Why sleep is important to your mental health

It was said recently that sleep was the new status symbol. This is no surprise considering how elusive quality sleep is these days with an estimated 1 in 3 Australians not getting enough of the recommended amount.² With World Mental Health Day around the corner, it’s worth pondering just how critical is sleep to our mental health?

World Mental Health Day is 10 October and Mental Health Week is 7 - 14 October.  With 1 in 5 Australians still experiencing a mental health issue, it is likely that each of us will know someone who may be struggling with a mental health issue.

We know that poor sleep is linked to some specific mental health conditions including depression. But when it comes to everyday physical, emotional and cognitive performance, the adverse impacts can be much broader, leading to outcomes that do not help our mental wellbeing.

Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can cause low or unstable moods, difficulty concentrating, increased appetite, sugar and caffeine cravings, weight gain, poor decision making, impaired memory, reduced productivity, low energy levels, increased stress, impaired immune function and reduced ability to think clearly!

On the flipside, good quality sleep has been shown to increase cognitive performance.  During sleep, our brain processes the information and experiences of the day and consolidates memories. When we get a good sleep, we wake up feeling refreshed, prepared to concentrate, make decisions, and engage fully at work or in our personal lives.

Sleep is often the first thing we compromise when we are busy, and the busier we get the greater the tendency to view sleep as a luxury. But far from being a luxury, getting good quality sleep is a necessity for our health, wellbeing and performance. Let’s take a look at some simple strategies for getting a sound sleep.

Recent research indicates that mental health is the number one reason for people seeing their doctor.¹

Sound sleep is a foundation for enhanced productivity and performance, and helps us to manage our stress and energy levels. This makes us better able to process complex information, assess risks more accurately, hold our attention span for longer, make decisions more swiftly, and even boosts our brain’s capacity to be innovative and to effectively communicate with others³.

5 Tips for a good night’s sleep

  1. Limit technology in the evening. Research has shown that heavy technology use, particularly in the evening, is linked to poor sleep quality and an increase in sleep disorders.⁴ The particular kind of light emitted from mobile phone, computer and television screens affects the production of our sleep hormone melatonin, and throws off our bodies natural circadian rhythm of sleep and waking. This may make it difficult for us to get to sleep and have a deep, restorative sleep. Try keeping technology use to a minimum in the evenings and avoid it entirely, where possible, for two hours before bedtime.

  2. Limit your caffeine intake. We are a society of poor sleepers and chronic caffeine users – go figure! Caffeine is a stimulant which causes the release of adrenalin and gives us a boost in energy and concentration. This is great for getting us going in the morning, but the effects of that cup of coffee can linger on in our body for four to six hours after drinking it. Caffeine consumption depletes magnesium which the body needs to produce its sleep-promoting hormones.

  3. Exercise at the right time. Research suggests that getting 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day can significantly improve the quality of sleep people experience.⁵ Even standing more frequently and spending less time sitting can positively impact sleep. While exercise can improve our quality of sleep, it causes the release of adrenalin and endorphins that stay in the bloodstream for a few hours after exercise. These hormones increase our alertness and energy and can make getting to sleep difficult. Try not to exercise for at least 2 or 3 hours before bedtime to give yourself the best chance of a good night’s rest.

  4. Get some sunshine during the day. Scientific studies have shown that getting some sunshine during daytime hours triggers the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating your sleep cycles.⁶ People who get little natural sunlight may have low melatonin levels, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Try getting outside on your lunch break for some sunshine and daily movement.

  5. Reduce mind chatter with meditation. Many of us have had the experience of collapsing into bed exhausted, only to lie awake for hours tossing and turning because we can’t switch our thoughts off. This is a frustrating experience to say the least! Constant mind chatter may be a sign of stress, and can be alleviated by reducing stress and learning to quiet the mind. One of the best techniques for this is meditation, and practising just five or ten minutes of meditation before bedtime can radically improve our ability to go to sleep and stay asleep.

For further information on sleep please download our tip sheet below:

Our Healthy Sleep e-learning module contains a comprehensive overview of sleep, including new research on how to get a great nights sleep.

  1. https://1010.org.au/news/mental-health-is-the-1-reason-people-go-to-the-gp/

  2. http://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/pdfs/surveys/SleepHealthFoundation-Survey.pdf (2016) Accessed 2 October 2018.

  3. Sean Drummond et.al, ‘Increased cerebral response during a divided attention task following sleep deprivation’, Journal of Sleep Research, Vol.10, No.2, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2869.2001.00245.x/abstract, June 2001.

  4. David Volpi, ‘Heavy Technology Use Linked to Fatigue, Stress and Depression in Young Adults’, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-volpi-md-pc-facs/technology-depression_b_1723625.html?ir=Australia, March 2012.

  5. Sleep in America Poll: Exercise and Sleep, National Sleep Foundation, http://sleepfoundation.org/sites/default/files/RPT336%20Summary%20of%20Findings%2002%2020%202013.pdf, February 2013.

  6. Dr. Mercola, ‘Want a Good Night’s Sleep? Then Never Do These Things Before Bed’, Mercola.com, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/10/02/secrets-to-a-good-night-sleep.aspx, October 2010.