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Sleep is our body’s repair mode. Our cells, tissues, muscles, and hormones are all replenished during the deepest phases of sleep. This ensures that we are operating at our best the next day.
Experts recommend about seven (7) hours of sleep a day for an average adult. This is keeps you mentally and physically focused. But what happens when you don’t get enough? Is there a link between sleep and our mental health?
The Link Between Sleep and Mood
Even someone who isn’t an expert on the subject can appreciate how active they feel after a good night’s sleep. In contrast, one can feel exhausted, irritated, and distracted after not getting enough the night before. That’s because sleep plays an important role in your mood and performance.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study in which the subjects were restricted sleep to only 4.5 hours each night. After a week, the subjects reported greater levels of negative emotions and mental tiredness. Once they were allowed to sleep normally however, there was a sharp improvement in their mood.
Just as sleep impacts your mood, your present state of mind also has an equivalent effect on the quality of your sleep. If you’re anxious or stressed, your body will release hormones that force you to stay awake through the night, depriving you of much-needed rest. The result is a cycle of stress and lack of sleep.
Research suggests that around 15-20 percent of people who are dealing with insomnia (an inability to fall asleep) go on to develop serious mental depression. While research is still being conducted about the exact nature of the relationship between sleep and depression, there has been enough progress to indicate a strong correlation between the two.
People who suffer from insomnia are at a significantly greater risk to develop depression or anxiety. In fact, the onset of these conditions can be accurately predicted by studying the patient’s sleep patterns.
The Link Between Sleep and Learning
In addition to your mood, sleep also appears to impact your mind’s ability to learn. Three separate processes govern learning in your brain: acquisition, consolidation, and recall.
Acquisition entails receiving information and storing it in your neural circuitry. The second process, consolidation, strengthens the neural connections in your mind so that the memory is stored in an optimally useful form. Recall is when the brain accesses this stored memory when it is needed.
Poor sleep compromises all three of these processes. However, it is acquisition and recall that are most affected by sleep deprivation. Recent research has also demonstrated that a lack of sleep can reduce the brain’s ability to consolidate information it is presented with.
Students take note: inadequate sleep may negatively affect your chances of passing that exam. Indeed, you may even find yourself forgetting how to do simple tasks. If you’ve ever been involved in back-to-back all-nighters during exam week, you may already have experienced forgetting a solution to a simple problem – even after you’d done it half a dozen times!
Dealing with Sleep Problems To Improve Mental Health
Treat sleep as a ritual. Similar to reading to a child before putting them to bed, a habit that helps one disconnect from gadgets and put their mind in a relaxed mood can go a long way towards ensuring a restful, wholesome, sleep experience.
Making time before going to bed is a good idea. Avoid exposure to bright lights (such as those emitted by computer screens and smartphones). Try not to consume caffeine or alcohol, as all of these can be detrimental to the quality of sleep (and may even prevent the onset of sleep completely).
Obviously, the way you’ve set up your bed (and your entire bedroom) will also play an important role in how well you’re able to sleep. For example, memory foam mattresses are often recommended for individuals who sleep in awkward postures that can cause back pain. For some good reviews, check out The Sleep Judge.
If you can’t get rid of thoughts buzzing around in your head, you may want to listen to some natural background sounds, such as rainfall or wind rushing through trees. This will ease your mind away from distractions, helping you drift off to sleep. If you get the recommended amount, see how replenished you feel the next day!