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Sleep and Mental Health

Posted by Erin Fischer on

Everyone sleeps but how much we sleep, and the quality varies from person to person. Sleep allows the body to heal, process and clear excess thoughts, and helps with the immune system all while recharging us for the next day. An average adult needs somewhere between 7-9 hours of sleep a night to function. For some people they might be able to get away with 7 hours of sleep for others they need 9 hours.  

Sleep plays a big impact on our day to day lives. Not getting enough sleep in the short term can lead to concentration issues, not being able to regulate our emotions and slower reaction times. While not getting enough sleep in the long term can lead to hallucinations, higher chances of conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart attacks. While you can’t die from lack of sleep you can die from circumstances relating to lack of sleep. Driving tired can be the same as driving under the influence of alcohol, which as we know can have dangerous consequences.

There is however such a thing as too much sleep which can also have negative impacts on us including, diabetes, heart disease, depression, headaches, and death. Too much sleep is often due to an underlying health condition so if you find you are regularly sleeping for more than 9 hours a night, it might be worth talking to your doctor and getting checked out.

There are 4 stages of sleep we go through each night. These can be divided into NREM (non rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement). The stages are as follows:

  1. NREM Stage 1: falling asleep - this lasts around 8 minutes and during this time heartrate and breathing slow down and muscles begin to relax.
  2. NREM Stage 2: light sleep – this lasts around 25 minutes and during this time heartrate and breathing become slower, body temperature drops, no eye movements and sleep spindles and K waves (two distinct brain wave features) appear for the first time.
  3. NREM Stage 3: slow wave sleep – this is the deepest sleep state. During this time heartrate and breathing slow right down, body is fully relaxed, no eye movements, tissue repair, growth and cell regeneration happen, immune system strengthens, and delta brain waves are present.
  4. REM Stage R – this occurs within 90 minutes of you falling asleep and can last between 10 – 60 minutes. This is when dreaming happens, eye movements become rapid, breathing and heart rate increases, limb muscles become temporary paralysed and brain activity is markedly increased.

Sleep stages occur in cycles that repeat every 90 to 120 minutes with everyone having between 4 and 5 cycles a night. You are easier to be woken up in NREM Stage 1 and Stage 2 but harder to be woken up during NREM Stage 3.

In many cases when it comes to mental illness and sleep it can be hard to tell which came first. Sleep problems can lead to changes with mental health, but mental health problems can also cause sleep issues. An example of this is with anxiety, anxiety can cause sleep issues which can result in not enough sleep which increases anxiety, and the cycle continues in a downward spiral.

Insomnia can play a role in many mental illnesses including Depression, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder and ADHD. Studies are showing that people with insomnia may be at risk for developing depression and if we treat the insomnia we may be able to reduce or eliminate the depression before it takes hold. With PTSD, sleep deprivation is a common symptom and is believed to play a role in both the development and treatment of the disorder. While with bipolar disorder insomnia can play a key part along with disruptive sleep cycles and nightmares, this is because people with bipolar disorder have alternating periods of depressed and elevated moods both of which can impact the sleep cycle. With ADHD (which is  common among kids) people may experience a wide range of sleep related problems including having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and difficulty waking. With all these mental illnesses by addressing the sleep problems you can lessen the impact of them while also helping people get the most out of their treatments.

You don’t need to have a mental illness to suffer from sleep related mental health problems, with lack of sleep being tied to increased stress levels and general emotional changes. Therefore, it’s important to talk to your doctor if you are struggling with not getting enough sleep or insomnia on the regular. If you do suffer insomnia people have had great results using CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) to treat it. This is because it can help change peoples thoughts and behaviours around sleep which results in them sleeping better, as they are more aware of the impacts various things such as sleep hygiene can have on them. 

It's important to practice good sleep hygiene so that you can get the most of your sleep. You can practice good sleep hygiene by doing the following:

  • Not consuming caffeine late in the day.
  • Try not to nap during the day and if you are going to nap keep it under 30 minutes as any more than that can have a negative impact on your sleep quality at night.
  • Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day (even on weekends),
  • Limit your exposure to blue light, especially two hours before bed. This means limiting using your phone, watching TV or anything with a screen that emits blue light which can impact your circadian rhythm (our natural body clock that tells our body when to wake up and when to go to sleep). If you’re struggling to put down the phone before bed you can find apps that can limit your blue light exposure on your phone or wear blue light blocking glasses.
  • Keep the temperature of the room steady. If you’re too hot you won’t be able to sleep and it also limits the quality of your sleep, around 20 degrees is an ideal temperature for most people.
  • Make sure your bed and bedding are comfy. Not having a good mattress or pillow can impact your quality of sleep.
  • Keep the bedroom just for sleeping, so when you’re in bed your body knows that it is time for sleep.

While it may be easier said than done to practice good sleep hygiene you will see a difference.

It’s easy to see that sleep is important, not just with your physical health but also your mental health. So it’s important to prioritise it, especially as we start to head into this crazy time of year. Not only does sleep give us energy it also helps us handle stress and whatever else life may throw at you.

Feel free to drop by, just say, ‘Hey Barty’ in strict confidence and you can be anonymous if you wish. Or, do not hesitate to leave a question in the comments below any time.


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About Erin Fischer

Am the qualified mental health professional at Barty Single Origin. Write topical pieces with a focus on mental health. Always available on chat, Passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and letting people know it's A-OK to be not OK.


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