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Sleep

Understanding the Connection Between Sleep and Mental Health

Mental health and lack of sleep: a bidirectional relationship.

Key points

  • Sleep disturbances can affect your mental health.
  • How improving sleep can boost your mood.
  • Try these methods to improve sleep and mental health.

More than one-third of Americans are not getting enough sleep. That’s a lot of people walking around with well-known symptoms like “brain fog,” moodiness, and the general inability to think straight and remember information. It’s not an exaggeration to say our lack of sleep is becoming a public health crisis.

Sleep deprivation is also a major risk factor for health challenges such as:

  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Heart attack
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

Beyond these issues, though, a lack of sleep can trigger new mental health conditions or exacerbate existing ones.

Your Brain and the Lack of Sleep

Do you know what causes human beings to get sleepy? There are two main processes that control sleep in the body: circadian rhythms and sleep drive.

Our circadian rhythms control how our body responds naturally to our environment throughout the day. Light cues play a critical role in telling our biological clocks in the brain when to sleep. Mechanisms in the brain produce the hormone melatonin at night and stop producing it when we sense light.

Sleep drive also plays a role. Your body craves sleep in the same way it hungers for food or thirsts for water. As you go through the day, your brain’s desire for sleep builds, and when it reaches a certain level, you need to sleep. But unlike with hunger or thirst, your brain can force you to sleep—even if you’re in a meeting or behind the wheel of a car.

Those are the basics of how sleep works. Now, let’s look at how sleep deprivation affects our brains. Why do we feel “foggy” when we haven’t slept well, for instance? In one study, researchers discovered that sleep deprivation disrupts our neurons’ ability to communicate with each other, leading to lapses that affect memory and visual perception.

This explains why a tired driver is at risk of causing an accident, for example. If another car pulls out in front of a sleep-deprived driver, it takes their brain longer to register what they’re perceiving and those extra seconds can be the difference between plowing into the other car and slamming on the brakes.

The Connection Between Sleep and Mental Health

A lack of sleep can also affect your mental health. There’s actually a bidirectional relationship here. Sleep deprivation can trigger mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety and mental health issues can worsen insomnia or other sleep disorders. So it’s easy to get caught in a vicious loop.

The first symptom you might experience, even after just one night of poor sleep, is “brain fog,” but you may also notice emotional disturbances. Both of these symptoms are your brain’s way of telling you there’s a chemical imbalance. While a night of insomnia here and there probably won’t cause lasting harm, sleep deprivation over the long term can have a big impact on your mental health. It’s critical to realize that sleep disturbances and mental health can be closely connected.

The bottom line is that we all need to take sleep seriously. Getting enough sleep (at least 7 hours per night) is essential to leading a healthy lifestyle, and if you have mental health challenges, it’s even more important to practice good sleep hygiene.

How to Improve Sleep and Mental Health

So, what can you do to improve your sleep and your mental health? Since there’s clearly a connection between sleep and mental health, you can improve both by changing your habits.

Here are three tips:

1. Stick to a morning and night routine.

Brains thrive on routine. Although it isn’t always possible to keep to a strict schedule, if you can develop a roughly consistent routine that works for you most days, this may improve your sleep. Start by intentionally getting up at the same time every morning and going to bed at the same time every night.

As part of your routine, you should also avoid eating two or three hours before you go to bed, avoid stressful conversations at night, and avoid using your electronic devices for at least an hour before you want to fall asleep. You can also add self-care practices, such as meditation, journaling, and taking a soothing bath as it makes sense for you.

2. Create a sleep environment that promotes relaxation.

Your bedroom should feel like a safe, cozy, and relaxing place where you can unwind. To make your space as peaceful and sleep-inducing as possible:

  • Keep lighting soft and minimal
  • Invest in a mattress that you love
  • Organize your space and keep it clutter-free
  • Play white noise or soft music
  • Diffuse essential oils that promote sleep (e.g., lavender, chamomile, jasmine, cedarwood, and sandalwood)

3. Speak to a clinician or health professional.

If you continue to struggle with sleep, it may be time to talk to your healthcare provider so you can begin to understand the root of your challenges with sleep. You may also be glossing over the severity of physical (e.g., asthma or sleep apnea) and mental (e.g., depression or anxiety) conditions, which may be disrupting your sleep more than you realize.

Talking about your sleep challenges with a clinician will give you peace of mind and likely help minimize their impact on your life. There are healthy coping tools you can try to rebalance those chemicals in your brain, regulate your emotions, and calm your mood.

Realizing that your lack of sleep affects your mental health can be a frustrating discovery, especially if you don’t know how to solve your problem. It may take time before you find the perfect solution that works for you, but don’t give up.

References

Colten, H.R. & Altevogt, B.M. (eds). Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Ch.3. National Academies Press. 2006.

Gold, A.K. & Sylvia, L.G. The role of sleep in bipolar disorder. Nature and Science of Sleep. 2016; 8: 207–214. Published online 2016 Jun 29. doi: 10.2147/NSS.S85754

Nir, Y., Andrillon, T., Marmelshtein, A. et al. Selective neuronal lapses precede human cognitive lapses following sleep deprivation. Nature Medicine. 2017; 23, 1474–1480. https://doi.org/10.1038/nm.4433

Steiger, A. & Pawlowski, M. Depression and Sleep. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2019; 20(3):607. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20030607

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