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The link between sleep and mental health

Who doesn’t know the feeling of waking up after a poor night’s sleep and reaching shakily for that coveted cup of coffee to save your day? We’ve all been there. In fact, a survey recently conducted by the Sleep Health Foundation reports that about 40% of Australians do not get enough sleep.

However, the effect of chronic sleep deprivation are a lot more far reaching than simple drowsiness and irritability. Besides weakening our immune system and potentially causing serious long-term health issues (high blood pressure, heart failure and stroke, to name a few) sleep deprivation also has a serious effect on our mental health.

Poor sleep and mental health issues

Scientists from NeuRA (Neuroscience Research Australia) emphasise the importance of sleep for mental health.

“It’s during sleep several brain processes take place, memory consolidation occurs and neural connections are strengthened,” says Dr Hanna Hensen, a research scientist from the NeuRA Sleep and Breathing Lab. “Sleep is also an important time for processing information across the day, and inadequate or poor sleep can have a direct impact on mental health, effecting depression, anxiety and emotional instability.”

During the night we go through several 90 minute sleep cycles, which includes two main stages of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. Broadly speaking, non-REM sleep (which itself includes a stage of deep sleep) helps boost our immune system and promotes important physiological changes, while REM sleep is when we dream. This stage of sleep has been linked to learning, memory and emotional health.

To get a quality night’s sleep, a person should be able to go through a sufficient number of such 90 minute cycles per night. Scientists discovered that disruption of these natural cycles raises stress hormones and impairs our natural ability for emotional regulation. People who are chronically sleep deprived are more prone to negative thinking and are at risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders.

It goes both ways

The relationship between sleep and mental health actually goes both ways. That is, on the one hand, if you have poor sleep habits you’re likely to develop mental health problems. On the other hand, certain mental health issues can affect a person’s ability to get a quality sleep.

For instance, in one study, anxiety has been shown to cause sleep problems, while sleep deprivation in turn causes depression.

Overall, about 65% to 90% of adults with major depression also have problems with their sleep. In children that figure is even higher: 90% of kids with depression have a sleep problem.

What to do

Treat both sleep and mental health, and things will improve on both ends.

Start with sleep since it’s more straightforward and if you do end up needing help with mental health issues, this will build a good foundation for treatment.

Commit to making sleep a priority. Developing a good sleep routine may take some time and effort, but the eventual outcomes for your mental health and physical wellbeing will be significant. Try to go to bed at the same time, avoid caffeine in the second half of the day, exercise regularly (but not too close to bedtime), avoid alcohol or heavy meals before bedtime, and put away your phone an hour or so before dozing off.
If you’re concerned about your mental health, or if the problems you experience don’t improve, do get in touch with your healthcare provider. Effective treatments for mental health related insomnia include cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and others.

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