It feels redundant to write about the obvious importance of sleep; everybody knows that, right? However, some people let things like insomnia or excessive sleeping slide by and they don’t take care of these issues. It is important to raise awareness about the indispensable role sleep plays in our lives. Just as we need to eat, drink water, breath fresh air, we also need sleep to get our physical and mental health back on track. Therefore, in the following paragraphs, we will take a look at the ways sleep affects our mental health. The correlation between mental health and sleep seems to be more common than ever before but is rarely talked about. Luckily, you’re at the right place if you were wondering about this topic, just like we did.
Sleep is an essential process that we cannot live without. Our bodies are wired in such a way that without sleep we cannot function properly nor effectively. Sleeping, alongside breathing, eating, and drinking is what makes us alive and well, meaning it is indispensable for our mental and physical well being and health. However, the lack of sleep or excessive sleeping can also affect our health, in a negative way, that can lead to the development of terrible mental and physical conditions. Sleeping is the quintessential aspect of our health, and without it or with the perfect storm of events, we might ultimately die.
The Sleep Process
It is impossible to discuss the effects of sleep on our mental health, without actually understanding the sleep process. Sleeping is a rather complex process, and even though many see it as a time we spend being inactive, it is actually the time our brains go wild. When we sleep, our bodies undertake some of the most important activities that help us function while we’re awake. Primarily, because our bodies, mainly muscles, are relaxed and the awareness levels are pretty low, sleep enables us to recover and regenerate the damage that has been made during the day. You can look at sleep as a pit stop, except it lasts longer than a few seconds. But, the idea is there; you spend the whole day working, running around, dealing with a hectic modern-day life, and, at night, it is time to shut down for a while and let the brain and the body do its job.
During sleep, the brain is able to process information, locate possible damage and enact damage control, so to speak. It also consolidates memory, makes us have weird dreams to distract us from the fact that we haven’t moved in hours; all because this pit stop is necessary if we want to function effectively the following day.
Here’s a fun fact; did you know that during sleep we are still learning and practicing the already acquired knowledge? Well, sleep allows us to repeat everything we have encountered that day. For example, bilingual people usually dream in two languages or the language they use less in everyday life. For me personally, I usually dream in German, even though English is my first language. This way, the brain strengthens memories and the acquired knowledge, recognizes and picks out emotional details, and helps us create new connections between information, get new ideas, perspectives and inspiration.
Some of the most famous composers, like Beethoven, got ideas for their masterpieces in their dreams. For example, the famous opening notes to his 5th Symphony, known as ‘Fate knocking on your door’, appeared to him in a dream, because his brain has recognized that someone was actually knocking at the door while he was asleep. How cool is that?
But, let’s get back to the actual sleep process. Because the sleep process is complex, it consists of two different brain states;
- Non-rapid eye movement or NREM – this state consists of 4 more states, the most important being delta sleep or slow-wave sleep ( SWS)
- Rapid eye movement or REM – this state shows a close resemblance to active wakefulness and simultaneous active muscle inhibition to reflect heavy sleep.
NREM and REM, are both parts of the sleep-wake cycle, which is regulated by a mechanism called the circadian timer and the sleep homeostat. NREM and REM are both recurrent states, appearing after 90 minutes, each. On the other hand, the circadian timer helps us determine that we should be sleeping when it’s night time and allows the release of melatonin, while the sleep homeostat ensures we enter the deep sleep phase. The complex nature of the sleeping process simply shows that we are not designed to stay awake during the night, or that we should be asleep all the time, thanks to the circadian timer.
Note: People who, for example, work regular night shifts, are more likely to experience heart diseases or cancer. On the other spectrum, people who sleep too much are at a greater risk of mental illnesses and physical, chronic fatigue, but we’ll get to that later.
Sleep Problems and Mental Illness
Around 50% to 80% of Americans suffer from some type of sleep-related problems. Sleep-deprivation is the leading problem on the list, and depression is the leading risk factor in the toxic relation between sleeping poorly and mental health. Studies have shown that sleep problems are usually common in patients who suffer some sort of mental condition, like depression, anxiety, bipolar or borderline personality disorder, PTSD, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD.
To understand the sleeping problems and their relation to our mental health better, we will now take a look at how poor and excessive sleep affects mental health. This is a good way to differentiate between what a good night’s sleep actually means, and what type of sleeping patterns and routines can be harmful to our well-being.
