How important is sleep to mental health?

words by Guy Little, Thursday 18 July 2019

We can spend (on average), up to one third of our life asleep. This is probably just a little more than we spend coaching or playing footy! Perhaps you’ve heard that sleep is important for physical recovery after a game or training, as well as for mental readiness before a game, but is sleep important to mental health as well? If it is, how important is it?

The guys and girls in white coats (no, not the umpires, the scientists) are yet to fully understand the relationship between sleep and mental health. It is incredibly complex. What they do know is that if we are deprived of good sleep, our mental health can be influenced in a negative way. They also know that people who have mental health difficulties, more often than not, have poor sleep. “But what do you mean by poor sleep?” I hear you say. Poor sleep is disruption to our sleep cycles and phases of sleep. It can relate to difficulties falling asleep, waking multiple times in the night, or waking earlier than you want. We can all have an off night or two when it comes to sleep. But, if these difficulties occur over a prolonged period of time, our sleep is disordered (out of normal order), and we may have a sleep disorder. There are also many sleep conditions that lead to waking or disordered sleep – and not all of them are mental-health related. Doctors have identified over 70 different types of sleep disorders, and not all of them are psychological conditions! If we turn to the types and phases of sleep, we can see what disruption to them can do to the brain.

Sleep cycles

When we are asleep, we go through what are called, sleep cycles. They typically last 90 minutes. They are made up of two important types of sleep, quiet and rapid-eye-movement (REM).

Quiet sleep

When we go to sleep, we start in quiet sleep. We go through four phases of increasing states of relaxation. Our heart rate and body temperature decreases and our muscles relax. Scientists consider that the lowest phases of this sleep-type helps regenerate and maintain our immune functioning (perhaps why we can get sick if we don’t sleep well!). 

REM sleep

Many people are familiar with REM sleep (probably no thanks to the band R.E.M.), because this is the time when we dream, and we are in a more awake state than in the lower phases of quiet sleep. REM sleep is thought to help with learning, memory consolidation, and emotional health. With little to no REM sleep, it is difficult to be resilient – to bounce back from adversity, manage our emotions, and our mental health can deteriorate. 

As I said earlier, sleep is complex and so is the interconnection with mental health. Researchers are not sure of exactly how this relationship works, but they do know that disruption to sleep cycles can have a negative influence on our brains through affecting stress hormone and neurotransmitter levels (along with a range of other important functions). The end result is problems with thinking and our ability to manage our emotions. So, going back to the mental health continuum, you could imagine that these effects would not help someone who is already in the phase of struggling. And, for those who are in coping, poor sleep is likely to make it harder to cope and shift towards thriving, and, over a prolonged period of time, is likely to lead them to the phase of struggling. Also, those who are thriving and experience poor sleep over a period of time, may start to shift towards coping and then struggling.

So, sleep and mental health are interconnected and poor sleep is likely to make things worse for those with mental health difficulties. Also, those with mental health difficulties are likely to have poor sleep. If you know someone who is struggling with poor sleep, then the good thing is that there are some things that can help improve sleep quality. These are lifestyle changes (e.g., regular exercise, healthy diet), sleep hygiene (i.e., things we can do around going to bed to help us have good sleep), talking therapy (to help our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours around sleep), and medical intervention (e.g., short-term use of sleeping medications, machines to assist with regular breathing, dental aids to reduce waking from snoring, and surgical procedures to assist in maintaining airways while you sleep). For our next blog post, we’ll look at some lifestyle interventions and sleep hygiene tips. In the meantime, if you or someone you know is struggling to sleep, please consult your doctor for an assessment and advice.

Guy Little is the Tackle Your Feelings Program Psychologist.

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