Young man lying in bed while reading and experiencing reduced stress

How does sleep reduce stress?

Medically reviewed on November 22, 2022 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Table of contents

We’ve all likely experienced gnawing stress at night—tossing and turning after an argument or worrying about a looming deadline. But the sleeping hours are no place for stress. In addition to making it difficult to fall asleep, stress may weaken the immune system and increase cortisol levels, which can lead to weight gain and low moods.

That said, the relationship between sleep and stress is negatively correlated: While increased feelings of stress can reduce sleep, sleep can also reduce stress.

How does sleep reduce stress? It’s a complex relationship, but it’s been shown that healthy sleep can improve your mood, help you recover from stress faster, and support your general well-being [1].

Understanding the relationship between sleep and stress hormones

According to the National Sleep Foundation, stress and sleep are closely connected [2]. When we don't get enough sleep, our bodies go into "fight or flight" mode, which means that the body releases stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. Can stress make you sick? If sleep deprivation and overproduction of stress hormones continue, you’ll feel the effects of chronic stress.

Chronic stress can lead to a wide range of health concerns, including:

  • Suppressed immune function [3]
  • Inflammation [3]
  • Weight gain [4]
  • Irritability, depression, panic, and anxiety disorders [5]
  • Cardiovascular damage [6]
  • Chronic digestive conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) [7]

When you're struggling to get enough restful sleep, it's important to seek solutions and address the issue before it begins to impact your health in other ways.

The sleep-stress cycle

There are a number of ways daily stress can ruin a good night’s sleep. You might find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. You might wake up frequently and have too little deep sleep. Or you may wake too early and be unable to go back to sleep. Over time, a pattern of disrupted sleep can lead to insomnia (chronic difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep) or some other type of sleep problem.

It’s common to experience occasional insomnia for short periods, like a few days or weeks. But when difficulty sleeping continues for a month or more, it’s considered chronic insomnia, and it can become a persistent disorder [8].

The cumulative effects of insomnia can cause further stress-inducing symptoms, such as anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. In turn, individuals experiencing insomnia may also experience problems at work or home, perpetuating the cycle of stress and poor sleep [9].

Other health effects of poor sleep

The impact of sleep loss extends beyond elevated stress hormones. When we sleep badly, our brains don’t spend enough time in REM and deep sleep, which play a role in emotional processing and regulating body functions, respectively [10].

As such, poor sleep quality can affect the body greatly, leading to [11]:

  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Memory problems and lack of focus
  • Irritability

If that list looks familiar, you’re right—sleep loss itself causes many of the same problems that stress does. It’s another way that stress and poor sleep reinforce each other and feed into an unhealthy cycle.

Health benefits of quality sleep

As we’ve learned, stress and sleep reinforce one another. Fortunately, at least one study has found that improved sleep quality can positively affect your health and, subsequently, your daily stress levels [12].

Here are just a few of the benefits you can look forward to when you improve your nightly rest:

  • Better emotional regulation – When you get a good night’s rest, your body naturally reduces the levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. Well-rested people have been shown to stay calmer and react less strongly to negative situations the day after a good night’s sleep [11].
  • Improved recovery and repair – When we sleep, our bodies have a chance to recover from the day’s activities, flush toxins from the brain, and put energy toward building and repairing cells [10].
  • Plays a part in memory formation – Sleep also allows the brain to consolidate memories and process information. While you sleep, your brain is forming new pathways between the neurons (nerve cells) in your brain. These pathways are how you learn and store new information you took in during the day [10].
  • Improves the appearance of skin – One study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology found that good quality sleep may strengthen the skin barrier and reduce signs of skin aging [13].
  • Improves self-image – The same study found that not only did a good night’s sleep help with skin health and appearance, but study participants simply felt better about themselves and their physical appearance [13].

How much sleep do you need?

The right answer for you will depend somewhat on your individual needs, but the current recommendation from sleep researchers is 7 to 7.5 hours a night for adults. Less than 7 hours a night is where most people will begin to feel some negative effects like daytime drowsiness, irritability, and forgetfulness [11].

As you drop below 7 hours toward 6.5 hours or less, your risk of developing sleep loss-related disorders increases [11].

How to get better sleep

When you’re stressed out, getting better sleep can feel like a tough job. But the truth is, there are many easy steps you can take to ease your body and mind into a restful sleep.

Here are some simple sleep-boosting strategies to put into practice right away:

  • Get some activity each day – Sitting at a desk, sitting in the car on your commute, and sitting in front of the TV all evening…all that inactivity leaves your body feeling restless by bedtime. Even a short daily walk can make a big difference in both the quality and duration of sleep. In fact, a meta-analysis of over 66 studies concluded that regular physical activity has immediate benefits for those suffering from poor sleep, and the benefits continue to grow over time [13].
  • Set your bedtime and stick to it – A regular sleep schedule means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, even on weekends. It can be a challenge at first, but give it time—as your body adjusts, you’ll probably find that a regular bedtime feels good.
  • Create a bedtime routine – Train your brain and body to recognize the signals that it’s time for sleep by establishing a nightly routine. This can include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, or writing in a journal before bed.
  • No screen use before bed – We all have a habit of checking our phones one last time before bed or falling asleep with the TV on. But blue light (the light from electronic devices) throws off your body’s circadian rhythm and tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime. The National Sleep Foundation recommends turning off electronics one hour before bedtime [2].
  • Make your bedroom a sanctuary – Making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool will create an environment that is conducive to sleep. If you need to, invest in some black-out curtains or an eye mask to block out any unwanted light. You might also want to consider using a noise machine to block out any external noise that could disturb your sleep.
  • Cool rooms promote deep sleep – Keeping the temperature of your room cool (around 65 degrees Fahrenheit) will help you fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night [2].
  • Cut the caffeine and alcohol – Caffeine can stay in your system for up to 8 hours, so if you drink coffee or tea late in the day, it may make it difficult for you to fall asleep at night. Alcohol may make you feel sleepy at first, but it actually disrupts your sleep later in the night and can lead to waking up feeling groggy and unrested [2].

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

If you’ve tried to build better sleep hygiene habits, but you’re still experiencing trouble sleeping, it may be time to explore other options, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). CBT-I is a form of therapy that helps people change their sleep habits and beliefs about sleep.

It has been shown to be an effective treatment for insomnia and can help people get the rest they need [14].

CBT-I usually involves meeting with a therapist once a week for a few weeks or months. During these sessions, you will learn how sleep works and what can interfere with sleep. You will also learn new ways to relax and improve your sleep habits.

If you’re interested in CBT-I, talk to your healthcare provider about finding a therapist specializing in this type of therapy.

Sleep well and stress less with help from Everlywell

You don’t have to settle for poor-quality sleep. With some simple lifestyle changes, good sleep hygiene practices, and stress management techniques, you can start enjoying healthful, restorative sleep every night.

Everlywell can support your journey to good sleep with at-home test kits like our Sleep & Stress Test.

This kit tests for three key hormones related to sleep and stress, so you can find out if abnormal hormone levels could be holding you back from peaceful rest. Our tests are convenient, confidential, and accurate. Take control of your health from the privacy of your home with Everlywell.

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  2. The stress-sleep connection. National Sleep Foundation. Published March 15, 2022. Accessed November 2, 2022. URL
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