The need for sleep is a biological drive, much like eating and breathing. Those for whom it comes easily (and in sufficient quantity) may take it for granted or even resent it as an interruption to the more fun activities of life. Ask young children how they feel about bedtime, and you’ll likely hear the common refrain that they can’t wait to be grownups so they can stay up as late as they want! On the other hand, talk to those who have chronic pain or newborn babies, and they will tell a different tale of lack of sleep and its toll on their well-being.
In fact, because sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body no matter the age of the person, an ongoing lack of sleep (one month or longer) can result in a wide range of poor outcomes, including difficulties regulating mood and behavior, challenges with attention and memory, higher risk of injury and accidents, lower immune response to illness and disease, and even premature death. Given a finding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 1 in 3 adults report not getting enough sleep each night, it’s worth looking more closely at the importance of sleep and how we can all improve our sleeping lives.
Sleep and the Brain
During sleep, the brain cycles repeatedly through three stages of non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep followed by one stage of Rapid Eye Movement sleep. A combined cycle of non-REM and REM sleep lasts approximately 90 minutes. In REM sleep, our brain activity increases and we often have our most memorable and intense dreams. In non-REM sleep, brain waves decrease to allow the brain to process emotional content and consolidate memories. When memories are consolidated during sleep, they can be more effectively processed during waking hours, which is especially important for coping with emotional or traumatic memories. Sleep also helps to improve cognitive functions, like multitasking, reaction time, and creative thinking and allows for the elimination of toxins from the brain, some of which have been linked to Alzheimer’s Disease.
Sleep and Physical Health
Sleep is also responsible for tissue repair in the body. An ongoing lack of sleep is linked to slower healing from injury, increased inflammation throughout the body, and a decreased immune response, putting people at higher risk for obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. People who struggle with sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which breathing is interrupted throughout the night, also appear to be at higher risk for heart disease.
Sleep and Mental Health
According to the Sleep Foundation, the relationship between sleep and mental health is complex and bidirectional, meaning that mental health symptoms both contribute to and are caused by a lack of sleep. The root of this connection is thought to lie in the REM and non-REM cycles of sleep mentioned previously. During these cycles, the brain processes emotional content, adjusts levels of brain chemicals that regulate mood, and maintains circadian rhythms.
Sleeping difficulties prevent the brain from performing these important functions fully, which can lead to the development of depression in those with no prior history. For those who have an existing diagnosis of depression, the common tendency to sleep too little (insomnia) or too much (hypersomnia) can exacerbate symptoms. In the case of anxiety, the nervous system has difficulty resetting back to a calm state following exposure to a stressor, which can make it hard to relax in order to fall asleep at night. Many people with anxiety report that bedtime is when their brains go into “overdrive,” and one of the things that they worry about, in addition to money, relationships, and work, is the fact that they cannot fall asleep. Lack of sleep has also been shown to cause a spike in the stress hormone cortisol, which can heighten overall symptoms of stress and anxiety in people.
Quantity or Quality of Sleep?
As the information above suggests, sleep is not a luxury, but a necessity for optimal functioning, health, and wellness. Before we review some strategies for improving our sleeping lives, it’s important to address quantity of sleep versus quality of sleep.
Sleep deprivation refers to not getting enough hours of sleep, while sleep deficiency more broadly refers to not getting enough hours of sleep, not getting quality sleep, or not sleeping at the right time of day. Some people may regularly sleep 8 hours at a time and wonder why they are still groggy or irritable when wake. Numerous factors can be at play here, including the sleeping environment and daily habits. For example, a warm bedroom temperature, ambient light, a snoring partner, late-day naps, and alcohol or caffeine consumption later in the day can prevent people from entering the deep non-REM sleep needed for their brains to rest, recover, and repair. In addition, a wake-up time that occurs mid-sleep cycle can also leave people feeling fatigued. For both sleep deprivation and sleep deficiency, good sleep hygiene can make a very positive difference.
Five Questions to Ask Yourself to Evaluate Your Sleep
1. How long does it take for you to fall asleep initially? (It should normally take no more than 20 minutes to fall asleep)
2. How often do you wake up during sleep? (When you wake up, it should take no more than 20 min to fall back asleep)
3. Is it hard for you to wake up in the morning or do you typically feel alert and energized?
4. What daytime habits may be impacting the quality of your sleep?
5. What factors in your sleeping environment may be impacting the quality of your sleep?
Ways to Improve your Sleeping Life
1. Start a sleep diary: Write down how you feel when you wake up each day, make note of any daytime habits from the previous day or environmental factors that may influence your sleep, and track patterns so you know what to change.
2. Ensure your wake time is not in the middle of a sleep cycle: Since sleep cycles take approximately 90 minutes to complete, if you know what time you need to wake up in the morning you can count back from that time in 90-minute blocks to find the best bedtime for you.
3. Address any environmental factors that may disrupt the quality of your sleep:
– Research suggests that the ideal sleeping temperature is between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 20 degrees Celsius), so try adjusting your thermostat and see if it makes a difference.
– If your partner snores or has other bedtime behaviors that affect the quality of your sleep, consider using ear plugs, a sound machine, or even sleeping in separate spaces if available.
– Even the faintest ambient light can interrupt sleep, so if you are sensitive to light you may want to try wearing a sleep mask or investing in blackout shades.
– If your pet wakes you regularly during the night, keep them outside of your bedroom.
4. Practice good sleep hygiene: Once you’ve identified the best bedtime for you, try to set and stick to a nighttime routine as much as possible. This can include
– Not drinking liquids within an hour of bedtime so you aren’t waking up during the night to use the restroom.
– Limiting caffeine consumption and exercise to earlier in the day if possible.
– Getting at least 20 to30 minutes of movement and fresh air each day.
– Putting away screens at least an hour before your bedtime.
– Engaging in a calming activity in bed, like reading, journaling, or listening to a meditation app, like Calm or Headspace.
If you’re finding that sleep issues are significantly affecting your functioning or quality of life, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor or connect with a counselor via your employee well-being program to explore what might be at the root of your sleep issues.
Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.
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Sleep Foundation. (2022, March 11). Mental health and sleep. Retrieved April 11, 2022, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/mental-health
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