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Goodnight and Sleep Tight: Your Guide to Mental Wellness

Last updated November 13, 2021

You feel tired, irritable, impatient and are running late to work. You’re in a bad mood and woke up “on the wrong side of the bed.” Have you ever experienced this? 

Cue pulling an “all-nighter” for work or grad school. 

There’s actually quite a bit of truth to “waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” A close connection between high-quality sleep and our mental and emotional health has demonstrated links to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other conditions.

High-Quality Sleep is Important

All you need is a good night's sleep

While research is ongoing to better understand the connections between mental health and sleep, current evidence shows a two-way relationship. Mental health disorders tend to make it harder to have high-quality sleep. At the same time, poor sleep—including insomnia—can be a contributing factor to the initiation and worsening of mental health problems. 

The connection and link between sleep and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety have been well researched and scientific investigators actually believe it is possible that high-quality sleep could help reduce the severity of these conditions. 

We now know that sleep not only affects you physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially—it also greatly affects you mentally. Besides being the “universal health care provider,” sleep is basically nutrition for your brain. 

Sleep is basically nutrition for your brain.

Sleep impacts our resilience on a physical and psychological basis. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), about 100 years ago less than two percent of the population in the United States slept six hours or less a night. Today, 32.6 percent of working adults sleep six hours or less a night. 

It’s no coincidence that as society sleeps less and less, obesity, stress and chronic illnesses become more prevalent. Sleep deprivation (less than six hours/night) has been shown to affect our waistlines, hunger, stress tolerance, emotional reactivity and the activity in the brain where we have logical reasoning and judgment (prefrontal cortex).

High-Quality Sleep = Keystone Habit 

Senior woman jogging in public park

Getting high-quality sleep is similar to a solid foundation when building a house. When our sleep quality is good, sleep can be a keystone habit, or rather a solid foundation to build other healthy habits off of. 

Sleeping better can not only enhance physical, mental and emotional health, but it also generates the energy and self-control necessary to achieve other health goals. Sleep sharpens thinking and memory, strengthens physical health, and boosts mood and emotional regulation.

Tired minds don’t plan well. Sleep first, plan later.

Walter Reisch, Austrian director and screenwriter

 Why should we care and prioritize sleep? Here are a few reasons: 

  • Sleep optimizes a workout and generates energy for exercise
  • Sleep boosts immunity because the body goes through its rest and repair cycle
  • Weight loss gets easier because hunger hormones (leptin and ghrelin) are regulated
  • Stress management and resiliency (ability to bounce back from stressors) increases 
  • Sleep increases endurance and stamina during workouts and heart rate variability (HRV). Heart rate variability determines whether our nervous system is in fight or flight or resting state.
  • Sleep enhances productivity at work and fosters creative thinking
  • Sleep improves emotional regulation meaning you become more patient, even tempered and thoughtful/less emotionally reactive 
  • Sleep cleans out plaques of protein (amyloid beta) in the brain that have been linked to decreased cognitive function and Alzheimers 

HIgh-Quality Sleep and the Mental Health Connection 

Woman sleeping with alarm clock next to her

How does sleep work? When we sleep, our bodies cycle through a series of sleep stages, from light sleep (stages 1 and 2), to deep sleep (stage 3 or slow-wave sleep) and then dream sleep (also called rapid eye movement or REM sleep). Slow-wave sleep and REM sleep are critical parts of how sleep works to restore the body and mind. 

During sleep (especially REM sleep), the brain works to evaluate and remember thoughts and memories. 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.

Dementia is an example of impaired cognitive function that sleep loss can contribute to or exacerbate the severity of other dementia symptoms. Dementia is marked by brain cells not functioning as they should and dying off more quickly than they do in people without dementia. 

People with dementia spend less time in slow-wave sleep and REM sleep and more time in the earlier stages of sleep. This reduction of deep sleep and REM sleep can worsen as dementia progresses.

How to Build High-Quality Sleep Habits

Sleep journal

Sleep experts recommend seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Two simple ways during the day to start preparing your body for sleep are to expose yourself to natural light in the morning or early afternoon and incorporate some sort of movement throughout the day. These two activities help regulate your internal clock, energy levels and body temperature which are important factors for sleep. 

A good way to take control and gain valuable insight about sleep duration, sleep stages, physical activities and the body’s physical recovery is with a fitness tracker. Many of these multipurpose wearables come with technology that can track sleep stages, disturbances, respiratory rate, body temperature, heart rate variability and more. If you do go the fitness tracker route, look for one with a screen that doesn’t light up—that way you reduce your blue light exposure before bed. 

Using a sleep journal is another way to track how well you sleep and identify those factors that might be helping or hurting your sleep. If you’re testing out a new sleep schedule or other sleep hygiene changes, a sleep diary can help document how well it’s working.

As you review your sleep diary, consider these questions to help evaluate your sleep:

  • Am I budgeting enough time for sleep?
  • Is my sleep schedule consistent or full of fluctuations?
  • Am I spending significant time lying in bed without being able to fall asleep?
  • Is my sleep disrupted at night? If so, is there any pattern in the diary that might explain why?
  • Is my sleep satisfying? Do I feel drowsy during the day?
  • Am I taking naps that are too long or too late in the day that could be affecting my nighttime sleep?
  • Is my use of alcohol, caffeine, and/or medications affecting my sleep time or sleep quality?

As you go through these questions, identify opportunities where you can experiment with different sleep tips to get a good night’s rest and how you can boost your sleep hygiene.  

So next time you’re staying up late scrolling on your phone or working on a project, remember to pause and think about all the benefits of sleep. 

What side of the bed do you want to wake up on tomorrow and how will that impact your day?

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