The Surprising Link Between Sleep and Mental Health

By Marina Arshavskiy

There are many (many!) reasons we might not sleep well—from scrolling on our phones in bed to stressing out about work to downing too much caffeine during the day.

But regardless of the reasons, insufficient sleep can harm overall health and well-being in surprising ways. Beyond waking up tired and grumpy, not getting the seven hours of sleep per night that is recommended for adults can have a long-term impact on mental and emotional health, contributing to a heightened risk for anxiety and depression. There is a good reason that Sleep Deep is a pillar of a nutritious life. 

And while sleep problems have been steadily growing over the years, the pandemic caused a surge in sleep disorders, according to research that cites upended routines, more screen time, increased alcohol consumption and dissolving boundaries between work and private life as some of the key factors. “Once sleep is disrupted, it can impact mental and physical health, which may in turn cause further sleep disruption,” noted Athena Akrami, PhD, a neuroscientist at University College London.

The Connection Between Sleep and Mental Health

While we think of sleep as a time to power down our brains, they are actively performing essential tasks that contribute significantly to mental health and cognitive function.

While you’re snoozing, the brain goes through a housekeeping process, employing the glymphatic system—a brain-wide waste clearance operation—to eliminate cellular waste, toxins, amyloid-beta and tau proteins (which are associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s) and more. Given this, sleep deprivation results in waste buildup and potentially, cognitive deficits.

Research also suggests that this critical sleep-cycle decluttering helps with memory, learning, creativity, focus, decision-making, problem-solving, and concentration. Plus, getting adequate sleep helps with emotional stability and mood regulation.

RELATED: Are Your Sleep Habits Messing With Your Mental Health?

How Your Brain Picks Your Bedtime

One of the critical biological processes that determine when you should go to bed is called the circadian rhythm. These 24-hour cycles correspond to exposure to natural (or intentionally induced) cycles of darkness and light. Everyone’s circadian rhythm plays a critical role in regulating bodily cycles, such as appetite, digestion, the release of hormones, and the regulation of body temperature.

The brain also controls the release of two types of hormones that determine when you should sleep and when you should wake up. The release of cortisol induces a feeling of restfulness and alertness, while melatonin brings about a feeling of tiredness and sleepiness. The brain triggers the release of these chemicals depending on the amount of natural light or darkness that your retina is exposed to.

Ideally, your overall health and lifestyle determine when you should go to bed. But in all cases, you should aim for a bedtime that allows you to get the minimum prescribed number of hours of sleep for your age group, typically 7-9 hours for adults. If you don’t consistently get that amount of sleep, you may develop a condition called sleep debt which happens when you consistently accumulate sleepless hours over time.

If you are unsure when you should hit the pillow and turn off the lights, try using an online bedtime calculator to help you determine when you should turn in. 

RELATED: 5 Ways Your Bedroom Could Be Affecting Your Sleep

10 Natural Ways to Improve Sleep and Mental Health

Quality sleep can benefit mental well-being and good mental health can lead to better sleep.

Here, tips for enhancing both:

  1. Clean Up Your Sleep Hygiene

    Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends; Make your bedroom conducive to sleep – dark, quiet, and cool; Avoid electronic screens (phones, computers, TVs) at least an hour before bedtime as they emit blue light that can interfere with melatonin production; Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows.

  2. Consume Sleep-Friendly Foods

    Limit caffeine and alcohol, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime; Consume sleep-promoting foods and drinks, such as almonds, turkey, chamomile tea and kiwi; Stay hydrated, but try to curb fluid intake an hour before bedtime to minimize middle-of-the-night bathroom trips.

  3. Work Out Regularly

    Exercise: helps reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression while improving sleep. However, avoid intense workouts right before bedtime. Yoga and Tai Chi are gentle forms of exercise that can promote relaxation and mental balance. Studies in postmenopausal women showed that even moderate-intensity exercise can go a long way in improving sleep quality.

  4. Try Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

    Meditation can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; Deep-breathing exercises promote relaxation and stress reduction; Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, promoting physical and mental relaxation.

  5. Increase Your Magnesium Levels

    Many people are deficient in this hardworking mineral, which plays a crucial role in brain function and mood. (Low magnesium levels are linked to an increased risk of depression.) Additionally, magnesium helps with the regulation of neurotransmitters, which send messages throughout your brain and body —one of them involves muscle relaxation. It’s found in foods like green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, but can also be taken as a supplement.
    *Always consult a healthcare provider before starting any supplements

  6. Limit Naps

    Avoid crashing out for long periods or late in the day, as that could interfere with nighttime sleep.

  7. Connect Socially

    Regular interaction with loved ones and friends can improve mood and provide emotional support.

  8. Exposure Yourself to Natural Light

    Daylight helps regulate sleep patterns. Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes a day.

  9. Establish a Pre-sleep Routine

    Engaging in activities like reading, listening to soothing music or enjoying a warm bath can send a signal to the brain that it’s time to unwind. For some, soft music or white noise acts as a sleep-inducing agent, while others rely on the power of essential oils as their “sleep potion.” There’s scientific evidence to support this practice—some oils, such as lavender, have a calming effect on the olfactory nerve receptors in the nasal cavity, which transmit sensory data to the brain. When the brain receives these calming signals, it initiates a response that prepares the body for a restful slumber.

  10. Seek Therapy

    Cognitive-behavioral therapy, especially CBT-I (for insomnia), can help address sleep and mental health challenges.

(Image: Unsplash)

About Marina Arshavskiy
Marina Arshavskiy is a Master Level Nutritious Life Certified professional and a board-certified holistic health practitioner. She regularly shares healthy eating tips and recipes on her website – The Leaders System, and also on her Instagram account -  Marina is also the author of the Healthy Weight Loss and Balanced Nutrition eBook.

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