE! and FLIP!

The job of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is to ‘fire-up’ and prepare our body to respond to a real – or even a perceived – danger, or ‘stressor’.

The job of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is to ‘flip-the-switch’ when the danger has past, or been dealt with and re-balance the whole system.

Although our conscious brain may be aware of different ‘stressors’: physical, environmental, psychological, emotional; our unconscious brain can only make one response: ‘FIRE up!’

Here’s how the two systems work:

‘FIRE up’: SNS (Sympathetic NS)

When we’re confronted with an actual (or potential) stressful situation (examples above) our SNS fires-up a ‘fight or flight’ mode. This mode triggers a chain of hormonal chemicals,which provoke slew of physiological changes in our body.

Also known as the ‘stress-response’ our body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenalin (epinephrine). Amongst a host of other changes, our blood pressure and heart rate can spike alarmingly, while our digestive system all but shuts down! (It’s not time to be thinking about lunch when you’re running from the bear…)

It’s not difficult to see how, in our crazy-busy life, we’re constantly triggering stress responses, like we’ve put our foot hard on the accelerator peddle and kept it right there!

This is BAD news and make no mistake, it’s because we constantly trigger the stress-response and flood our body with too many hormones which slow or shut down important metabolic processes, that stress plays a significant role in promoting inflammation and pre-disposing us to developing chronic illness.

What’s more – when we also lead a physically inactive lifestyle, we increase our ‘base level’ of sympathetic activity (a bit like having our motor continuously running a little faster than it should) and we increase our risk for heart-related illness.  More bad news.

‘FLIP the switch’: PNS (parasympathetic NS)

But it’s not all bad news: help is at hand from our PNS – our body’s healing and self-repair mechanism. It works to offset the ‘fight-or-flight’ response by ‘flipping’ – to put us into a ‘rest and recovery’ or ‘rest and digest’ mode.

In this mode we can lower our blood pressure and heart rate; lower our breathing rate and increase blood flow; and increase digestion to our kidneys and intestines. All very good.

Also known as the ‘relaxation-response’, this parasympathetic mode helps us to recover and heal from stresses generated by our sympathetic system. It also helps lower our body’s energy usage during everyday resting or normal conditions, to help us to prepare for future stresses caused by ‘fight-or-flight’ reactions. Clever, eh?

But, unless this system is actually switched on – and more and more we need consciously to take steps to make sure it is switched on – our body’s self-repair mechanisms (and crucially, our vital detoxification mechanisms) can’t work properly.  Result?  We get sick!

So what can we do to make sure we’re ‘flipping-the switch’?

We can do a LOT!  But it takes a ‘360-degree’ approach:

  • We can nourish our body … by eating nutrient-dense, easy to digest foods which supply our body with energy.  Despite its current bad press, sugar (you heard right) is an important nutrient and a powerful anti-stress food.  Ripe seasonal and tropical fruits, fresh orange juice (fresh squeezed, or not-from-concentrate) are rich sources of fructose/glucose.  Milk is also a source of sugar in the form of lactose (and raw milk retains the enzyme lactase which helps its proper digestion). Other less-processed natural sugars like honey (if not sensitive), maple syrup, date syrup and molasses are also good sources.  Even refined white sugar can be a therapeutic supplement in the context of a nutrient-dense diet.
  • We can ‘clean up’ our living environment … in important ways like filtering our drinking water;  auditing our personal care products and our home care products for harmful ‘invisible’ toxins; which  And, where possible, using pure therapeutic essential oils instead of chemical and pharmaceutical formulations.
  • We can move our body … by walking, taking regular breaks from desks, stretching, doing yoga; even brief intense exercise can help us to relax once its over as long as it’s not done too frequently or for too long a period.
  • We can quiet our mind …  by meditating, saying mantras, writing lists and journals, practising gratitude, trying out adult colouring books or other hobbies that keep us ‘in the present’.
  • We can ‘re-connect’… invite someone for dinner, join a club or team, ring a friend for a chat or even (shock, horror) meet facebook friends in real life instead of messaging!

Improving your Sleep

Stress and SLEEP are toxic bed-fellows. Without quality sleep our body can’t repair from the daily toils of living, nor can it heal from disorder and disease. Chronic stress disrupts our hormones and sleep physiology making restful, restorative sleep impossible. Surprisingly, we need sufficient energy for quality sleep. If we don’t eat enough energy-rich foods during the day, our body will enter ‘stress mode’ during the night making us restless and we wake up. And because our hormones are disrupted, we can’t get back to sleep. And so it goes on.

So review your sleep habits and check you are doing the basics (for more ideas sign up to our newsletter as we will soon be sending an ebook with 100’s of healthy habits for you to improve your health).

