Sleep and Your Mental Health

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Have you ever felt like you woke up on the ‘wrong side of the bed’? The quantity and quality of your sleep can directly affect your mental health. This blog has often written about the link between sleep and physical health: sleep and heart health, sleep and immunity, and sleep and your brain. As we shall see, scientists are still discovering the critical link between sleep and mental health.

Probably most, if not all, of us have experienced the feeling of going through our day in a fog because of a night of no or little sleep. So let’s look at why that happens.

How does sleep affect your mental health?

Sleep is for the brain like food is for the body. It needs to be replenished each day, or your brain slows down, eventually running on empty. Sleep also gives your body time to recover from the stresses of the day. Sleep is one of the major ways to process the previous day’s events. If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain cannot easily consolidate and integrate positive emotional content. That’s one reason why you may see things through a more negative lens if you have not had enough sleep. When we get proper sleep, any new information we have encountered and emotions and memories are processed. Therefore it is so important to get good sleep when we are in learning mode.

Our sleep cycle needs to include REM sleep. This stage of sleep is at the end of each sleep cycle, and each REM segment gets longer as we move through our night of sleep. We need REM sleep for cognitive processing and restoration. REM sleep is also important in processing negative events. Uninterrupted REM sleep can help to decrease our reactions to negative emotions the next day. So it is not just the quantity but the quality of sleep that counts. In fact, insomnia can actually cause worsening mental health, which we will talk about next.

Sleep is for the brain like food is for the body. It needs to be replenished each day, or your brain slows down, eventually running on empty.

Bidirectional relationship between mental health and sleep

Whether it is depression, anxiety, another condition, or simply the stressful events of a day, mental health distress can make it more challenging to get a good night’s sleep. One reason for this lies in the body’s hormones. When we don’t get enough sleep, we produce too much cortisol, a stress hormone. Then the increased cortisol can keep us awake, so we cannot relax and get good quality rest to break the cycle. In fact, a majority of people with depression also experience problems with sleep. While there is a debate about whether a lack of sleep is a cause or an effect, some scientists believe it is a two-way street where mental health symptoms and lack of sleep actually reinforce each other.

Can a lack of proper sleeping hours put a strain on your system?

Our circadian rhythm affects more than just sleep. It controls a good amount of our behavioral functions and our biological functions. In fact, it is the master clock through which many functions need to be synchronized. Motor, emotional and interpersonal functioning can all be affected. Those who have a delayed circadian rhythm may not only have trouble falling asleep but staying asleep as well.

A study of 840,000 people by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard represents some of the strongest evidence yet that chronotype–a person’s propensity to sleep at a certain time –influences depression risk. This study found a very uncomplicated solution, detailed below.

 Suggestions and Solutions

1) A straightforward solution has been suggested by the authors of the aforementioned study – going to bed and rising one hour earlier. This single factor is associated with a 23% decreased risk of developing depressive disorders. While it may be difficult to do this quickly, moving sleep and wake times in 15-minute increments is much more doable.

2)Working on sleep hygiene: keeping days full of light, dimming the light (including the light of electronics)as evening falls, not napping for longer than 20 minutes, keeping the bedroom dark and free of noise, as well as at an optimal temperature for sleeping (65-68 degrees).  Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day is also helpful.   

 3)  For some patients, help from a trained counselor can help them improve their sleep patterns. For example, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been helpful to many patients. 

Working on your sleep habits can pay off in both your physical and mental health. While no one can make every change all at once, choosing even one small step in the right direction will bring enormous benefits.

If you need a more comfortable bed or more cozy bedding to help you get more restful sleep, we are here to help. Our sleep specialists are happy to help you choose a luxurious mattress, breathable bedding, a pillow that will give you the proper spinal alignment, or a topper for pressure point relief.