Unmask the sleep-stress connection
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One night of lousy z's, just one night, is all it takes for your stress level to go through the roof, scientists are discovering. "The quality of your shut-eye plays a crucial role in the way you cope with stress," says Jennifer Martin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at UCLA. "Lack of sleep affects the brain's ability to regulate your emotional response to events," she says. More specifically, after that single bout of tossing and turning, the areas of the brain that are involved in processing emotions become so hypersensitive that your reaction to something stressful may rocket out of proportion, according to studies from University of California, Berkeley—meaning you freak out for no reason.
It doesn't end there, because the extra stress makes sleep even more elusive the following night. "Your cortisol levels are elevated and your heart is pumping faster—two things that keep you awake and impair the quality of your rest once you do drift off," Martin says. In fact, research shows that people who slept just four hours one night had higher levels of cortisol the next night, making it hard for them to get back on track.
It's a classic catch-22: You need sleep to de-stress but are too frazzled to turn in, and the lack of rest makes you even more tense. Break free of the draining cycle with the latest research and expert advice.
Work out at night–it's fine
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Traditionally, it was believed that exercising too close to bedtime would hype you up, making it harder to nod off. That's not necessarily true, says Kelly G. Baron, Ph.D., a sleep expert and an assistant professor in behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "If it's best for you to work out in the evening, don't skip it just because of the time," Baron says. "It doesn't disrupt sleep as much as we once thought." Plus, research shows that people who go to the gym regularly sleep better than those who don't. "Exercise is so great for sleep that it's better to work out late in the day than not at all," Baron says. (Here are 9 reasons you may want to start working out in the dark.)
Get your minerals
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Over half of adults in the U.S. don't get enough magnesium in their diets, according to USDA research. That shortfall could create a deficiency and lead to anxiety and insomnia. The mineral plays an important role in the function of the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the body's main stress-response system; when your levels are low, the axis becomes more sensitive and you have a higher risk of becoming anxious and having sleep disturbances. (And it's one of these five minerals that seriously supercharge your workouts.) To stay on an even keel, eat magnesium-rich foods throughout the day to hit the recommended daily target of 310 to 320 mg for women. Try almonds (an ounce has 77 mg), spinach (a cup of boiled spinach has 157 mg), soy milk (61 mg a cup), and black beans (1⁄2 cup of cooked beans contains 60 mg). Before bed, snack on an ounce of almonds and an ounce or two of chocolate (up to 41 mg of magnesium) to help make you sleepy.
Eat foods with prebiotics
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Raw garlic, leeks, and onions are packed with prebiotics, a type of fiber that improves your gastrointestinal health and affects brain function in such a way that it becomes easier for you to let go of stress, researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. (Related: Why your probiotic needs a prebiotic partner.) They found that prebiotics help induce deep, restorative sleep after periods of intense anxiety. The special fiber also protects the body from some of the damage stress can cause, says Monika Fleshner, Ph.D., one of the study's authors. Other good sources of prebiotics include raw jicama, dandelion greens, asparagus, and chicory root; the fiber can be found in supplements too.
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Thanks to the popularity of activity trackers, people are becoming obsessed with getting the perfect night's sleep, a condition that's sometimes known as orthosomnia, according to a study at Rush University Medical School. Trouble is, "sleep is one of those things where the more you try to do it, the harder it gets," says Baron, the study's lead researcher. Putting pressure on yourself to wake up to a superlative reading on your tracker can create a level of anxiety that winds up keeping you awake, she says. Instead, whenever you can, "try to arrange your schedule so you can spend about eight hours in bed every night, which should wind up giving you around seven hours of actual sleep," Baron says. It's fine to use a tracker to get a general sense of how many hours you're logging a night, but remember that most devices give only an estimate at best. You may also want to take a break from it after a superstressful day to avoid subconsciously sabotaging your shut-eye.
Don't force it
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Going to bed earlier isn't always better. In fact, turning in too prematurely can be another way of unproductively stressing out about your snooze time, Martin says. "Trying to fall asleep is a great way to give yourself insomnia," she says.
There's no one bedtime—or sleep ritual—that works for everyone. Some of us love slipping between the sheets earlier; others would rather stay on the couch until their eyelids droop. Both ways are fine, as long as you start doing something restful—reading a book, watching something chill on Netflix (with the screen dimmed to minimize your exposure to blue light, which can disrupt your z's)— about 30 minutes before you want to be asleep. If you're not drowsy in that time frame, though, don't get anxious. The more relaxed you are, the easier it'll be to eventually drift off.