We all know that lack of sleep can make us feel a little off the next day. Groggy, unable to concentrate, and irritable: these are all sure indications of too little sleep (or sleep of poor quality). While the occasional night of tossing and turning is common for most people, too many sleepless night strung together could indicate a more serious issue. Sleep and mental health are connected, with one feeding off the other. More and more research is pointing out that not enough sleep can be damaging to your mental health. Here’s how.
What does a “normal” night of sleep look like?
A typical sleeper cycles through many 90-minute sleep cycles every night. These are divided into two stages that aren’t always equal in length.
Stage 1: Quiet sleep
During this stage, the sleeper begins to move into deep relaxation. Body temperature drops, breathing slows, and muscles begin to release and relax. Heart rate drops. At the very deepest part of this stage, the immune system gets a physiological boost.
Stage 2: Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
This is the stage during which people dream. In parts of this stage, the body’s vital signs are nearly similar to when people are awake. Periods of REM sleep enhance learning and cognition and contribute to emotional health.
Contrary to what we might have heard from our parents, not everyone needs a solid eight hours of shut-eye to function well. In fact, the amount of sleep that people need varies widely not only depending on age but also within each age group. Generally, the amount of sleep required by age is as follows:
- Newborns: 16 to 18 hours
- Preschool-aged children: 11 to 12 hours
- School-aged children: Minimum of ten hours
- Teens: Nine to ten hours
- Adults (age 20-64): Seven to nine hours
- Seniors (age 65 and over): Seven to eight hours a day
Within each group, actual required amounts may vary depending on activity level and any underlying health issues.
What is certain and common across all groups is that sleep and mental health are closely connected. This is a connection that begins in childhood. According to a study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), approximately 20% of toddlers have serious sleep disorders that increase their risk of developing psychiatric disorders by age six. Researchers found that the reverse of this was also true: toddlers with psychiatric disorders at four were at a higher risk of developing sleep disorders by the age of six.
Silje Steinsbekk, an associate professor and psychologist in NTNU’s department of psychology, emphasized the importance of early identification of poor sleep for early interventions, noting:
“It is common for children to have periods when they sleep poorly, but for some children, the problems are so extensive that they constitute a sleep disorder. Our research shows that it is important to identify children with sleep disorders, so that remedial measures can be taken. Sleeping badly or too little affects a child’s day-to-day functioning, but we are seeing that there are also long term repercussions.”
This chicken-and-egg puzzle of whether or not sleep disorders lead to mental health issues or vice versa has been puzzling researchers for 20 years. Insomnia used to be listed as a symptom of several mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Indeed, some studies have found that between 65 and 90% of adults with depression (and 90% of children) have a sleep disorder (usually insomnia).
But this lack of sleep can also increase the risk of developing depression. Three longitudinal studies – one involving adults ages 21 to 30 and the other two involving teens – found that study participants who reported insomnia were four times as likely to develop depression. In the case of the teens, sleep problems developed before depression did.
On the other hand, lack of sleep makes patients less likely to respond to treatment for depression. Insomnia also increases the chance of relapse and increases the chances of a depressed patient thinking about or attempting suicide.
Even if you are not diagnosed with a mental illness, the benefits to a good night of sleep cannot be underestimated. Sleep is the time when our body’s vital systems repair themselves. The immune system gets a boost during sleep, and the brain gets time to solidify the connections it made during the waking period.
For people with mental illness, the connection between sleep and mental health cannot be ignored. Struggling with a mood disorder is hard enough when your body hasn’t had adequate rest.
If you are experiencing a period of acute insomnia, lasting two weeks or less, the best thing to do is to try to improve your sleep hygiene and wait it out. This can include making the following changes:
- Remove screens from your bedroom: Remove TVs, computers, and smartphones from your room and turn them off at least two hours before bed.
- Reserve your bedroom for intimacy and sleep only: Don’t read or work in your bed. If you like to read before bed, do so in a small chair in your room.
- Try hot tea or milk before bed: Warm milk or chamomile tea both have mild sedative properties that can ease you into a restful night’s sleep.
- Exercise at least four hours before bed: Getting regular exercise well before bedtime is a great way to increase your chances of a good night’s sleep.
- Shower in the evenings before bed: When you fall asleep, body temperature drops. Getting out of a hot shower can get that process started.
- Tidy up your room: Keep your bedside table neat and the clutter in your room to a minimum.
- Sleep dark, cold, and quiet: Use blackout curtains or an eye mask to block light and earplugs to keep out the sound. Keep your room cool and use the heaviest blankets you can.
If you make these changes and still find yourself sleepless after two weeks, talk to your doctor. Your sleep and mental health are important, and early intervention for both are important parts of treatment.