Lack of Sleep
Sleep problems, or poor sleep in particular, as mentioned above, may cause or increase the risk of developing certain mental illnesses, but could also affect patients who already experience psychological or psychiatric disorders. Because the sleep states and cycles alternate during the night, our body temperature drops, our muscles become relaxed and our heart rate as well as breathing slow down. Because at this point we have entered the deep sleep, any type of sleep disruption increases the chance of impairing the emotional and physical sleeping regulation, triggering a mental problem. This usually results in sleep deprivation or insomnia, furthering the deterioration of our mental health, and leads to the following mental illnesses:
I know I have just mentioned insomnia, but I can’t seem to emphasize enough how dangerous this state is. For a long time, insomnia has been observed as a symptom of mental illness, rather as a mental health condition on its own. Insomnia is not just sleeplessness; this is a general inability to fall or stay asleep for a longer period, which affects mental and physical health equally. It seems to be a stepping stone to other mental illnesses, affects thoughts, behavior, emotions, hormone levels, and can quickly develop into a chronic, long-term condition.
People who experience insomnia usually describe it as a general restlessness, unnecessary arousal of mind and body accompanied by racing thoughts, overthinking, worrying, and then exhaustion, fatigue, and low energy. Long-term insomnia does not only affect sleep and its quality but affects the quality of life on a daily basis. Sleep deprivation can leave people sleepy during day time, cause them to have poor concentration, low-interest levels, weakened immune systems, and overall, can be fatal. Insomniacs can also experience the need to sleep, and actually fall asleep, or rather take a nap, but these are just temporary struggles to catch up with a normal sleeping cycle.
Studies have shown that the majority of the population suffering from sleep deprivation usually experiences major depression or depressive episodes. On the other hand, around 65% to 90% of the population who suffer from depression experience some kind of sleeping problem. This shows the undeniable causality between mental health and sleep, especially when both are disrupted. Usually, people with depression experience insomnia, as research conducted in a Michigan health maintenance organization showed; among 1000 participants, those who have reported cases of insomnia were 4 times as likely to develop depression and vice versa. Almost every participant actually had sleep problems before depression occured.
Moreover, studies have also shown that people suffering from insomnia and depression are less likely to respond to treatment than those suffer solely sleep problems. Antidepressant seems to work in some cases, but these patients are unfortunately more likely to commit suicide than depressed people who have a normal sleeping pattern. That is why, if you’re experiencing both depression and insomnia, you should seek professional help as soon as possible, and hopefully, get back on the right track.
Around 50% of people experiencing sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality also develop an anxiety disorder, and vice versa. If someone has trouble falling or staying asleep over a longer period, chances are they might develop sleep anxiety or sleep phobia. Sleep anxiety arises from the inability to sleep, and that is when people become restless, they toss and turn, and eventually give up on sleeping. Not to mention the frustration and moodiness that comes the following day. Often, people who suffer from sleep anxiety may have troubles with obsessive-compulsive disorders, alcohol consumption, the issue with chronic pain, e.g. back pain, etc.
The problem with sleep anxiety or anxiety in general, is that it can easily lead to changes in mood, behavior, or even depression. Many cases of sleep anxiety and anxiety disorders preceded depression, and other mental illnesses. Sleep anxiety, in general, contributes to negative emotional state, physical exhaustion, fatigue and overall deterioration of both mental and physical health.
Excessive Sleeping or Hypersomnia
Usually, people associate sleep problems with lack of sleep or sleep deprivation. However, excessive sleeping can be just as harmful to mental health as the lack of sleep. Hypersomnia can be characterized as excessive sleepiness during the day and extreme nighttime sleep. There are different types of hypersomnia, like narcolepsy 1 and 2, as well as idiopathic hypersomnia and Kleine-Levin syndrome. However, hypersomnia as a whole can be described as excessive fatigue, an uncontrollable need to sleep, weakened muscles, drowsiness, altered behavior, and hypersexuality. Excessive sleeping can also affect one’s mental health, and here’s how:
Hypersomnia and depression
The connection between hypersomnia and depression is rather complex and oftentimes bidirectional. Hypersomnia can cause depression, but depression can also cause hypersomnia, that is why it is difficult to trace which one came first. Excessive sleepiness is oftentimes described as a symptom of severe depression, but it can also be the other way around. Nevertheless, excessive sleeping can, in fact, lead to depression, if the condition becomes recurrent and long-term. It can cause a general mood disorder and depressive episodes, anxiety, reduced energy, and appetite, as well as impaired speech, thinking, and overall restlessness. Causes for hypersomnia can be different, and usually include:
- Hormonal imbalance,
- Drug or alcohol abuse,
- Tranquilizers, antihistamines, or other prescription medication,
- Sleep deprivation,
- Sleep apnea,
- Genetic predisposition,
- Medical condition, like obesity,
- Physical injury, trauma, or damage to the central nervous system
Hypersomnia and general mood disorders
Excessive sleeping doesn’t only play a significant role in the development of depression, but also in the development of other mood disorders. Hypersomnia can cause a generally low mood with some individuals, manic episodes with others, as well as bipolar disorder, anxiety, or personality disorder. Lack of emotional responsiveness, as well as low interest and need for socializing are also some of the effects of hypersomnia, usually because of the person experiences both mental and physical effects. Fatigue, moodiness, lethargy, conflicting demands of sleepiness and the need to stay awake can be a rather unpleasant combination of bad emotional and physical states. As mentioned before, all of this can eventually lead to major depressive disorders, which can even prolong the already excessive sleeping.
