Sleep Away Your Stress
by Keith Rockmael
The alarm clock goes off. Do you bound out of bed eager to greet the new day? Or is repeatedly hitting the snooze button more your style? Those of us in this latter group who have taken our share of slacker put-downs for lingering in the sack, now have a defense for sleeping in: Stress levels are lower for people who wake later.
|Nearly two-thirds of American adults (62 percent) experience a sleep problem a few nights per week or more.|
|Forty-three percent of adults say they are so sleepy during the day that it interferes with their daily activities a few days a month or more.|
|One out of five (20 percent) adults experience this level of daytime sleepiness at least a few days per week or more.|
|Nearly one out of ten adults (7 percent) admit to having changed jobs in order to get more sleep.|
According to a study conducted by researchers at London's Westminster University, there is a physiological difference between people who wake early and those who wake later. The study looked at levels of cortisol, the body's main stress hormone, and found that it varied depending on rising times.
Cortisol levels are controlled by the brain, which in a stressful situation will cause a rise in this hormone about 15-20 minutes after the incident. Your body also produces different levels of cortisol at different times of day, regardless of stress. Cortisol-level production tends to be greater in the morning than at night.
For most of us, this biological clock-derived function contributes most to overall levels of cortisol and has the greatest impact on human behavior and health. We're just beginning to learn the many ways that stress can affect our well-being. For example, prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol can put you at risk for decreased bone mass, depression and degeneration of the brain.
The study examined cortisol levels in 42 healthy individuals at waking times that ranged from 5:22 a.m. to 10:37 a.m. over a two-day period. People who woke earlier tended to have higher concentrations of cortisol during the first 45 minutes of their day.
So, for what hour should we set the alarm? "There is no optimum time to wake," says Dr. Angela Clow, a psychologist with Westminster University. This doesn't mean that you have to sleep till 10 a.m. to see any benefits. A mere 20 to 30 minutes more sleep in the morning can make a difference.
What's more, cortisol levels are not affected by how much sleep you get, only by the hour at which you arise.
"A previous study has shown that duration of sleep does not affect cortisol levels in the morning," noted Clow. You may be stressed and grumpy if you don't get enough sleep, but cortisol won't be the culprit.
While the study showed that early risers enjoyed some advantages, such as greater powers of concentration, the early birds also reported more anger at the end of the day. Later wakers were more leisurely and less stressed.
Many factors contribute to our stress levels throughout the day, and biological clock-derived cortisol is but one of them. But if there is a chance that sleeping that extra 20 minutes will make you a more relaxed person, all the more reason to snuggle up to the snooze button.
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