The science of stress and how it’s impacting your deep sleep

Dr. Dave weighs in on the science of sleep and the path to becoming a better sleeper.

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to understand that it’s hard to get a solid night’s sleep right now. On my journey to become a better sleeper myself and through my work as a board-certified psychiatrist with hundreds of patients with sleep issues related to trauma, I’ve found that understanding the way stress impacts our bodies and sleep can be empowering to rethink the frustrating relationship many of us have with sleep.

When we’re sleeping, we’re entering a really deep recovery state where our awareness of our physical surroundings is significantly reduced. We’re least aware of our environment around us and most vulnerable to threat during sleep. This requires our rest-and-digest, or parasympathetic activity to increase, and our fight-or-flight, or sympathetic activity, to drastically decrease, which is signaled by things around us that help us feel safe.  

Today, our modern-day stresses are often not truly a threat to our ability to survive through the night, despite the fact that our bodies perceive an overwhelming inbox the same way as the growling animal outside our den. Our evolutionary response to threats hasn’t adapted. We’re internalizing all threats similarly and our reaction is the same — to stay alert and prepared. Sleep makes us physically vulnerable to threats. We’re programmed to respond this way, so remember it’s not anyone’s fault. With all the chaos going on in the world around us, it’s objectively a tough time to sleep well. That said, this means that it is even more important that we have tools available to us to help us maximize our recovery whenever we can.

The importance of rebalancing our nervous system is a driver that originally led me to develop Apollo. Apollo brings the body back into balance by sending safety signals to our brains through our sense of touch, just like when a loved one giving us a hug on a bad day. It sends positive signals to our brain to remind us that we’re safe enough to drift into sleep (among other things like deep focus, calm, and making us present at the moment). It allows us to take control of our decisions from a standpoint of safety and strength, rather than fear.

But I promise it’s not hopeless. Although many of the stressors today are indeed out of our control, the way we react to the stress is in our control. And there are some low-effort ways to regain control and rebalance our nervous system, ultimately logging a much deeper night of sleep. We have the ability to signal this mind-body connection by practicing techniques that allow us to restore a sense of safety to the nervous system — like breathwork, meditation, gentle yoga, or activating our touch sensors. All of these practices activate our parasympathetic nervous system saying “Hey body, we’re safe.”

Sleep is the single most important thing that we can do to recover from stress. When we get our 6-8 hours of sleep (whatever our sweet spot for a restful sleep is) on a regular basis, we notice that we feel better during the day, get sick less often, have more energy, and are in a better mood. Here are a few helpful tips that I follow strictly to ensure I’m sleeping well:

  • I move every day. A solid sleep starts the moment I wake up. Moving for 30 mins a day lowers my stress levels, improves my focus, boosts my mood, and helps me sleep.
  • Avoiding uppers and downers throughout the day is a big one. Most of us start the day with caffeine and end the day with booze, and it doesn’t always stop there. Alcohol increases inflammation and increases cortisol production which disrupts sleep. I’ve found that wine within two hours of bed knocks my HRV down at least 20 points on average (I use Oura Ring to track).
  • I avoid drinking liquids (except a bit of water) within an hour of bed. 
  • I sleep in a cool room. This is big for me.
  • Limiting screen time and anything overly stimulating in the evening helps me unwind. 
  • A consistent bedtime improves my HRV. Our bodies love routine.
  • Our team at Apollo highlighted their favorite sleep apps and tools that work tenfold when paired with Apollo.

I consistently sleep better with my Apollo. It’s really catalyzed a change in my health – one where I prioritized recovery as much as I did productivity, and what I realized is that I worked smarter, was more efficient, and that I was happier. Here’s how I use Apollo at night:

  • I unwind from the day using Relax and Unwind while I move around getting ready for bed. I like it at 40% intensity for 30 minutes. When I’ve had an especially busy day (which is most days), I use breathwork in conjunction with Relax and Unwind on Apollo. 
  • Once I get in bed, I turn on Sleep and Renew at 60% intensity for 30 or 60 minutes. If I ever wake up in the middle of the night, I just press down both buttons on Apollo once at the same time to get back to sleep fast. 

This year, it’s so important to prioritize our mental health, and finding the key to unlocking deep sleep is an incredible way to boost your well-being. What are the fool-proof sleep tricks that have allowed you to become a better sleeper?

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