Sleep’s Impact on Mental Health: Why a Good Night’s Sleep Might Be More Important Than You Think
By: Nandini Gupta
Sleep’s Impact on Mental Health: Defining the Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health
Work-life balance. Toxic productivity. Overworking. These are common terms used today in relation to how much one sacrifices one’s health in order to get more work done. Apart from limited time spent with family and friends, lack of exercise, and a reduced or unhealthy diet, sleep deprivation is common amongst individuals. And that takes a toll on one’s mental health.
Sleep and mental health are closely related. Lack of sleep affects one’s psychological and mental well-being. Those with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop insomnia and other sleep disorders.
While the relationship between adequate sleep and mental health isn’t fully understood, neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that chronic sleep deprivation causes negative thinking and emotional vulnerability rather than fostering mental and emotional resilience.
Sleep’s Impact on Mental Health: The Different Stages of Sleep
Sleep isn’t uniform. In fact, there are different cycles or stages of sleep over the course of the night. On a typical night, an individual goes through four to six such sleep cycles. While the sleep cycles vary in length, each of them last about 90 minutes on average. Sleep cycles vary from person to person based on factors including age, recent sleep patterns, and alcohol consumption.
In the four sleep cycles, one forms a rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and three are a part of non-REM (NREM) sleep. The brain activity between these two stages is significantly different. The breakdown of a person’s sleep cycle is referred to as sleep architecture, which can be visually represented on a hypnogram.
Within the NREM sleep cycles, the higher the stage, the harder it is to wake a person from their slumber. The first stage (N1) lasts about one to five minutes during which the body isn’t fully relaxed, although the brain activity slows down. If one remains uninterrupted during this phase, one can easily slip into the second stage of NREM sleep.
The second stage (N2) is when one enters a more subdued state. There is a drop in body temperature, relaxed muscles, and a slowed breathing and heart rate. The brain waves form a new pattern and eye movement stops. During the first sleep cycle, this phase lasts about 10-25 minutes long.
The third stage (N3) also know as deep sleep, is when muscle tone, pulse, and breathing rates decrease as the body relaxes even further. According to experts, this stage is when most bodily recovery and growth occur. Despite reduced brain activity, deep sleep contributes to insightful thinking, creativity, and memory. During the first cycle, this stage lasts about 20-40 minutes long.
During REM sleep, brain activity increases nearing levels observed when one is awake. Even though the body experiences atonia or temporary paralysis of muscles, the eyes move quickly while remaining closed. In normal cases, REM sleep makes up for about 25% of sleep in adults.
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Sleep’s Impact on Mental Health: Effect of Inadequate Sleep
Sleep stages are significant since they allow the body and brain to recover and develop. Without both, deep and REM sleep, thinking, emotions, and physical health can be affected.
Studies show that 65-90 percent of adults and 90 percent of children with depression report some kind of sleep problem. While most patients have insomnia, 1 in 5 suffer from sleep apnea or disordered breathing that causes several awakenings during sleep. Besides depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and ADHD also caused severe sleep problems. Thus, sleeping problems act as both a cause and consequence of mental health problems.
A study conducted in 2020 and published by JAMA Psychiatry showed the association between sleep problems in early childhood and the development of psychosis and borderline personality disorder in adolescence.
“The traditional view is that disrupted sleep is a symptom, consequence, or nonspecific epiphenomenon of (mental ill health); the clinical result is that the treatment of sleep problems is given a low priority,” says Daniel Freeman, a psychiatrist and research professor at the University of Oxford. “An alternative perspective is that disturbed sleep is a contributory causal factor in the occurrence of many mental health disorders. An escalating cycle then emerges between the distress of the mental health symptoms, effect on daytime functioning, and struggles in gaining restorative sleep.”
Hence, sleep for the brain is similar to quiet hours in an office. When one’s environment has less to respond to, one can get more work done. Similarly, when one’s asleep, the brain can process information in an orderly manner without having to respond to loads of external stimuli one is likely to encounter when awake.
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Sleep’s Impact on Mental Health: How to Sleep Better?
So how can one sleep better? According to many experts, sleep hygiene is key. Sleep hygiene refers to one’s sleep environment or simply the mattress, pillow, and sheets used, and sleep-related habits.
Having a consistent sleep schedule where one sleeps and wakes up around the same time is crucial. So is getting enough exposure to natural daylight, avoiding alcohol before bedtime, and reducing noise and light disruptions. All these ensure proper alignment of one’s circadian rhythm.
Besides alcohol, quitting nicotine and caffeine or avoiding them before bedtime is also beneficial since they act as stimulants, which speed heart rate and thinking. Regular physical activity helps people fall asleep faster, have a greater amount of deep sleep, and awaken less during the night.
Keeping one’s surroundings colder before bedtime and eliminating screen usage through electronic devices help one fall asleep faster, too. Meditation along with deep breathing exercises also help.
Sleeping is a form of self-care. Individuals need to prioritize their well-being to be able to work productively throughout the day. Sleeping less will only make one more tired, confused, and frustrated the next day. Sleeping less to get more work done is never the answer. Forming a good balance between work and rest is the only answer.
“Sleep and Mental Health – Harvard Health Publishing.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, 18 Mar. 2019.
“Sleep and Mental Health: Why Our Brains Need Sleep.” Primary Care Collaborative, Patient Centered Primary Care Collaborative, 17 Aug. 2021.
Leonard , Jayne. “How to Fall Asleep Fast within 5 Minutes.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 27 July 2020.
Suni , Eric. “Stages of Sleep.” Sleep Foundation, National Sleep Foundation , 14 Aug. 2020.
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