By some estimates, about 70 million Americans of all ages – almost one in four – suffer from chronic sleep problems.
Our have-it-all, don’t-miss-out culture often leads to a consistent sleep shortage, and we are suffering for it in ways that researchers are still discovering today.
Studies show that a lack of sleep can increase the risk for infections, obesity, and heart disease, and even create diabetes-like symptoms in otherwise healthy people.
“Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” says National Institute of Health sleep expert Dr. Michael Twery. “It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health.”
4 Benefits of Sleep on Mental Health
Sleep isn’t just essential for the body. Getting enough restful, rejuvenating sleep is a crucial factor in improving and maintaining your mental health. Sleep and mental health are intimately related, and these four benefits are just a sample of the ways your overall wellness is affected by the right amount of shut-eye.
1) Emotional stability. A night of restful sleep can do wonders for your emotional mindset and ability to function. Sleep disorders are a common symptom of conditions like anxiety and depression, and the problems can be so closely linked that it’s often hard to tell which one caused the other.
Conversely, sleep can help individuals overcome these problems. Getting enough sleep provides you with a solid foundation to control negative thoughts and impulses. (Techniques like mindful meditation can also help with this – more on that later.)
2) Improved memory. Sleeping doesn’t mean that your mind shuts down – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Skills and memories that you worked on while you were awake can actually become strengthened while you sleep, through a process called consolidation.
If you’re studying for a test or practicing layups, your mind will continue to absorb the work you put in while you sleep, leading to better performance when you wake up.
3) Sharper attention and focus. If you feel emotionally stable while sleep deprived, there are other factors that could convince you to shut the lights off a little bit earlier.
Studies continue to show that a lack of sleep affects your focus and attention. Performance studies of sleep-deprived doctors, for example, suggested that they are prone to errors on routine assignments and tasks that required attention for long periods.
As mentioned above, your brain reorganizes and restructures your memories while you sleep during the consolidation process. Researchers think that this improves recall and the ability to make decisions while you are awake.
4) Physical safety. In addition to improving your emotional state, attention and reasoning, the proper amount of sleep can keep you safe – especially when you are behind the wheel.
The connection between drowsiness and dangerous driving is no secret. In one study cited by Dr. Joseph Kaplan, co-director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Jacksonville, Fla., Mayo Clinic, people who drove after staying awake for 17 to 19 hours did worse than those with a blood alcohol level of .05% (the legal limit for a DWAI in Colorado).
In short, getting the sleep you need won’t just improve your quality of life – it could help to save it.
3 Ways to Improve Your Sleeping Habits
1) Practice good sleep hygiene. “Sleep hygiene” is simply the habits and techniques that are conducive to sleeping well regularly.
Methods include keeping your bedroom dark, leaving distractions like television, computers and smartphones off or out of the room, and keeping a regular sleep-and-wake schedule.
If you can’t keep your room completely dark, try wearing an eye mask. Many people are surprised by how much better they sleep in pitch dark because they were unaware that the light coming from electronics or sneaking through the blackout shades could affect them so much.
Train your mind that the bed is for sleeping and not for being awake. Don’t spend much time in bed when you’re doing anything other than sleeping. A good rule of thumb: unless you’re sleeping or having sex, go spend your time somewhere other than in your bed.
Reading in bed for a short while (10-15 minutes or less) as you fall asleep is OK, but if you read for a long time before bed and have trouble falling asleep, read somewhere else first and then move to the bed after or for the last few minutes of reading.
If you can’t sleep, don’t lie awake in bed for more than 30 minutes. Get up and leave the room for a while, and return to bed when you think you might be able to sleep.
Also, regular aerobic exercise during the day will help you fall asleep faster and wake up less during the night. Leave a few hours between exercise and going to bed, however – your body will need time to calm down after a workout to prepare for sleep.
If you regularly wake up hungry, don’t get up and eat. This trains your body to wake up in the middle of the night to eat. Instead, have a light snack with complex carbohydrates and protein before bed to get you through the night. It will take a little while for your body to adjust to the new schedule, so you might wake up hungry for a while, but if you stop the midnight snacking, your body will soon un-learn this habit.
Alcohol can help you fall asleep since it depresses the nervous system, but when the effects wear off you’re likely to wake up or sleep poorly for the remainder of the night.
Also, your body has to recover from the alcohol’s effects, spending energy on processes that aren’t related to resting.
Nicotine is a stimulant, like caffeine, and makes it hard for to you to fall asleep by speeding up your heart rate and thinking in a similar way. Avoiding these substances before bedtime will lead to a better night of sleep.
3) Relaxation techniques like mindful meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery and muscle relaxation techniques can counter anxiety and racing thoughts, leading to better sleep.
Bonus Tip: Lots of information is available on the connections between sleep and mental health. This post from Lifehacker goes a step further by suggesting both short-term and long-term methods for resetting your sleep cycle after periods of sleep deprivation.
Sleep and Mental Health
Are you living with sleep-related anxiety or depression? Schedule an appointment with Stepwell Mental Health and Wellness today.