The Symbiotic Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health

Our relationship to sleep in our society is at best, toxic. Too often we reward sleeplessness as a sign of dedication to work, an abundant social life or a signal of importance. Bragging about how little sleep one gets while still being able to (barely) function is treated as a badge of honor. Sleep is often unwittingly perceived as a waste of time or time spent being unproductive to society. When we think about our well-being and the most essential elements necessary to stay alive, promote health and adequate brain function, we tend to think of: access to clean air for breathing, clean water for hydration, and nutritious food to eat. Often overlooked is the key component vital not only for our physical condition but for prosperous mental health and productivity. Research shows that sleep is just as important as getting the right amount of water and food intake throughout the day. More so, poor sleep is linked to a weakened immune system, poor physical health and a propensity for mental illnesses. The phrase “I can sleep when I’m dead” shouldn’t be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 Far from being a “waste of time,” the science of sleep helps explain why it is so important and how much it relates to mental health. While research is ongoing to better understand the connection between mental health and sleep, the evidence to date points to a bidirectional relationship. Mental health disorders tend to make it harder to sleep well. At the same time, poor sleep, including insomnia, can be a contributing factor to the initiation and worsening of mental health problems. In the United States, an astonishing one-third of the adult population is reported to be getting less than the required minimum amount of sleep per night, which can contribute to a vulnerability for specific mental health illnesses like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, among others.

Throughout the night, brain activity fluctuates during different sleep stages that make up the sleep cycle. In NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, overall brain activity slows, but there are quick spurts of energy. In REM sleep, brain activity picks up rapidly, which is why this stage is associated with more lucid dreaming. Each stage plays a role in brain health, allowing activity in different parts of the brain to ramp up or down.

Research has also uncovered that brain activity during sleep has profound effects on our emotional and mental state. It isn’t a coincidence that one might feel more emotional when they’ve got a substantial period without adequate sleep. This is due in part to the fact that deep and sufficient 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. Simply put, sleep helps you feel more emotionally regulated and a lack of sleep leaves you susceptible to an increase in negative feelings and responses. In relation to mental health issues, a lack of sleep has been tied to mental health disorders and their severity.

When thinking about ways to improve your overall health, consider implementing some healthy sleep practices in your nightly routine to ensure better sleep, otherwise known as ‘sleep hygiene’. Sleep hygiene takes into consideration both environment and habits, and it can pave the way for higher-quality sleep and better overall health. Therefore, creating sustainable and beneficial routines makes healthy behaviors feel almost automatic, creating an ongoing process of positive reinforcement. Creating a relaxing sleep environment coupled with positive sleep habits is a sure way to make sleeping soundly achievable and second nature.

Below are a few things to keep in mind to optimize sleep quality:

  • Set a Sleep Schedule: Schedules are powerful tool when it comes to productivity and well-being, and sleep is no different. Make sure you have a relatively fixed time for sleep and that you abide by them, disrupting your own natural circadian cycle can have devastating consequences.
  • Value Sleep: It may be tempting to stay up finishing work, stay up endlessly scrolling through social media or binge-watching the latest Netflix series, but the more you value and respect your sleep, the easier and more natural it will become to go to bed at a decent time.
  • Keep Naps in Check: There’s nothing wrong with a quick refresher nap on an unusually hard day, but make sure to keep these short and long before night to avoid interference with a full night’s sleep.

When it comes to good sleep, environment is key:

  • Comfort is Key: It should go without saying that your choice in mattress and bedding can have an instantaneous effect on your sleep quality. If you struggle with poor sleep quality or frequently wake up restless, you may be laying on the biggest cause.
  • Keep Cool: Fine-tune your bedroom temperature to suit your preferences, but try to keep it cool, as studies show the best temps for soothing sleep are between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Eliminate Light: Use heavy curtains or an eye mask to prevent light from interrupting your sleep, and make sure electronics (looking at you, alarm clock) are faced away so artificial light doesn’t disrupt your circadian rhythm. 
  • Drown Out Noise: Ear plugs can stop noise from keeping you awake but if you don’t find them comfortable, you can try a white noise machine or even a fan to drown out bothersome sounds.
  • Calm Down: Lighter fragrances, like lavender or eucalyptus, may induce a calmer state of mind and help cultivate a positive space for sleep. Investing in a scented pillow spray or oil diffuser may help set the mood for sleep.

Lastly keep your nightly routine short and sweet. Here are a few tips:

  • Consistency is King: Before you even start on a nightly routine, make sure it’s something you can do every day. The more consistent you are, the more powerful the routine will be in terms of getting your body and mind in a relaxed state for sleep.
  • Stretch: A little light stretching before bedtime has been proven to promote relaxation and deeper sleep.
  • Get in the Mood: Dim your lights 30 min prior to bedtime. A darker room can help aide the natural release of melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) and helps get you in the mood for sleep.
  • Put that Phone Down: This one is perhaps the most important, not only does the blue light from electronics actually delay the release of melatonin, but checking our electronics for messages and updates actually encourages anxiety and restlessness.