Is Stress Robbing You of a Good Night's Sleep?

New Media Producer: Brad Maglinger

In a new study, one group was told they were to wake up in the morning and read a magazine. The second group was told they had to give a 15-minute speech. Obviously, those people did a lot more tossing and turning. Researchers were able to determine that acute stress changes the sleep cycle of both REM and non-REM sleep. And it's this poor sleep maintenance that can take years off your life.

People under stress have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.

"They may have boring sort of mundane dreams," says sleep specialist Mark Goetting. "They may dream they're at work, they may dream they're doing the usual things throughout the day and feel that they might as well not have slept because what was the point?"

They lie awake at different times throughout the night, and by the time the sun comes up, they don't feel rejuvenated. Now, researchers think they know why. Just like artificial light, stress blocks the release of melatonin, a chemical in the brain that precedes the onset of sleep.

To avoid these bouts of insomnia, Dr. Goetting says if you suspect you have depression or an anxiety disorder, get it treated. He says every night, patients should go through a winding down process that includes less physical activity and a gradual dimming of the lights. If that fails, you can buy natural or synthetic melatonin at a health food store.

"We in America like to maintain our lifestyle and pay no price for it," Goetting says. "So, we want to substitute sleep or a change in our behavior with a medication of some sort, whether it's a natural or prescription sort. That's generally the way we think in America. It's probably better to fix your life. There is a saying, 'Live good, sleep good.'"

If you are going to try melatonin tablets and can't decide between the natural or synthetic kind, Dr. Goetting says consider that the natural pills are made from the saliva and brains of cows and pigs. And with the mad cow scare going on and no FDA regulation of these products, he says he'd go with the synthetic version.