Chronic Stress And Lack Of Sleep Is Probably Literally Killing You

original artwork by Mariah Aro Sharp

A bipolar, body-positive bread enthusiast with a jacked-up ankle and a history of disordered eating chronicles health, weight-loss, and gardening. No diets allowed. 


Sleep: There are roughly 318.9 million people in America, and 30% of them aren’t getting enough of it. That means roughly 95 million of those 318.9 million people aren’t sleeping as much sleep as they should. (Should, I realize is a relative term, but we’re going to give science the benefit of the doubt here.) We should get 7-9 hours a night. We get about 6.8.

In contrast to the average regular old person, the average new mother gets about 5.1 hours per night. In the first year of her infant’s life, a mother will LOSE 44 days of sleep. Forty-four, people. Forty-four. It’s no wonder that every time we ask our friend how they are doing, the answer is almost always “tired” or “busy” (where busy is basically code for tired). Most of you (based on an educated guess) are mothers. Most of you aren’t sleeping enough — even if your baby isn’t a newborn, it may still be waking you up by kicking you in the head.

As for me, I have spent 10.5 of the last 12 years exhausted (except for that manic phase where I didn’t perceive the exhaustion my body was experiencing). For two years straight my “sleep” consisted of two or three hours in the middle of the day before a night shift, with a couple of days of the week being five or six hours. For 5.75 of the last 6.5 years, I’ve slept so little that I stopped keeping track for fear that the information alone would kill me.

Why does this matter?

Cortisol is why it matters.

Sadly, cortisol can’t distinguish between saber-tooth-tiger-level danger and OMG-WHY-WON’T-THESE-KIDS STOP-CRYING-I-AM-LOSING-MY-MIND danger. Both situations activate the same sugar dumping mechanism. We just aren’t that evolved yet. Stress = stress. Cortisol don’t give a damn.

What is cortisol?

Good question. I was hoping you’d ask so that I didn’t look like an ass when I explain it.

Cortisol is a hormone. Hormones are teeny chemical messengers that basically tell your body what to do, and when. Ovulate now. Sleep now. Eat now. FREAK OUT NOW.

Cortisol is secreted by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex within the adrenal gland. Blah blah science anatomy. It’s dumped into your blood in response to stress and/or low blood glucose levels. Cortisol is the hormone that is like RUN FOR YOUR LIFE BECAUSE HERE COMES A SABER-TOOTH TIGER. Only there aren’t very many saber-tooth tigers around anymore. So now cortisol just floods your body during times of regular old stress.

To divert all your resources to the task of literally running for your life (or getting puked on by a three-year-old), cortisol gets the gluconeogenesis party started, which is just a fancy science way of saying, gives you energy. In the process of keeping you from dying at the hands/jaws of a prehistoric animal, it speeds up your heart and respiratory rate and slows down digestion.

What does this mean?

Well, we have cortisol to thank for being alive. Thanks, cortisol! You're cool!

Sadly, cortisol can’t distinguish between saber-tooth-tiger-level danger and OMG-WHY-WON’T-THESE-KIDS STOP-CRYING-I-AM-LOSING-MY-MIND danger. Both situations activate the same sugar dumping mechanism. We just aren’t that evolved yet. Stress = stress. Cortisol doesn't give a damn.

And what about stress? Seventy-seven percent of people report experiencing regular symptoms of stress. These include difficulty sleeping (ahem), change in sex drive (now that’s just not cool), upset stomach, muscle tension, fatigue (because hello, your body is worn out from all the keeping you alive). And here’s the real bitch of it, because every time our body experiences stress cortisol dumps the sugar (ostensibly to help a sister out), and because we are so frequently experiencing stress, we have cortisol to thank for a bunch of other shit that we aren’t really thankful for.

The not-thankful things include high blood sugar, high blood pressure, insomnia, decreased digestive function (constipation, super duper fun), decreased immune response, SURPRISE hypothyroidism, and, yep, weight gain.

NOT COOL, CORTISOL. FRIEND-BREAK.

How does this happen?

Well, your body needs all that blessed glucose to save your life, it does NOT need all that blessed glucose for you to get into a political debate with your conservative father on Facebook.

After your body spends a few hours/days/weeks/YEARS thinking it’s running for cover, even if your dad is just pissing you off, it starts to get tired. All that cortisol dumps all that glucose, and all that glucose stimulates all the insulin production which makes your pancreas tired, which eventually makes you tired.

The nonscience-y name for this is adrenal fatigue. The science-y recognized syndrome is adrenal insufficiency. Both of those things mean, damn gurl, you’re tired. I could go all physiology on you, but I think you probably get the point:

Stress = too much cortisol = things that are epically bad for you.

Here’s what that looks like:

It’s not good.

To make matters even worse (I KNOW), sleep and the circadian rhythm keep cortisol in check. And when we don’t sleep? Yep. You guessed it. Cortisol rises.

TL;DR

Cortisol is useful for escaping grave danger and not so good for regulating the regular old everyday stress we experience as a result of our kids, our job, our finances, and (not my) “president” Trump.

When I started BB&A, sleep was not a priority. Fluid (that was not coffee) was not a priority. Stress-reduction was not a priority. The consumption of foods that give me valuable energy and don’t make me feel like trash, also not a priority.

Sleep, water, and meditation are the three most significant things I’ve done for myself in the last eight-ish months. In fact, they are probably the three most significant things I’ve done for myself in my LIFE. And yep, they are probably also the three most significant things you can do for yourself too.

I don’t know what my cortisol levels are, but I know, without a doubt, that they are not what they used to be. I am sleeping more. I am feeling better. I am still stressed, and I’m working on that. But I think I’ve begun to send my body the signal that we are not in saber-tooth-level danger every time I get a protracted piece of hate mail.  

Here’s a fancy infographic on stress and cortisol and what you can do to shut it up:

Share at will.

Maybe print it out and stick it on your laptop/your mirror/your forehead.



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