A bad night's sleep 'can raise stress levels by a third'

Feeling stressed out? Go to bed.

Just one bad night’s sleep can increase stress levels and feelings of anxiety by a third, suggests new research – so you really will benefit mentally by giving that snooze another go.

The study, from the University of California, Berkeley, found that poor sleep shuts down the area of grey matter called the medial prefrontal cortex, which keeps anxiety in check.

Deep sleep, meanwhile, soothes worries. Brainwaves become highly synchronised and heart rates and blood pressure drop, allowing your mind to ‘work through’ any stress and worries.

Author Professor Matthew Walker said: ‘We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganising connections in the brain.

‘Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiety inhibitor, so long as we get it each and every night.’

The study involved scanning the brains of 18 young adults as they viewed videos designed to trigger emotions, after a full night’s sleep and after a night spent tossing and turning.

After watching the videos, stress levels were assessed through a questionnaire called the state-trait anxiety inventory. Researchers found that after a night of little sleep, X-rays showed that the stress-reducing medial prefrontal cortex had stopped activity, while the brain’s emotional centres were overactive.

Essentially this means that when we’re tired, we’re reacting emotionally without being able to process and reduce our negative feelings.

Or as Professor Walker puts it: ‘Without sleep, it is almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake.’

The study, which was then replicated among people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, found that after a full night’s sleep people’s anxiety levels significantly declined, especially so in those who experienced more slow-wave NREM sleep.

An accompanying online study tracked 280 people to see how both their sleep and anxiety levels changed over the course of four days.

The amount and quality of sleep they got from one night to the next predicted their stress levels the next day. Even subtle changes in snoozing made a difference.

All this is great news if you consider that sleep is a free remedy to your worries, but not-so-great news when you realise that Britain is one of the most sleep-deprived nations in the world.

Six easy ways to improve your sleep:

  • Give yourself a bedtime – and stick to it even at the weekends
  • Use the hour before bed as quiet, relaxing time free of technology
  • Stop drinking caffeine from around 4pm
  • Avoid alcohol before bed
  • Keep your phone on silent and away from your bed
  • Get outside and exercise during the day

In short: We really need to sort out our sleep so we can all be less stressed out and miserable.

Lead author Dr Eti Ben Simon, of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley, said: ‘Our study strongly suggests insufficient sleep amplifies levels of anxiety and, conversely, that deep sleep helps reduce such stress.

‘People with anxiety disorders routinely report having disturbed sleep, but rarely is sleep improvement considered as a clinical recommendation for lowering anxiety.

‘Our study not only establishes a causal connection between sleep and anxiety, but it identifies the kind of deep NREM sleep we need to calm the overanxious brain.’

Matthew Walker adds: ‘The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night of sleep.’

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