Can’t Sleep? You’re Not Alone
Two new polls show that since the beginning of the Covid pandemic on March 11, 2020, some of us have had trouble sleeping. There are two main things keeping us awake. We are worried about the state of the world and its impact on us. And our mate in the bed next to us is making sleep hard.
One of the new surveys was a Harris Poll done for Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. The other poll was done by US News and World Report. Between them, Harris and US News and World Report polled 4,041 people. What did they find? That roughly 20% of us are losing sleep. Why? We are concerned with the state of the world. According to the Harris Poll, we are worried about Covid, “political division, and two years of turbulent events.”
The US News and World Report poll is more precise. 41% of us are worried about our own finances and inflation, 38% of us are worried about Covid, 27% of us are upset about gun violence, and 22% of us are concerned about climate change.
A third recent survey from the real estate website Zillow says that if you are forced to move, you are worried about paying the new rent, and that, too keeps you up at night.
But surprisingly, the state of the world and of the rent are not all that’s preventing us from getting a good night’s sleep. 47% of us are wide awake because of our mate’s snoring, 32% of us say that our mate hogs the sheets and blankets, and 29% of us are sleepless because of our mate’s tossing and turning.
On the positive side, 64% of us say we get a good night’s sleep and wake up rested.
But the real culprit gnawing at those who can’t sleep is stress. And stress produces a vicious cycle. When we can’t sleep, our insomnia drives our daytime stress up a notch. Then our daytime stress keeps us from getting sleep at night. And poor sleep at night increases our stress during the day.
But there are two forms of stress, controllable stress and uncontrollable stress.
Controllable stress can be an invigorator. It can be a challenge. Controllable stress provides the jolt of energy you feel when you are playing a game that you feel you have a good chance of winning. Even if that game is at the office and what’s at stake is your career and your future. The key to happiness is your feeling of control, your feeling that you are on top of things.
On the other hand uncontrollable stress, like not being able to pay the rent, does bad things to your body and your brain. According to Ohio State University professor and sleep expert Dr. Aneesa Das, uncontrollable stress produces obesity, diabetes, elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, upset stomach, muscle tensions, and takes years off your life. Yes, uncontrollable stress shortens your life. Why? It floods your system with stress hormones, glucocorticoids.
Stress hormones in short, sharp doses can give you super powers. But in long, slow doses stress hormones are poisons.
Stress hormones are emergency energy boosters. They free the fuel you’ve been storing in your liver . The fuel of glucose. They prepare you for battle. Stress hormones increase your distance vision, shut down your digestive system, and shunt your blood to your brain and to your muscles. So you can think on your feet and act. They prepare you to win. Remember, that’s what stress hormones do in short, sharp doses.
But in long doses, stress hormones are poison. Like a seven-day-a-week diet of nothing but energy drinks, they slowly kill you
To get a sense of the power of stress hormones, look how these hormones act in lizards. Two male anolis lizards go up against each other in a showdown in southern Virginia. The lizard who can get his head up the highest will win the face off. One contestant is the lizard equivalent of confident and care free. The other is the lizard equivalent of worried.
The worried lizard’s stress hormones are on nearly all the time. So when the moment comes to use those stress hormones to fuel his system for the showdown, his ability to skyrocket his stress hormones is exhausted, and the amount of fuel he has in storage is low. Why? He’s been using his emergency stores of glucose while he’s been doing everyday things. He’s been doing the lizard version of worrying. But the confident, unworried lizard produces a short, sharp, awesomely high spike of stress hormones. That spike liberates the fuel of glucose from his liver. Massively. So the unworried lizard, almost always wins.
Then there’s the aftermath of the showdown. The lizard who won is rewarded with the hormones of victory. The hormones of dominance. He turns a vivid green and looks for the tallest projection he can find, a branch sticking out of the ground or a tiny hill. Then he climbs it. And stands on high with pride. He is the master of all he surveys. The loser is pumped full of the hormones of defeat. The hormones of submission. Stress hormones. He turns brown. And he hugs the ground. As if to say I wish I could dig a hole and hide. You can read more about this in my book The Lucifer Principle: a Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History.
There’s a lesson from these lizards. Calm your anxiety when you’re thinking of faraway problems. Save your stress hormones for personal crises.
And if you want to get better sleep, here are the recommendations from experts like the National Academy of Science and from Ohio State University professor Aneesa Das. Set a regular time to go to bed and a regular time to get up. Don’t change these times. Even on the weekends. Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet place. Launder your pillowcases, sheets, and pillows often. Almost a third of the weight of an unwashed pillow is mites and flecks of your skin. Don’t look at your phone or TV. Darkness, say the experts, puts your brain to sleep. Bright light keeps you awake.
I disagree with these recommendation about light. More than 60% of us use our cellphones just before we go to sleep. And 64% of us sleep just fine. But that’s a story for another time.
Robert M. Sapolsky, L. Michael Romero, Allan U. Munck, How Do Glucocorticoids Influence Stress Responses? Integrating Permissive, Suppressive, Stimulatory, and Preparative Actions, Endocrine Reviews, Volume 21, Issue 1, 1 February 2000, Pages 55–89, https://doi.org/10.1210/edrv.21.1.0389 or https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/21/1/55/2423840
Neil Greenberg. “Behavioral Endocrinology of Physiological Stress in a Lizard.” The Journal of Experimental Zoology Supplement. 4, 1990: 170-173.