The relationship between sleep and mental health is a two way street, with sleep affecting mental health, and mental health affecting sleep. Most of us will be familiar with feeling less than ourselves after a poor night's sleep, but why exactly is the relationship so close, and how can we improve it?
So what is the purpose of sleep? Far from simply recharging our bodies and minds, sleeping serves as a biological deep-clean, restoring damaged cells, repairing muscles, reorganising neurons, and tidying up or enhancing our memories. When it comes to our mental health, sleep serves an important purpose - brain activity increases in areas that regulate emotion, which in turn supports healthy brain function and emotional stability.
Poor sleep can cause:
Poor memory, focus, and concentration
Poor motor function
A weakened immune system
High blood pressure
& a tonne of other nasties
There are five main areas of the brain restored during sleep that are directly linked to our mental wellbeing; the amygdala, striatum, hippocampus, insula, and medial prefrontal cortex (A-Level Biology lessons all suddenly come flooding back).
This little almond-shaped part of our brain can be found in the temporal lobe, and assists in responses to fear and pleasure. When we get a crappy nights sleep, our amygdala hasn't been properly regulated and we can find ourselves overreacting to all sorts of situations the next day. Abnormal functioning of the amygdala can lead to various clinical conditions including depression and anxiety.
The sea-horse shaped part of our brain directs the limbic system, which is science slang for many of our bodily functions. In terms our mental health, the hippocampus is involved with the storage of long-term memory, which includes all of our past knowledge and experiences. When we sleep badly, our memory begins to deteriorate, and research has found that its deterioration is linked to anxiety and depression.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Whilst feeling low can negatively affect our sleep and feel like a never ending spiral where our anxiety keeps us up, and our lack of sleep makes us anxious, and so on, there are a few ways to get the upper hand.
Work out in the mornings if you're doing rigorous exercise such as running and weight-lifting so that burst of energy you get afterwards can be used for productivity rather than keeping you awake at night. If you only have time to work out in the evenings, try more gentle exercise such as yoga or pilates that will wind you down. The best thing about this is; the more you work out the better you sleep, and the more you sleep the better you'll work out.
Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, which is a long old time to still have it knocking around your system - even when your last coffee was at midday, by midnight that caffeine will still be 1/4 of the way out of your system. If you love a hot drink in the evenings, try herbal tea or hot chocolate, but bear in mind that even de-caff still contains significant amounts of caffeine that can affect sleep.
A Regular Routine
Our brains love a routine - ever notice how on a weekend you still wake up for your alarm even though it's switched off? By going to bed at the same time every night we can train our brains to know when it's time to switch off.
A Bedtime Routine
We've got a whole other article on this; find out what are the best things to incorporate into your bedtime routine here.
Beds are for...
Sleep! Don't do anything in bed other than the one activity they were made for. Oh, and that other activity, but just those two - okay?
And if you can't sleep...
Try not to sweat it. Get out of bed if you've been tossing and turning for more than twenty minutes and read a book, tidy a drawer, clean the kitchen, or another light activity until your mind chills out and decides it's finally on the same page as you.
If you're suffering from a sleep disorder, it's worth reaching out to a GP or mental health professional to understand if there are more suitable ways to help you nod off. And if you have any tips of your own for a good night's sleep, email us at email@example.com