Get the foundations right

The profound impact of sleep and stress

February 9, 2021

The profound impact of sleep and stress

February 9, 2021

Many people look to exercise and nutrition as the foundation for good health. And even though combined, healthy eating and movement can have a profoundly positive impact on health, if you are building from an unstable base then your progress is likely to topple.


When educating clients, I begin with two (very much intertwined) focus points: sleep and stress. If either of these two are significantly out of balance, intense exercise can exacerbate the problem and healthy nutritional habits may be difficult to keep. Furthermore, these two aspects are very much linked, compounding the scale of their impact. While gradual change in daily habits may seem like a slow solution, the time and energy dedicated toward improving quality sleep and reducing stress is completely life altering.



The impact of sleep is so often underrated. Leading neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker has said that: “The physical and mental impairments caused by one night of bad sleep dwarf those caused by an equivalent absence of food or exercise.” And yet so many people focus on the tip of the iceberg, adjusting macronutrients and training themselves into the ground.
Sleep allows the body to regenerate, recover, learn, grow and replenish. The short-term side effects of limited or poor-quality sleep include impaired performance, weight gain, reduced immune function, mood swings, increased stress reactivity, reduced quality of life, poor memory and impaired cognitive function. In the long term, sleep loss has been found to increase the risk of heart disease, weight-related illness, cancer, hypertension and type 2 diabetes as well as reduced quality of life. Walker goes so far as to explain that “sleep loss will leak down into every nook and cranny of your physiology,” and believes that “sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day”


How to improve sleep quality:


  1. Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake
  2. Sleep in a cool, dark room
  3. Go to bed and get up at regular times (yes, even on weekends)
  4. Exercise!
  5. Reduce blue light exposure or use of technology before bed
  6. Meditate regularly



Somewhere along the line, being able to withstand high levels of stress became worthy of accolades, underestimating the negative impact that chronic stress has on the body. Acute stress doesn’t pose a threat to our health and is a normal life saving response. As humans our future depends on our ability to adapt to stressors. However, it’s when stressors are unremitting it can be considered chronic and the long-term effects of these stressors can damage health.


The interconnectedness of the mind and the body becomes apparent, when the brain experiences high degrees of stress and the body reacts accordingly. Chronic stress kicks the nervous system into overdrive and reduces sleep quality (double trouble). The combination of high stress and poor sleep results in a hormonal cyclone that makes it incredibly difficult to change body composition or improve performance. Early symptoms may include chronic headaches and reduced immune system function with chronic stress leading towards greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, obesity, sexual dysfunction and hair loss. Not to mention the emotional toll leading to anxiety, burnout and depression.


Tips to reduce chronic stress:


  1. Meditate regularly (can you see a pattern here?)
  2. Box breathing (4 sec in, 4 sec hold, 4 sec out, 4 sec hold)
  3. Set limits and expectations – remove any non-essential tasks to reduce stress load
  4. Practice yoga
  5. Improve sleep quality
  6. Get professional help for tools and strategies

If you’re purely focusing on nutrition and exercise without addressing sleep quality and stress, then you’re missing a major piece of the puzzle. In fact, you’re missing the whole point. By focusing on laying a solid foundation, the body will function more effectively, creating healthy change and improvement in performance. Zoom out and nail these two major players before you move your efforts elsewhere. Prioritizing a good night’s sleep and building awareness around managing stress load is life changing.

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