I remember when I was growing up, my mother constantly forced me to sleep during the afternoons. We call it “siesta,” which means afternoon rest or nap. She would also put me to sleep every night at 9 o’clock. We take our bedtime seriously and never go to bed later than that. She would always tell us that sleep helps us to be healthier and grow up faster. As a child, I disliked it because I wanted to play more and watch TV. How I wish I had understood the importance of sleep back then. Sleep was something I took for granted as a kid, and who knew it would be so elusive now that I am older.
When I moved out of our house, I had total and complete control of my time. This also meant I could stay up late, either for school or leisure. It was fun at first, and throughout college, my friends and I would brag about how little sleep we had the day before, yet we were full of energy the entire day. But when I started working, I noticed the less sleep I had, the more sluggish I became. I behaved wearily, was easily irritated, was prone to mood swings, and it took me much longer to perform the same tasks. I knew then it was due to my lack of sleep, and I had to take proactive steps to stop its damaging effects on my mental and physical health and bring back my productivity.
This article will explore the relationship between sleep and mental health and how sleep quality improves overall well-being.
SLEEP AND ITS IMPORTANCE IN OUR BODY
During sleep your body is resting, but interestingly your brain is highly active. In this complex biological process, your brain works overtime to help you process new information, reenergize, and stay healthy. We undergo two sleep cycles repeatedly each night. These are the non-REM and REM cycles. Before we get too technical, let me explain these cycles simply.
We first experience the non-REM cycle as we drift off and move to deep sleep. This is where our memory and learning abilities are regenerated and enhanced. As we cycle into the REM cycle, our bodies are temporarily paralyzed as we float into dreamland.
The cycle repeats itself. With each repetition, you spend less time in the deeper stages of the non-REM cycle and more time in REM sleep. You will go through the cycle four or five times on a typical night.
Quality sleep is vital for your brain’s performance. It helps with “neuroplasticity” or the brain’s ability to change and learn. If you constantly lack sleep, your brain won’t be able to process new information as effectively, which affects your ability to remember. Sleep also helps clean waste from brain cells, a process that happens less effectively when awake.
Sleep is also essential for the rest of your body. With a lack of sleep, your health risks go up. Symptoms of depression, seizures, high blood pressure, and migraines may worsen, and your metabolism is negatively affected. Your immune system may weaken, making you more likely to get sick. Not getting enough sleep can also impact your mood, making you more irritable and prone to getting into conflicts, especially in children and teenagers.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SLEEP AND MENTAL HEALTH
According to Harvard Health, sleep quality and mental health are closely connected. Brain scans during sleep indicate that good sleep strengthens your mental and emotional defenses. In contrast, poor sleep can contribute to negative thinking and emotional instability. The sleep process, particularly REM sleep, helps your brain sort through emotional information and store it meaningfully. When you don’t get enough sleep, it becomes difficult to process positive emotions and regulate emotions. This can impact your mood and lead to a higher risk of mental health issues.
Another relationship between sleep and mental health can be found by looking into the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and amygdala. The PFC, located in the cerebrum, manages cognitive functions. At the same time, the amygdala governs emotions and memories. It initiates the fight-or-flight response in the face of danger. When a person gets adequate sleep, the PFC effectively regulates the amygdala and keeps it from overreacting emotionally. However, when sleep is lacking, the PFC cannot perform its role, and the amygdala becomes hyperactive.
Research shows that just one night of sleep deprivation leads to a 60% increase in the amygdala’s reactivity to negative emotional stimuli. This heightened activity can pave the way for anxiety-related mental health issues.
The strong connection between the two suggests that improving sleep can positively impact mental health and be a part of treating various mental health disorders.
IMPACTS OF SLEEP ON MENTAL HEALTH
- When your brain lacks sufficient sleep, it can result in brain fatigue, making it difficult to focus, concentrate, and recall memories. This can make even simple tasks feel overwhelming, impacting your productivity. Brain fatigue often feels like confusion or disorientation, which is common after a poor night’s sleep.
- Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can result in mood swings, including increased irritability, anxiety, and depression. The inability of the brain to function correctly due to sleep deprivation leads to an amplification of the amygdala’s reactivity, causing an increase in feelings of anger and aggression. These emotional imbalances can impact relationships and daily life.
- Sleep deprivation can result in unexpected behavioral changes. People who don’t get enough sleep may also experience difficulties in social interactions. For example, they may become more easily irritable and lash out in response to minor frustrations, such as yelling at a coworker for a small mistake or storming out of a room in response to a trivial annoyance.
- Inadequate sleep can make it more challenging to handle stressors that would typically not be a concern. Daily challenges can become more significant sources of irritation and cause feelings of frazzlement. Just thinking about poor sleep quality can also add to stress levels, as one may worry about not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep, leading to a vicious cycle of sleepless nights.
IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP BY RESETTING YOUR CIRCADIAN RHYTHM
From little things like concentration to intrusive and destructive thoughts, it seems that lack of sleep affects our overall well-being whether we like it or not. Thus, improving sleep quality is a primary concern for the majority of adults. In fact, statistics indicate that 80% of adults globally want to improve their sleep quality.
Various facilities worldwide can help individuals track and enhance their sleep. However, not everyone has access to these facilities or has the time to undergo sleep therapy.
So the question is, what can I do to improve my sleep at home?
One way to do so is by resetting your circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is your innate body clock that controls your body’s sleep-wake cycle. When our circadian rhythm is in sync, we can experience consistent and rejuvenating sleep. However, when this rhythm is disrupted, it can lead to sleeping difficulties, including insomnia. Getting your circadian rhythm back on track involves adjusting the timing of when you sleep and wake up rather than just the ease of falling asleep. It’s all about creating a consistent sleep schedule.
Here are some steps you can follow to help you reset your internal clock:
- Follow a bedtime routine: Setting a consistent bedtime and sticking to it, even on weekends, will make it easier for you to sleep and wake up.
- Exercise Regularly: Regular exercise can help with melatonin (a hormone produced in response to darkness) production, promote sleep, and sync your body’s systems with your circadian rhythm.
- Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine in the evening: Caffeine is a stimulant that keeps you awake at night, while alcohol can affect your circadian rhythm in the long run.
- Limit your screen time: Blue light from screens can impede melatonin production and disrupt your circadian rhythm. It is advised to avoid screens 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Avoid naps: Napping for more than 30 minutes can make it challenging to sleep at night and disrupt your circadian rhythm. If you must nap, do not go over 30 minutes and nap before 3 pm.
- Gradually shift your bedtime: Move your bedtime by half-hours to reset your circadian rhythm. This process takes time and patience but will help you in the long run.
So, I guess the saying “Sleep is for the weak” is far from the truth. Sleep enables us to go through our day-to-day lives with renewed energy, focus, and mental positivity. Remember, a good night’s sleep is a cornerstone of a healthy and happy lifestyle. So, invest in it, make it a priority, and you’ll see the benefits in no time.