This week’s piece is all about ways sleep can boost your mental health for World Sleep Day.
World Sleep Day
Happy World Sleep Day! Today is an annual awareness day started by the medical community in the United States working in sleep medicine and research. These professionals kept encountering beliefs that sleep was not a priority for wellbeing. World Sleep Day is hosted by World Sleep Society (WSS), a nonprofit based in the United States. WSS aims to lessen the burden of sleep problems on society through better prevention and management of sleep disorders.
How sleep and mental health are connected
We have all had times where we haven’t had enough sleep. I think it’s safe to say, lack of sleep affects our mental acuity and mood. Conversely, when we have had deep quality sleep we feel alert and our mental health is boosted. We can tackle daily challenges much more effectively. Along with a healthy diet and exercise, sleep forms the third part of this trilogy. It enables growth and repair of cells, and our brains to consolidate and process information.
As research discovers exactly how sleep supports mental health, neuroimaging and neurochemistry suggests that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience. Conversely, sleep disruptions make it easier for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability to creep in.
How much sleep do I need to boost my mental health?
The recommended amount of sleep for adults is between seven to nine hours per night to function optimally. Clearly, this will vary from person to person. Research from the University of California, San Francisco found that some people carry a gene enabling them to function well on six hours of sleep per night. This gene, however, is very rare, thought to appear in less than 3% of the population. For the remaining 97%, six hours of sleep will not be sufficient. Personally, I need a lot of sleep, ideally eight to nine hours! Anything less than seven hours and I struggle. Importantly, children, teenagers and young people will require more sleep to grow and develop.
It is not simply the number of hours but also the quality and depth of sleep. You may find that you do sleep for the recommended time, however you struggle to wake up in the morning and stay awake all day. This could be an indicator that you are not getting enough deep sleep. For more information about this Harvard Medical School blog will give you an overview.
What happens to our mental health when we don’t get enough sleep?
It is believed that one in three people in the UK experience poor quality and/or lack of sleep. Regularly experiencing poor sleep places us at risk of physical ill-health as well as mental-ill health. There is a correlation between a lack of sleep and obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is in addition to making us more susceptible to viruses as a result of reduced immunity. There is also an impact on life expectancy, less sleep = a shorter life.
Research shows that poor quality and/or lack of sleep is linked to physical health issues such as a weakened immune system, anxiety and depression. There is a connection between anxiety and sleep rhythms. Anxiety can result in an increased heart rate, which links to racing thoughts in the mind. In turn this racing “buzzing” mind produces beta waves. Beta waves make someone too stimulated to sleep. An active, buzzing brain is likely to trigger other thoughts and worries, making it increasing more difficult to fall asleep.
When it comes to making decisions and concentrating, it is likely that your brain is not functioning at its best when sleep deprived. Thus increasing the risk of injury and accidents at home, work and whilst driving.
Ways you can improve the quality of your sleep to boost mental health
There are a lot of sleep myths out there. I recommend the work of the sleep science guru Dr Matthew Walker. He is the founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. You can this 6 min video Dr Matthew Walker’s Sleep Myths to get the facts.
Here are my top seven tips to improve the quality of your sleep to boost your mental health.
1. Digital detox
Ideally, you want to switch your phone off two hours before bed. I appreciate that for many of us this is a real challenge. So, how about 30 minutes prior to bed? The issue with phones is twofold. One is consistent use of social media can increase our levels of anxiety, which does not support falling soundly asleep. The other is that our mobile device screens emit blue light. Blue light falls between 400-500nm on the visible spectrum. Interestingly, blue light occurs naturally in sunlight. It is what enables us to distinguish between night and day. However, it is responsible for managing our circadian rhythm, important in determining the sleeping and feeding patterns of all animals, including human beings. Exposure to this light prior to bed time keeps us awake and suppresses the release of the hormone melatonin, required for sleep.
2. No caffeine after 14.00
Again, this tends to vary between people. I know some of you will be able to have a cup of coffee and fall fast asleep. If you are struggling to sleep, then cutting down on the caffeine can really help. The recommended daily allowance of caffeine per adult (excluding pregnant women), per day in the UK is 400mg. Caffeine is a stimulant. It blocks adenosine an important hormone (along with melatonin) that regulates sleep. This is why caffeine is great in the morning! It’s quick and effective, reaching a peak level in your blood within the hour and stays in the body for a significant time. It’s not just coffee, but chocolate, energy drinks and cola that have an impact too. For information on caffeine levels, this BBC article provides more information. To learn more about the chemistry of sleep hormones watch this video.
3. Gratitude journal
Sleep is affected by racing, negative thoughts. Prior to falling asleep, taking time out to reflect on small positive events that have happened during the day can help. Use a notebook that brings you joy, to encourage you to do this. A research study conducted by Dr. Nancy Digdon found that writing in a gratitude journal for just 15 minutes each night helped participants to worry less at bedtime. Consequently, they slept longer and more soundly as a result of this type of journaling.
We all know exercise is good for you. For many of us, time could be the enemy that prevent us from moving more. Nevertheless, we can find someway to bring in movement to our day. This could be doing a few stretches before bed, yoga, pilates in our pyjamas or making sure we add walking into our commute. Physical activity enables a deep sleep state and well as reducing insomnia. If you decide to do vigorous exercise, make sure you do this one-to-two hours prior to bed time, as the endorphin boost might keep you awake!
The term mindfulness has become a trend over the last five years. Research has shown and proven time and time again how effective it is. Connected to the theme of racing or anxious thoughts, mindfulness is centred on calming the mind and being in the present. It has been shown to reduce insomnia linked to stress and anxiety. By bringing your mind into awareness, recognising thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, you can manage your worries better. This reduces them taking over and feeling completely overwhelmed. Try this 3 minute five-step sleep meditation to get you started.
6. Essential oils
To create the right ambience and feeling I burn lavender, chamomile and geranium essential oils in a diffuser. You may think this sounds like new-fangled nonsense, but there is evidence as to how it works. When we smell something our olfactory nerve sends signals directory to our limbic system and amygdala. These are parts of our brain responsible for our memory or mood. Certain scents will trigger a memory and can instantly make us feel happier or calm. This is the basis of aromatherapy. Essential oils from plants can aid recovery of the mind and body in conjunction with traditional medicine. That’s why choosing scents that promote relaxation can support our bodies into a restful state ready for sleep. Integrating essential oils into your bedtime routine trains your mind to associate specific scents with falling asleep. For more information on essential oils to promote sleep Sleep Doctor blog is a good start.
Bedtime and stories in childhood, a precious time that lulls children into falling asleep. Adults too benefit from reading prior to falling asleep. University of Sussex cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis’ research found that reading reduces stress levels by 68% quickly. It only took 6 minutes for participants’ stress levels to be reduced in this study. Linked with reducing anxious thoughts, reading is another way to do this and support sleep. Reading for just 10 minutes before bedtime takes us away from our screens, focusses the mind calms us down.
How does improving sleep boost your mental health? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me.