Sleep Audit:

Firstly, what does good sleep look like? We say it should be something like this:

  • You sleep for 7-10 hours (depending on your age and other factors)
  • You do not wake in the night or if you do, you don’t remember and go straight back to sleep
  • You do not need the loo in the night
  • You sleep peacefully and don’t thrash around
  • You wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day!

Read through the following as see how many of these habits you already do and how it relates to your sleep!

The basic habits of good sleep:

  • Are you in bed by 10.00pm and asleep by 11.00pm? (before you go there, no, there are no such things as ‘night-owls’!)
  • Is your bedroom quiet, dark and cool? (think cave)
  • Do you have a bedtime ‘wind-down’ routine – switching off the TV, devices, bright lights and reading or listening to relaxing music for an hour or so before bed? (this is a major one!)

Less obvious habits for good sleep:

  • Do you go outside every morning for 10-15 mins to reset your circadian rhythm (internal light/dark body clock) for the day?
  • Are you eating energy foods (carbohydrates like fruits and root vegetables) throughout the day?
  • Are you taking moderate exercise, like walking during the day?
  • Do you say ‘no’ to alcohol, caffeine, nicotine after early evening?
  • Do you keep a journal or written to do list to get things “out of your head”?
  • Are you eating the “wrong” things too close to bedtime? (crisps, chocolate, heavy meals)
  • Do you sleep with your mobile less than 3 feet from your head?

And one final sleep and stress tip! If you have to wake up for work at a certain time, it’s EXTREMELY stressful to wake up to the buzzing of your alarm, so consider the gentler option of using a dawn simulator alarm clock which can wake you up gently with light (before the loud buzzing noise tells you to move your butt into the shower).

Next time:

I’m excited to have a guest posting the next part of our series:

Move It. Use It.  But Don’t Lose it!  (Detox? Or Not-To-Tox? Part 5)

Al Natrins is a qualified Krav Maga Instructor and Personal Trainer – he’ll be sharing how moving naturally brings big benefits!


Chris Kresser:

Dr Aidy: Comparison of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems

Izabella Natrins

I'm here to inspire and support women at midlife and beyond to re-ignite purpose and meaning to take back control of their health and create the radical, resilient heath they want and deserve. As a whole-health expert with over 30 years experience in the field, a qualified Health and Wellness Coach and Ballymaloe-trained nutritional chef, my real food nutrition and lifestyle medicine programmes support women fighting fatigue, struggling with overwhelm, weight gain, sleep, energy and niggling or multiple diagnosed health issues. As an advocate for real food nutrition, regenerative agriculture and whole-health, my book 'The Real Food Solution' is an evidence-based treasury wisdom for energy, vitality and better health for people and planet and a call to action to change the way we grown, source and cook our food. As the CEO at The UK Health Coaches Association, I'm proud to continue the task of leading the first professional association for Health and Wellness Coaches in the world and the gold standard for the UK and Ireland.

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25 Responses

  1. Fantastic and well written blog post! Lot are of useful hints and tips on other areas of lifestyle and wellbeing that are not just based on food as well as great graphics! I look forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Ceri Jones says:

    This is such a helpful blog. Its so easy to get into bad habits around sleep (mobile phones in bed!), I love the tip about getting outside first thing each morning, going to try and do that!

    • Thank you Ceri. Early morning light (especially if it’s a blue sky) is the most beneficial for resetting our circadian clocks. An early morning walk seems to set me up SO much better than one later in the day and being in Nature is a bonus!

  3. Mark says:

    Loved reading this series so far Izabella, so informative and interesting! I love that you included tips that don’t appear to revolve around sleep such as spending more time outdoors. A lot of people aren’t familiar with the sleep-stress cycle and how different facets of your day all contribute to your sleep. Great post!

    • Yep – isn’t it amazing how we all just take sleep as a ‘given’ – then do as much as we possibly can to disrupt it?! But thanks to the blogosphere and the efforts of groups like UK Health Bloggers, we’re re-learning what our ancestors always knew… and some! Thank you for your encouraging comments Mark!

  4. Jo Romero says:

    Great advice here Izabella! This has come at the perfect time for me, as although I eat well and exercise, I know I need to do more meditation and looking after myself that way. Great tips – love the bit about reconnecting, too – that’s so important! Just started dog walking with a friend once a week and that’s been great!

  5. Donna says:

    An excellent read Izabella, thank you for writing such an informative article. We really do underestimate the effect a bad sleeping pattern can have on us. Most often with our busy lifestyle that is the part we steal most from to make up in other areas when it should be the other way around!

    • Thanks for your feedback Donna! You’re so right… we’re robbing our future health for a little more time for busy-ness! The poor sleep + stress from all sources (physical, emotional, environmental) takes a profound toll on our health.

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