Sleep And Mental Health

What is sleep? 

It’s a necessity of life. A way to restore and rebalance.


Sleep is essential for many vital physical and behavioural functions including energy conservation, impairing thinking and emotional regulation, brain waste clearance and development, modulation of immune responses, cognition, performance, vigilance and disease. Your body needs sleep just as it needs air and water to survive. And let me tell you, without sleep you simply cannot function.


During sleep, your body heals itself and restores its chemical balance. Your brain forges new connections and helps memory retention.


Without enough sleep, your brain and body systems won’t function normally. It can also dramatically lower your quality of life. 


How are sleep and good mental health linked?

Sleep and mental health are closely connected. When you don’t get the quality sleep you need, it can heavily influence your energy levels and motivation, your emotions and outlook on life.


I read once that almost every living organism requires sleep. I remember my late teen years of going out and missing hours (days) of sleep only to hit my 30’s and wish I had that time now! 


Excessive sleepiness not only affects your physical health, it has a big impact on your mental health as well and affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, among other things. 


The effects of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation affects your psychological state and mental health and those with mental health problems are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disorders. 


For example, people with insomnia have greater levels of depression and anxiety than those who sleep normally. They are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety.  


Chronic mild sleep deprivation has been linked to immunodeficiency, decreased pain tolerance, emotional instability, metabolic disease, impaired cognitive performance and  memory problems. 


Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is when a person wakes frequently in the night leaving researchers to believe when sleep is frequently disturbed, it can alter brain activity and neurochemicals that affect a person’s mood and thinking. People with sleep apnea are 5 times likely to suffer from clinical depression.


While total acute sleep deprivation leads to rapidly progressive multi-organ failure. Not great statistics I know but have you ever met a happy person who is enthusiastic about exhaustion? Small levels of sleep deprivation over time will affect your happiness. Feeling persistently sad or empty and irritable can mean that your lack of sleep may lead to clinical depression. I mean, who doesn’t feel low when they’re tired? If you’re feeling low, you may not realise that lack of sleep is the culprit.


You may also end up experiencing episodes of micro-sleeps during in the day. This is when you fall asleep for a few seconds or minutes without realising it. I used to do this when using public transport and wake thinking hours had passed.


I remember back when I had an office job, making my lunch hour a time to have a nap so I would sneak to an unoccupied room and have a nap just for 20 minutes then wake up to get more coffee! I have done the split shifts, night shifts, early mornings through to late nights and even stayed awake for days at a time fuelled on caffeine. Getting into a routine or even stopping the temporary insomnia is hard. And that caffeine buzz will soon be over only to find the crash isn’t worth it. All these alterations to your mood can affect not only your individual mental health, but your relationships and family dynamics as well. 


Lifestyles and sleep patterns

Different lifestyles mean your sleep pattern may change. Getting to bed at a reasonable hour is one thing, especially when you’re a parent or maybe you work all day and need some me time, or it could be that you’re studying. Anything that effects your ability to get in bed and restore the balance by sleeping could be detrimental to your health.


They say you need between 7-8 hours sleep per night. Now if you’re a person, who like me, simply doesn’t need that much sleep, then as long as you’re getting full sleep cycles, you should be fine. 


Sleep cycles

A typical sleep cycle is usually every 90 minutes. A normal sleeper cycles between 2 categories of sleep, although the length of time spent in one or the other changes as sleep progresses.


The first cycle is ‘quiet sleep’ and a person goes through 4 stages of increasingly deep sleep were muscles relax, body temperature drops, and heart rate and breathing slows. The deepest stage of quiet sleep produces physiological changes that help boost immune system functioning.


The other sleep category, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, is my favourite and is the period when people dream. The body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing increase to levels measured when people are awake. 


Studies show that REM sleep improves learning and memory, and contributes to emotional health — in complex ways.


As long as I get a few full sleep cycles in, I feel like I can conquer the world! But a disturbed night can make for a very grumpy day. Ever had a day were you felt like it was just ‘one of those days?’ The day when things go wrong from start to finish. This is your body and mind not being able to tackle obstacles the universe is throwing at you purely because you’re not rested. You begin to play the ‘blame game’ of attributing every personal problem during the day on lack of sleep. I mean we’ve all been there. When you know its 8 hours before you have to be up for work and your mind decides to think hundreds of negative thoughts that are now keeping you awake and you find yourself arguing with your own train of thought. Before you know it, it’s 4 hours before your alarm and you’re still lying there staring into a dark room.


Recommendations for sleep problems

The treatment recommended for the most common sleep problems are a combination of lifestyle changes, behavioural strategies and in some cases psychotherapy. 


Lifestyle changes my include quitting addictive substances, relaxation techniques, physical activity or cognitive behavioural therapy. Stimulants, like  caffeine, aren’t enough to override your body’s profound need for sleep. Regular aerobic activity helps people fall asleep faster, spend more time in deep sleep, and awaken less often during the night. People with insomnia tend to become preoccupied with not falling asleep. Cognitive behavioural techniques help them to change negative expectations. 


My personal recommendation is meditation. Deep breathing and relaxing are the fundamental essence of a restful sleep. Progressive muscle relaxation (alternately tensing and releasing muscles) can counter anxiety and steady those thoughts keeping you awake. Check out the blog on mindfulness for some tips on easy steps to meditation.


Having a plant based diet feeds your body nutritiously with foods that will stimulate the thyroid gland and support energy metabolism. It means you will feel rejuvenated all day long.


Eating the right foods will help with steadying those blood sugar levels. Don’t over indulge on carbs and expect for feel energetic. Carbs cause your blood glucose levels to jump quickly and give you a sudden burst of energy. But like caffeine, when these glucose levels start to drop back down, you’ll likely experience an energy crash that will leave you ready for a nap. One of my favourite foods used to be white bread. I loved the smell, the taste, the fact that you could eat it with anything. But processed carbs like white bread are especially problematic and can leave you feeling sluggish. Opt for whole grain. A plant-based diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains is a very energising diet. This is because it’s great for digestion, and will help control blood sugar and will ensure a good night’s rest


Sleep problems are often manifested in the form of stress, poor nutrition, physical inactivity. Tackle these issues and you will sleep like a log. A soundly sleeping log.