Sleep Troubles? Research Finds Stress Can Trigger Insomnia

With potentially one of the most overwhelming years we’ve experienced to date, it’s fair to say that stress is a common daily occurrence. Feeling stressed day-to-day can have a large impact on your body and mind, and as researchers have discovered, your sleep.

Researchers from Nagoya University in Japan looked at how stress can affect the circadian clock and in turn, affect sleep and cause insomnia. According to Science Daily, living organisms exhibit a 24-hour oscillation called the circadian rhythm. In mammals specifically, the central circadian clock, which is located in the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) neurons, regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

However, in life-threatening situations, the circadian rhythm signal shuts off in order to keep the animal awake and alert for danger — even in times when it would normally be sleeping. This measure is only meant to be temporary as its necessary for survival, but if triggered regularly, can lead to poor sleep.

“It is well-known that the circadian clock and stress have an effect on sleep, but it was unclear which neural pathway is crucial for the circadian regulation of sleep and wakefulness,” says Dr. Daisuke Ono of the Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Nagoya University.

To explore this pathway, the researchers used mice and focused on CRF neurons (which play a role in the stress response) and looked at how sleep and wakefulness in mice would be affected when the CRF neurons were activated. Researchers found that the activated CRF neutrons kept the animals awake and caused them to move around vigorously.

It was also noted that the CRF neurons remained active while the mice were awake and when the activity of the neurons was suppressed, the animal’s wakefulness and activity were both reduced. Further research also showed that inhibitory neurons in the SCN, called GABAergic neurons, control the activity of the CRF neurons (and thus, the stress response) and in turn, regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

“We identified this neural pathway in mice, which are nocturnal animals. Further studies are required to elucidate how the nocturnal and diurnal difference is regulated in the brain,” said Dr Ono.

“In today’s society, sleep disorders are a serious problem. We hope our finding will contribute to the development of new therapies for insomnia and other sleep disorders caused by stress or a disturbed circadian rhythm.”

While we have long known stress to play a role in sleep, it’s a good reminder that excessive stress can actually impact the way your brain works and lead to sleep disturbances and insomnia. If you’re having trouble sleeping, consider looking at your sleep hygiene and how your lifestyle might be impacting your slumber.

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