How the Science Behind Stress and Anxiety Can Help You Wake Up Feeling Refreshed and Energized

by Dr. David Minkoff June 21, 2018 6 min read

Athletic man climbing the side of the mountain and looking off into the sunset.

Most of us are sleeping less than we should. You probably already knew that. In fact, sleep disorders, and lack of sleep are at an epidemic level in the United States – 40% of the population is sleep deprived.

Compared to the obesity crisis (a mere 33% of the population), it gets relatively little attention. And yet, consequences of sleep deprivation are every bit as pervasive and pernicious as obesity. It erodes health slowly from the inside out, leaving you vulnerable to disease, hormonal imbalances, and dangerous lapses of attention.

It’s about more than just making enough time for rest, though. Sleep is a very sensitive and complex process that involves psychological, environmental, and biochemical triggers.

We’re going to dig into the biology behind this complex topic, so we can use cutting edge sleep science to help us achieve optimal levels of health, vitality, and well-being.


The Biology of Stress: Effects of Stress Hormones on Sleep Cycle

If we could distill it down to a single cause disrupting our sleep, it would be stress. Stress manifests in our bodies in many, many different ways. Most notably, it shows up as cortisol, the “stress hormone.”

Cortisol primes your body for what’s known as “fight or flight” response. In small doses, it’s a great thing. It enables higher performance in the short term. Over the long term it causes damage.

It promotes inflammation. It turns off healing and regenerative processes. It disrupts brain patterns and higher thought processes like planning and projecting. It even damages DNA and activates the same cellular patterns as aging [1].

Over time, research suggests sleep disturbances may lead to anxiety and mood disorders. Other studies show cortisol can even suppress melatonin – the sleep hormone and potentially lead to anxiety or mood problems [2].

And this is where we begin crossing over from the stress in our lives into the biology of sleep.


The Brain’s Dimmer Switch For Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety is a shadowy sleep thief. It is a generalized sense of unease and persistent worry. It can manifest as spinning, incessant thoughts, mental tension or amorphous, indistinct fears that can hijack body and brain.

And it is killing your sleep.

Biologically, this shows up as neural circuits that keep firing, almost without purpose. The “stimulus” for fear may be gone, yet the response just keeps on going. But why?

Normally, this is balanced out by something called GABA.

GABA is the brain’s inhibitory neurotransmitter – aka “the calm chemical”. It’s like a neural dimmer-switch. It slows down or stops other neurons from firing. When you’re dreaming, for example, you (usually) don’t act out the dream because GABA shuts down the motor neurons that move your muscles.

It also plays a role in managing anxiety – it calms down the overactive fear-response neurons that can paralyze an individual, allowing them to relax and become more present.

So what does this actually look like?


How GABA Shows Up to the Party

One example of GABA in action is social drinking. Alcohol does a lot of things to our bodies and brains, and one of them is to stimulate GABA neurons. [3]. This is the biology of lowering our inhibitions and anxieties. It is why many people and even whole cultures use alcohol to free themselves from psychological or emotional conditioning, leaving them able to finally act with a certain freedom.

This is how alcohol acts as a social lubricant and anxiolytic. It’s also why some people find a “nightcap” drink to facilitate deeper rest: it activates GABA, calms neural circuits, and lowers your anxiety so you can relax into deep sleep (interested? read more here).

It’s not so great for your liver or the rest of your health, but the effect of alcohol on GABA neurons is something we can all understand.

So why not just take GABA and be done with it?

Unfortunately, oral GABA supplements don’t cross the blood-brain barrier very efficiently. So, we have to look to other means of rebalancing this overactive neural circuit.

One solution pharmaceutical companies came up with are benzodiazepines like Xanax or Valium that also increase GABA, but these have well-documented down-sides – the least of which is addiction. So in order to stimulate GABA without resorting to alcohol or debilitating pharmaceuticals, we need to look to modern sleep research.


4 Ways to Increase GABA Without the Downsides

One way to naturally increase our GABA levels are through glutamine. Glutamine can easily cross into the brain where it directly stimulates GABA production, allowing you to get all the GABA signaling you need.

Another powerful means is a modified form of GABA called phenibut. It has exactly the same structure as GABA with an extra carbon ring to help it get through the blood-brain barrier.

It was originally developed for Russian cosmonauts to help them sleep in zero-gravity. And it works remarkably well here on Earth, too. It activates GABA neurons and is proven as a powerful sleep aid without the drowsy or addictive properties of many pharmaceuticals [4]

The third one is a little counterintuitive: the energy drink additive taurine. Taurine stimulates both GABA and glycine, another inhibitory neurotransmitter [5]. In energy drinks it serves to lower the frantic anxiety that can be induced by caffeine overload, but on its own it is a beneficial, natural amino acid that helps to calm the mind and facilitate relaxation.

And the fourth way to increase GABA?

Yoga and meditation. That sense of inner peace and stillness? It is reflection of healthy GABA tone in your brain. Modern brain research has found that both meditation and yoga practices increase the brain’s GABA levels [6,7]


Serotonin: Anxiety and Circadian Rhythms

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved with everything from sensory perception to mood to appetite and even gut function.

Like GABA, it plays a part in anxiety disorders. In fact, most anti-anxiety and antidepressant pharmaceuticals act in one way or another to increase serotonin levels. [7]

It is also important for controlling the timing of your sleep cycle through a brain region called the dorsal raphe nucleus. If this region is not functioning properly (or if you don’t have enough serotonin in your system), you can end up with some sort of sleep disturbance. [8]

Rather than directly acting on the serotonin systems, which can cause all kinds of unintended consequences, a gentler way to promote balance is to simply give your body everything it needs for healthy serotonin levels.

Enter 5-HTP, a precursor that requires just one small step for your body to turn it into serotonin and research shows it improves sleep [10]. No pharmaceuticals necessary.

Another to consider is vitamin B-6, or it’s activated form pyridoxal 5-phosphate. This is a critical vitamin in the production of both serotonin and melatonin. New research shows that just supplementing vitamin B6 can increase both serotonin and melatonin levels in the brain [11,12].

By giving your body the right supplies, you allow it to come back to balance safely and naturally, without the need for pharmaceutical intervention.


Melatonin: Master of Sleep

Naturally, no discussion of sleep would be complete without going into melatonin. Derived from serotonin, it is the sleep molecule, but it’s not just sleep. Melatonin is anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, immune-stimulating, and cancer-fighting as well as a potent antioxidant.

It is controlled by a complex web of biofeedback both internally and with your environment. When the internal and external signals get mixed up this is when we experience jet lag. So, your melatonin needs to be timed with your ideal sleep cycle in order to create the biggest benefit.

One very effective way to get your sleep cycle on track and signal to your body that it’s time to shut down are low doses of melatonin. But be careful, a little bit goes a long way and the timing of when you take it is important to consider.

Higher doses of melatonin tend to leave you groggy and lethargic in the morning, so we suggest doses around 3mg taken right before bed. This has been shown in sleep studies to improve sleep quality [13] and will help reinforce your ideal sleep cycle.


The Benefits of a Combined Approach for Optimal Sleep

Sleep is a complex interplay of biochemistry, stress responses, life circumstances, and more. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to sleep problems. This is why you need a multi-faceted approach that acts gently on multiple systems to ease you into your night’s rest.

Combining these different actions – improving your GABA tone, de-stressing your life with relaxation practices, providing the proper materials for balanced neurotransmitter levels, and nudging your circadian rhythms with melatonin – you can finally improve your sleep quality and get the sleep you need to be at your best.


*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.