A good night’s sleep is necessary for your physical well-being and emotional health. But did you know that sleep also affects your mental health? For a long time, mental health problems have been known to cause poor sleeping patterns.
However, research now shows that lack of sleep can lead to mental health problems. Although most research about this phenomenon is inconclusive, it’s crucial to understand how sleep impacts one’s mental health.
What Happens to the Brain When You Sleep?
Since mental health problems affect the brain, it’s essential to understand what happens to the brain when you sleep. Typically, brain activity fluctuates when sleeping depending on the type of sleep. Typically, there are two types of sleep:
Non-REM sleep occurs in three stages:
When you fall asleep, the brain enters the non-REM stage, oscillating between sleeping and wakefulness. This period lasts a few minutes and causes the body to experience slow eye movements, light sleep, and occasional twitching of the muscles. The brain also transitions from daytime wakefulness patterns.
The second stage of non-REM sleep happens before the brain enters deep sleep. Your muscles relax, and your breathing and heartbeat slow down. The brain’s activity also slows down but experiences brief bursts of activity.
In the third stage of non-REM sleep, the brain enters into a deep sleep. This stage is critical because it helps the body relax. It’s the longest stage of sleep as it lasts throughout the first half of the night.
The brain transitions to REM sleep 90 minutes after falling asleep. During this stage, brain activity increases rapidly, and the eyes move rapidly because you’re dreaming. Getting adequate REM sleep helps the brain process emotional information.
That’s why lack of sleep causes mood swings, emotional reactivity and in extreme cases, mental health problems.
Which Mental Health Problems are Associated with Poor Sleep?
Poor sleep, or lack thereof, has been associated with the following mental health problems:
Sleep inhibits cortisol production. Therefore, if your body isn’t getting enough sleep, it’s likely to produce cortisol in large proportions, increasing your stress levels.
A 2016 study comprising adolescents found that sleep problems caused the participants to experience heightened cortisol activity. You’ll likely get aggravated by the slightest occurrences when coupled with external factors like everyday hassles.
brains which are responsible for processing emotions.
These brain parts are mainly active during the REM stage of sleep.You’re likely to develop anxiety when you can’t process emotions properly.
According to the study, people prone to anxiety experienced a higher level of anxiety when they were sleep deprived.
Sleep problems like insomnia have been a symptom of depression, but more recently, lack of sleep has been found to cause depression.
A review of 21 studies found that people diagnosed with insomnia are twice as likely to develop depression compared to those who don’t have sleep problems.
This bidirectional relationship can make it challenging to know which problem manifests first, depression or sleep problems. As for the case of sleep deprivation leading to depression, studies show it results from a disruption in the circadian process and melatonin production.
The circadian process is responsible for regulating the brain’s sleep-wake cycle through the circadian pacemaker. The pacemaker is located in a group of suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) cells.
The cells control the circadian rhythm and receive information about light exposure from the eyes. When the SCN cells are damaged, the brain can’t match the circadian rhythm with the light-dark cycle.
Melatonin production, on the other hand, happens in the pineal gland. The hormone helps the brain go to sleep when the lights are out.
Sleep deprivation, disrupts melatonin production, making it challenging for the brain to coordinate the natural sleep-wake cycle using natural light. These neurochemical changes affect how the brain processes emotions, increasing the risk of developing depression.
Interested in what the symptoms and causes of depression are? Take a quick read >
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes an individual to develop extreme moods, which can be high or low.
The relationship between sleep and bipolar disorder is bi-directional, just like most other mental health problems but the individual’s feelings vary depending on the type of episode.
Sleep patterns have been found to exacerbate manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder. Also, people with distorted sleep patterns are likely to exhibit bipolar symptoms.
A study involving brain imaging of healthy individuals and persons with bipolar disorder found similar effects in the brain due to sleep deprivation. Both study groups exhibited disrupted communication within the mood network of the brain, with healthy individuals experiencing emotional volatility and irritability, the most common symptoms of bipolar disorder.
On the other hand, patients with this mental health problem experienced exacerbated symptoms due to sleep deprivation.
Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that affects how a person feels, thinks and behaves. Lack of sleep can aggravate its symptoms due to the distorted circadian rhythm. Studies show that improved quality of sleep can reduce the intensity and frequency of psychotic experiences associated with schizophrenia.
Poor sleep or deprivation is associated with mental health problems like depression and bipolar disorder. As such, it isn’t much of a stretch to find disturbed sleep a breeding ground for suicidal thoughts.
In fact scientific research shows insomnia is a clinical indicator of suicidal thoughts, especially at the onset of depression. That’s why depressed people struggling with oversleeping or sleep deprivation are more likely to developsuicidal thoughts.
A study conducted in 2015 found that sleep difficulty was a significant risk factor for suicide in middle-aged adults.
Ways to Improve Sleep Patterns to Enhance Mental Health
Mental health conditions significantly impact one’s quality of life, hence the need for proper care. Since sleep is critical in treating mental health conditions, most treatment alternatives involve improving your sleep patterns.
In fact, research shows sleep significantly impacts one’s psychological health compared to treating mental health conditions to improve sleep. Sometimes the effects are evident after two nights of recovery.
However, since everyone’s situation is different, the proper treatment for mental health and sleep problems varies by person. Most psychiatrists provide tailored care depending on the underlying mental health condition. The most common approaches are:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia
CBT-I is similar to CBT, except it focuses on relieving insomnia symptoms. It’s the most common remedy for people experiencing difficulty falling asleep because it blends behavioral and psychological treatments.
This holistic approach helps treat sleep and mental health problems like bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.
Therapists may also recommend relaxation techniques to prepare you for rest. Studies show CBT-I reduces mental health symptoms significantly and improves a patient’s emotional well-being.
Improve Your Sleeping Habits
In addition to therapeutic interventions, good sleep habits help improve mental health conditions. Your therapist may recommend developing good sleep hygiene practices like:
- Developing a consistent sleeping schedule: This means having a specific sleeping and waking time daily to reset your circadian cycle
- Taking afternoon naps: Afternoon naps help the body compensate for any sleep debt without distorting the circadian rhythm. It would help if you kept the naps short, usually 20-30 minutes, to help you feel alert and well-rested
- Create a healthy sleep environment: Your sleeping environment should encourage your brain and body to sleep. Creating a relaxed, dark environment goes a long way in drifting off to sleep
- Avoid taking stimulants before sleeping. Caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco can keep you awake for hours, especially if you have sleeping difficulties. Try reduce the consumption of these substances before sleeping
- Keep off devices at night: Using mobile devices and watching television before bedtime can make it difficult for the brain and body to relax. It would help if you kept off them an hour or two before sleeping
- Develop a wind-down routine: You need to slow down your mind and allow the body to relax to make it easy to disengage from the day’s activities. Developing and following through with a routine before bedtime might help you fall asleep quickly
Go for a Sleep Study
Your doctor may recommend a sleep study where you sleep in a controlled environment similar to a bedroom setting.
The idea is to allow the doctor to monitor your eye movements, brain waves, and heartbeat to determine if you’ve other health conditions (e.g. restless leg syndrome) in addition to mental health problems.
Sometimes the psychiatrist prescribes sleep medicine to help the patient get quality sleep. A good rule of thumb is to avoid using the medications for more than a few weeks to avoid developing an addiction.
Take over-the-counter Sleep Aids
OTC sleep aids like melatonin may help improve the quality of sleep. However, they can only be used for a short period. Consulting with the doctor is necessary before use if you’re taking other medication. Also, you must report any side effects to the doctor immediately.
Sleep has a significant impact on your mental health. Although lack of sleep is a symptom of most mental health problems, it can also cause various mental health problems like bipolar disorder, stress, depression, and anxiety. Also, sleep deprivation can exacerbate mental health symptoms associated with schizophrenia. Improving sleep quality is the first step to dealing with these mental health problems. While the remedies highlighted help improve the quality of sleep, it’s best to consult a professional.
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