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Stress, Sleep & GABA – what’s the connection?

Stressed, me?

Stress is insidious. Whilst some of us are all too well aware of its effects, others don’t even realise that we are. According to the Great British Bedtime Report 2017 around a third of us experience poor sleep, but how many of us link it to being stressed? Waking in the night and going over the day’s events is a tell-tale sign that stress is impacting our lives. Even if it doesn’t affect your sleep, feeling guilty when relaxing, a constant need for achievement and inability to think clearly are all sure signs your stress levels are higher than they should be, and potentially affecting your health.

More of us are suffering with anxiety than ever before – perhaps as a result of our ever more hectic, modern lifestyles where being busy is seen as a positive thing. Anxiety is stress taken to more distressing levels, and not necessarily in response to anything in particular.

What can I do to lower stress and anxiety levels?

To help stop stress and anxiety in their tracks start by cutting out sugar and caffeine which are known triggers, and use your breath to regain calm. Breathe in for a count of 3, hold the breath for 4, before breathing out slowly for 5.

As well as using your breath to create calm, you can also use exercise. Yoga or T’ai Chi are good to get into the habit of, as is your usual exercise class, run or gym session, but if you feel anxiety or stress creeping up, taking a walk is a fantastic way to reduce your stress hormone levels very quickly.

To encourage feelings of calm try theanine which research shows has great anti-stress and calming effects, or passionflower which is well known as ‘the’ chill out botanical

GABA – helping you keep your cool     

GABA is one of the main inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain whose job it is to calm excited nerve impulses, balancing out the excitatory neurotransmitters, so that we are not permanently on edge. GABA literally makes us feel chilled. As well as acting in our brain, GABA also acts on muscular tone and tightness – helping muscles to feel less tense. Double-chill!

Want to improve your calm rating? GABA can be made from glutamine, but other amino acids including taurine and theanine, and passionflower are also thought to increase levels.

Did you know caffeine negates the effects of GABA? If you want more GABA? Drink less coffee!

And so to sleep…

Coffee drinkers might also want to cut down their intake if they are having trouble sleeping. Caffeine blocks the sensitivity of your brain to the chemical adenosine, which is responsible for amplifying the sleep inducing areas of the brain, reducing your sleep pressure, or the desire to fall asleep. If you have caffeine later in the day, reach for some theanine, the amino acid in green tea which is thought to counteract caffeine's stimulatory effect by increasing good old GABA levels in the brain. Even if we aren’t coffee drinkers (or tea for that matter), by increasing GABA production in the brain we are helping ourselves wind down and be more open to sleep.

Don’t forget though, we are hard-wired to be guided by light to help us get good sleep in line with daylight patterns and our circadian rhythms.

Rising in the morning and going to bed at the same time each day and getting plenty of daylight helps your sleep/wake cycle, which promotes good sleep. Daylight also stimulates serotonin production making us feel happy and relaxed -a sure fire way to encourage good zzzzz’s and feelings of calm.

Need a bit of help sleeping?

  • A review in 2006 found that the pungent smelling herb valerian improves sleep quality. It is thought this is due to increased GABA levels in the brain, which reduce the amount of time taken to fall asleep.
  • 5-HTP is the building block to serotonin and also melatonin, the hormone which naturally makes us feel sleepy in the evening.
  • Magnesium helps increase stress resilience, is needed for the muscle relaxation response, and for winding down – perfect if you find it difficult to get off to sleep or feel the tension rising! Eat plenty of leafy green vegetables and nuts and seeds to help top up your levels.

 

Top tip – loose the light to help get a good nights sleep

Minimise inside light from devices and bright lights in the evening to help you nod off, as research shows that the blue light they emit keeps you alert, making it hard to drop off to sleep. Try turning off all your devices 60-90 minutes before your bedtime. If you find it hard, try to occupy yourself with something like reading a book or take the opportunity to have a soak in the bath – even better if you can do either by candlelight!

 

Corin Sadler Jul 19

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