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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Hewett

How Sleep Affects Your Mental Health

There has been a lot of research conducted linking sleep to the brain and overall health.

Sufficient sleep, especially REM sleep, facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information. During sleep, the brain works to evaluate and remember thoughts and memories, and it appears that a lack of sleep is especially harmful to the consolidation of positive emotional content. This can influence mood and emotional reactivity and is tied to mental health disorders and their severity, including the risk of suicidal ideas or behaviors3.

As a result, the traditional view, which held that sleep problems were a symptom of mental health disorders, is increasingly being called into question. Instead, it is becoming clear that there is a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health4 in which sleeping problems may be both a cause and consequence of mental health problems.

The Right Amount Matters

Why do we need seven to nine hours of sleep each night? It’s an active period when a lot of important processing, restoration and strengthening occurs. Exactly how this happens and why is still somewhat of a mystery. But scientists do understand some of sleep’s critical functions and the reasons we need it for optimal health and well-being. When we stay up too late, our neurons signal slows and impairs memory, attention, thought processes and decision making. Toxins, like those associated with Alzheimer’s, are also removed from the brain while we are asleep.

Getting poor sleep also can disrupt hormones and affect mood. It even impairs driving as much as being drunk.

However, too much sleep can result in the same problems as too little. This includes a higher risk for stroke, cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes and various mental health disorders like depression. Not getting the right amount of sleep is implicated in other mental health

disorders like ADHD and anxiety. Those who sleep poorly or don’t feel as rested by sleep might be experiencing more NREM, non-rem sleep. This is lighter and less restorative than REM sleep. REM occurs on average after 90 minutes. A person’s brain rotates through NREM and REM, needing about 4 or 5 of these cycles for full rest.

Why This Matters to You

In mental health disorders impaired sleep can be a symptom. It might not be that simple. In some cases sleep problems and deprivation might precede the development of mental health disorder. This puts a person at a higher risk.

A common cause of sleeping problems is poor sleep hygiene. Stepping up sleep hygiene by cultivating habits and

a bedroom setting that are conducive to sleep can go a long way in reducing sleep disruptions.

Examples of steps that can be taken for healthier sleep habits include:

  • Having a set bedtime and maintaining a steady sleep schedule

  • Finding ways to wind-down, such as with relaxation techniques, as part of a standard routine before bedtime

  • Avoiding alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine in the evening

  • Dimming lights and putting away electronic devices for an hour or more before bed

  • Getting regular exercise and natural light exposure during the daytime

  • Maximizing comfort and support from your mattress, pillows, and bedding

  • Blocking out excess light and sound that could disrupt sleep

Finding the best routines and bedroom arrangement may take some trial and error to determine what’s best for you, but that process can pay dividends in helping you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep through the night.

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