The Importance of Sleep for Mental Wellness
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
This post is part of a series in which I talk about simple lifestyle factors everyone can focus on in order to support their mental wellness as much as possible. I always harp on lifestyle changes as an important aspect of therapy because I view health holistically. If you are taking care of yourself physically, it will almost always benefit your mental state. But if sleep, rest, nutrition, exercise, play, and social support are neglected, it will be harder to progress towards your mental wellness goals.
Sleep Disruption & Mental Health
Everyone struggles to sleep from time to time. When it becomes a chronic issue, sleep disruption can have negative impacts on mood, mental health, and general well being. For some mental health concerns, sleep disruption is a common symptom. Depression, anxiety, bipolar, and PTSD are just a few such conditions . Trouble falling/staying asleep, sleeping too much, and nightmares are all common with these conditions. Sleep disorders can also contribute to worsening of symptoms for many mental health conditions. For instance, people with ADHD may notice their concentration is better when they are sleeping well.
Difficulty sleeping is so disruptive because our bodies do many things to support our health while we sleep. Although researchers are still learning about why we sleep, one thing is becoming more clear. Sleep impacts the production of hormones and neurotransmitters, both of which play a major role in mental health. Chemicals in the body such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, cortisol, and others are relevant to mental health concerns. If you aren’t sleeping well, these chemicals can become unbalanced, further contributing to both the sleep problem itself and any mental health conditions you may be experiencing. So, we can easily see how trouble sleeping can be a vicious cycle that throws us off our mental health goals.
Circadian Rhythm: What is it?
Your body has an internal clock that helps establish your sleep/wake patterns. This clock is called your circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythms run in 24 hour cycles and impact (among other things) the production of hormones that relate to sleep . Circadian rhythms are also highly impacted by light exposure. When your circadian rhythm is functioning properly, it supports a healthy sleep cycle. When the system becomes disrupted, it can contribute to sleep problems. To help reset your circadian rhythm, a great place to start is thinking about light exposure throughout the day.
Hacking Your Circadian Rhythm
To make the most of your sleep rhythm, it helps to think in terms of light exposure and hacking your body's natural clock. Here are some tips:
* Get out in the sunshine:
As mentioned earlier, circadian rhythms are deeply impacted by light exposure. When you wake, try going outside and spending time in the early morning light. This sends signals to your brain to stop producing the hormone that causes sleepiness (melatonin)  and helps regulate your body’s internal sleep/wake clock.
* Limit light exposure later in the day:
Your brain starts to produce more melatonin when it gets dark outside. In the modern world, we tend to keep our homes brightly lit well after the sun sets. If you struggle to feel sleepy, it may be helpful to start to dim the lighting in your house a few hours before bed. Some people go as far as to switch to candle light later in the evening.
* Address blue light exposure:
It has become common advice to put down all electronics about two hours before bed. This is because the blue light produced by electronics is considered especially stimulating for the brain. This includes phones, tablets, computers, televisions, etc. If you can’t turn things off for whatever reason, consider blue light blocking glass or screen protectors.
* Seasonal changes:
When the seasons change, many people notice their sleep patterns getting thrown off due to shorter or longer days. It may be helpful to build awareness of how the changing seasons impact your sleep and double down on any sleep routines that help support you.
General Sleep Hygiene Tips
Here are a few other tips to help you get the best possible shut eye each night.
* Work with a therapist:
Since sleep problems are both a cause and a symptom of mental health concerns, getting support from a therapist can be helpful. Therapists can help you manage mental health concerns and reduce the impact on your sleep. People also tend to create a lot of negative thoughts around sleep when they are struggling to get rest. Therapists can help you shift your thoughts about sleep so that it doesn’t feel like such a major stressor.
* Commit to a solid routine:
A consistent routine is helpful in creating and maintaining healthy sleep patterns. By getting up and going to bed at about the same time each day, you help your brain and body create a strong sleep rhythm.
* Cut down on caffeine:
Caffeine alters the production of adenosine, a brain chemical that causes sleepiness in the evening . Try cutting caffeine off at noon for a week or two and see how it impacts your sleep.
* Avoid alcohol:
It may seem counterintuitive, but alcohol negatively impacts sleep. Alcohol may contribute to sleepiness initially, but it tends to disrupt the body’s natural sleep cycles . This may cause you to wake up throughout the night or wake up feeling not rested. The more you drink, the greater the impact. If you do choose to drink, limit yourself to 1 or 2 and stop drinking several hours before bedtime.
* Create a sleep paradise:
If the room you sleep in isn’t comfortable, it can cause major issues. Investing in a comfortable mattress, pillow, and bedding can help you relax. Make your room as dark as possible and eliminate sources of electronic light. Turn your thermostat down so that you’re a bit chilly when you crawl into bed. A white noise machine or fan can help drown out any annoying sounds that may keep you up.
* Establish relaxing rituals:
Many people struggle to wind down at the end of the day due to all the stress they’re facing. Making time for a bedtime ritual can help signal to your brain that it is time to relax and rest. This can look different for everyone but some ideas include showering, self-massage, tea, aromatherapy, reading, or anything else that makes you feel at peace.
A meditation practice is an important part of the bedtime ritual for many folks. It can be as simple as breathing quietly for a few minutes to center yourself. You can also try one of the many guided meditations specifically for improved sleep that are available online. I like to use the free app Insight Timer.
If you are dealing with stress-inducing thoughts, journaling can be a great brain dump. Another option is to write down everything that went well that day or a gratitude list. This helps you cultivate a more peaceful and positive mindset as you drift off. If journaling isn’t your jam, you can also try taking 15 minutes to review your planner or to-do list and jot down any tasks that are taking up space in your brain. This can help you feel confident that you’re prepared for the day ahead and turn off your brain for a bit.
Many people experience better sleep when they are getting adequate daily exercise. Researchers believe exercise helps to balance mood and certain chemicals in the brain but still aren’t totally clear on why exercise helps with insomnia. About 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per day is considered a good place to start . One thing to keep in mind: people often find that exercising too close to bed can actually keep them awake, so earlier in the day may be best. Just experiment to find what works best for you.
Thanks for joining me for this exploration of sleep and mental health. Hopefully the info I shared will help you get the rest you need and deserve. If you need personalized recommendations to help you address your mental health and sleep patterns, I can help! Please check my contact page for my details. Sweet dreams!