The positive impacts of sleep on mental health
This blog post was created by our Sleep Coach Annika Carroll.
The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I wanted to use the opportunity to talk to you about sleep and its impacts on mental health.
I do have a personal history of insomnia and anxiety and know how they can negatively affect each other. I also have a family history of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, so the topic of mental health is really close to my heart.
Mental health and Sleep or Insomnia affect each other
Studies have shown over and over again that sleep and mental health or insomnia and mental health affect each other. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the lack of sleep causes depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. But people who suffer from these things do all have sleep issues.
A recent article in the New York Times talked about Alzheimer’s and insomnia and how sleep can actually help prevent Alzheimer’s. The reason for that is that when we sleep at night, and we get good quality sleep, our brain gets cleaned from the debris that has collected over the day. When somebody develops Alzheimer’s proteins in the form of plaques -beta-amyloid plaques- get deposited in the brain. These plaques are what lead to the issues associated with Alzheimer’s. If the cleaning mechanism from sleeping was working correctly the brain would be cleared out and the impact would not be as significant. Since people suffering from Alzheimer's have sleep issues, the cleaning process is not as effective.
Mental Health: Emotions and moods
Sleep doesn’t only clean up the brain of the debris. Sleep also helps us regulate emotions and moods.
If you have a bad night’s sleep, or you pull an all-nighter, your sensitivity to emotional triggers increases by 60%. You become significantly more sensitive the next day. If you’re a parent you might know this from your kids. When they go to bed too late and get up early the next day, you already know what the day is going to be like:
- lots of crankiness
- lots of tears
- maybe some fighting
- a rollercoaster of emotions kind of day
When adults have a bad night’s sleep they get to hear the “Gotten up on the wrong side of the bed today?”
What happens in these cases is that our emotions didn’t get processed properly overnight. That is why we become so sensitive and cannot really control these emotions over the day and it's due to the insufficient REM sleep.
Non-REM sleep / REM sleep
We generally go through multiple sleep cycles every night: 4 to 5 of them. These sleep cycles consist of two phases:
1. the non-REM phases that come first in the cycle
2. followed by a phase of REM sleep.
REM sleep is the phase where we dream, our heartbeat goes up, where we breathe faster. It’s the phase we wake up out of in the morning. During that phase - because of our dreaming - we regulate and process our emotions that we have experienced. If this phase doesn’t happen properly we experience mood swings and emotional reactivity.
What is important to understand in this context is that in the sleep phases we go through during the night. First we go through the non-REM sleep, which are light and deep sleep phases, and then we have the REM sleep phase. The amount of non-REM to REM sleep in the sleep cycles changes overnight. When we fall asleep we have a relatively short REM phase and a relatively long non-REM phase. The later it gets in the night - the longer we sleep - the longer the REM phase is.
The amount of REM sleep increases with the number of sleep cycles we go through.
So if we cut our sleep short, because we had to watch that show on Netflix, or we get up early due to an appointment we need to get to, we cut our sleep short and significantly shorten the amount of REM sleep for the body. This is supposed to happen in the later sleep phases. That is where the emotional processing takes place. As the amount of REM sleep increases significantly throughout the night, the shorter your night, the smaller the amount of REM sleep you get.
Interestingly, researchers found that the regions in our brains that are responsible for sleep regulation and are negatively impacted by sleep loss are the same regions that are impacted in people with mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. This just shows how linked the topics of mental health and sleep are!
The good news is that by improving people's sleep - amount, quality, and regularity - their moods improve and their conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder can be significantly improved and even sent into remission.
How can we improve our REM sleep?
Get enough sleep. Don’t cut out or shorten the later sleep cycles.
If you already do that and think that you are sleeping enough, but have anxiety or are often depressed, have a look at what could be causing that. It could have an impact on your REM sleep.
My suggestions for better REM sleep:
- Have a consistent bedtime Monday - Sunday.
- Avoid alcohol at least three hours before you go to sleep. Alcohol has been shown to delay the onset
of the first REM cycle and to reduce overall REM sleep.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool - like a cave. That way you can get an undisturbed sleep.
- Exercise 30 minutes daily (find something you enjoy. A 30 minute brisk walk counts!). Finish your
exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime.
- Consistency is key!
If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch.