Sleep: An activity the majority of us engage daily, but few probably know how important it is. Forgoing sleep for the sake of productivity is a common habit for many. For others, sleep may feel illusive and the difficulty to obtain sleep can lead to the belief that it must not be necessary. For others, the task of going to sleep can be so anxiety-provoking that it is altogether avoided. With the trends in sleep-deprivation as a society, it is important to evaluate some important information about sleep: What is sleep for? How does it impact mental health? And how can one improve sleep?
In This Article
The Benefits of Sleep
We benefit from sleep mentally, physically, and emotionally. It has been discovered that there is not one bodily process that does not benefit from sleep. That person who appears to be sound asleep on the couch in reality has a brain hard at work. Our sleep rotates between stages of deep and REM sleep. Each of these stages plays an integral part in keeping the body functioning.
It is during sleep that the brain solidifies memory and learned skills from short to long term memory. While we sleep, the task of cleaning out old, no longer needed, connections, to make room for new connections, is performed. Cognitive and developmental milestones are achieved during our time in slumber. That difficult problem that you couldn’t make sense of during the day may just be a good night’s rest from the solution, as well as, what you may need to access and execute your creative skills.
Thanks to REM sleep and the state of dreaming, we are able to process and discharge emotions from our day. The microbiome, the back bone of the immune system, flourishes thanks to a good night’s rest. Lack of sleep has been researched and linked to depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, heart attack, chronic pain, Alzheimer’s Disease, and stroke.
The Problems that Arise from Sleep Deprivation
For those that are deprived of sleep chronically, the symptoms of impaired performance, low alertness, and reduced energy become the normal state of things and are no longer detectable by the individual. All of this only scrapes the surface of what sleep does for us.
Most important to our purposes, the impact of sleep on mental health is exponential. Whether it be reduced sleep over a number of nights or depriving all of sleep in a night, research has shown drastic implications related to anxiety, depression, emotion regulation, suicidal ideation, addiction, and aggression.
Researchers studied the response of the amygdala, a structure that acts as the alarm system for your brain, in participants who were sleep-deprived and found the response to be amplified by at least 60%. Meaning, those who forego sleep have a harder time maintaining a healthy emotional response when triggered. Mood swings are also a symptom of the sleep deprived as a result of the inability to regulate emotion.
Dreaming is also imperative to our mental health. The process of dreaming occurs during REM sleep, and it is while we dream that we are able to digest our emotional experience from the day. Meaning that, the range of emotions we experience in a day, can be processed while we dream. Sleep also regulates important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine, and a lack of sleep causes these chemicals to become hyperactive that can lead to impulsivity and risk taking behavior.
For some, sleep can seem nearly impossible to obtain. Begging the question, “What can I do to improve this much needed function of sleep?”
The biggest assaults on our sleep are artificial lights, caffeine, alcohol, the ability to regulate room temperature, and stress. It is important to know that, along with diminishing evening light signaling sleep for our bodies, a dip in body temperature also clues our body into needing to enter a state of rest.
Modern thermostats give us an ability to maintain a temperature day and night, sometimes prohibiting our body from cooling. The cycle of stress, making sleep difficult, and the lack of sleep (provoking anxiety) is another common contributor.
14 Tips for Better Sleep
The following are considerations that address these major attacks on sleep:
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Exercise is great, but not too late in the day. Try to exercise at least thirty minutes, but not later than two to three hours before your bedtime .
- Avoid caffeine. The effects of caffeine can take as long as eight hours to wear off fully.
- Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. It may seem like alcohol helps you sleep, but it is actually a state of sedation and not restorative sleep that alcohol induces.
- Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
- Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.
- If possible, avoid medication that can delay or disrupt your sleep, or see if they can be taken earlier in the day.
- Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
- Relax before bed. Don’t over-schedule your day so that no time is left for unwinding. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, should be part of your bedtime ritual.
- Take a hot bath before bed. The drop in body temperature after getting out of the bath may help you feel sleepy, and the bath can help you relax and slow down so you’re more ready to sleep.
- A dark, cool, gadget-free bedroom is most conducive to healthy sleep. A drop in evening temperature along with dim lighting signals the release of melatonin, a chemical that lets the body know that sleep is coming.
- Turn the clock’s face out of view so you don’t worry about the time while trying to fall asleep.
- Have the right sunlight exposure. Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day. Your internal clock is regulated by the daylight. Bright morning light signals it’s time to wake up, and the fading light of evening signals bedtime is approaching.
- Don’t lie in bed awake. If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than 20 minutes or if you are starting to feel anxious or worried, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.
Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of sleep and dreams. New York, NY: Scribner.
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