Sleep and Mental Health Betterment?
Even though in some cases the treatment of both sleep problems and mental illness, at the same time, can be extremely hard, there are ways one can succeed in this attempt. Historically, some of the greatest people who have walked this planet have had the same problems. Those problems were actually what made the geniuses in the first place, but let’s not turn this the wrong way; they have usually made it through the issues and got better. The bottom line is that we can all fall into the depth of the depression, anxiety, and insomnia, and we can all recover. If it is a relatively new problem, you may be able to kick it using lifestyle changes and possibly psychiatric medications. Here are some of our best recommendation of how you can better you sleep as well as your mental health.
Eat well and stay active
A proper diet is essential for your body, as it helps you stay energized, healthy, and in a good mood. It is one of the easiest ways to improve your mental and physical health, as well as sleep. All you have to do is cut out junk food, food with refined sugars, and saturated fat. Then, you simply have to increase the intake of healthy food, like fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables. Alongside a healthy diet, make sure to start exercising. Exercising at least 30 minutes a day can reduce stress levels, improve overall mood, and provide restful sleep.
Stay away from alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes
The holy trinity of vices, alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes can cause serious physical and mental problems. People who abuse drugs or alcohol have a generally higher risk of developing a mental illness, and not to mention, lose sleep due to the adverse effects of these substances on the brain. Alcohol and drugs increase anxiety levels, therefore, increase the heart rate and breathing issues, which makes it extremely difficult to get a good night’s sleep.
Moreover, stopping smoking is also an important step in sleep and mental health betterment. Nicotine addicts usually experience extreme mood swings and those who decide to cut down on or completely stop smoking experience better mood and reduced anxiety.
Expose yourself to nature
Getting a dose of nature is a great way to start your mental and physical betterment journey. By exposing yourself to the sun, you will increase the levels of serotonin, which is the famous feel-good chemical. Furthermore, vitamin D production will go through the roof which may make your depression and anxiety take a break. Vitamin D also regulates the sleep-wake cycle, so it will definitely help you combat sleep problems.
Furthermore, by spending time in nature you will be exposed to natural light and colors. For example, the color green is known to reduce stress and improve happiness in certain individuals. The color green also promotes a harmonious and comforting feeling, as well as rest and calmness. Furthermore, the color blue, whether in the sky or a river, has tremendous power over stress. It’s extremely soothing, as it slows down heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and reduces anxiety. Overall, after spending a day in nature, you will definitely start feeling better. Chances are that your body and mind will be filled with positive energy and that the sleep-wake cycle will return to its normal rhythmn.
Meditation is an excellent mental exercise that can help you reduce anxiety levels as well as help you deal with depression. Because meditation includes exercises of breathing or repeating a mantra, it can help you fix the disrupted sleeping habits, and calm you enough to finally fall, and stay asleep during the whole night. Meditation has an overall positive effect on the mind and body, as it focuses on stress relief and relaxation. You can also combine the previous lifestyle recommendations to achieve the ultimate mental and physical betterment; try meditating in nature, or bring the colors of nature to your room, and meditate in your comfort zone.
The correlation between sleep and mental health might not always be obvious or direct. Therefore, it is important to take a closer look at yourself, your lifestyle, and if you notice drastic changes in your sleeping patterns or general mood, it is time to consult a professional. This article might be a helpful guide for you, but you shouldn’t completely rely on it. Sleeping problems and mental illnesses are unique to each individual, therefore, need a personalized approach. However, we do hope that some of our explanations and suggestions might help you improve your mental and physical health, and overall lifestyle and well-being.