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How does poor sleep affect my mental health?

Do you often work longer in the night? Do you spend a lot of time partying with friends into the early hours? Or do you have young children who often keep you awake at night? If you answered yes, you may not be getting the right amount of sleep. Sleep and mental health often go hand in hand, and a bad night's sleep could disrupt your mental health. 

With work, family and other life commitments, many of us just don’t get the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep. Having another coffee to get us through the day can sometimes become the norm.

It can be easy to dismiss sleep as not being important in maintaining a mentally healthy lifestyle – but are we missing a trick? How important is a good night’s sleep to how we function mentally?

Dr Natasha Bijlani of Priory Hospital Roehampton explains why sleep is so important to our mental health, and what we can do to help improve our sleeping habits.

So why is sleep so important for our mental health?

There is clear evidence that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on emotion and performance. The psychological effects of sleep deprivation can effect us massively and significantly impact our daily mood. The results of one study (Yoo, Gujjar et al (2007). A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Nature Neuroscience, 10(3), 385-392) indicate that a night of restful sleep may ‘reset’ brain reactivity in order to prepare for emotional challenges the next day.

Sleep has an important restorative function in ‘recharging’ the brain at the end of each day, just like we need to charge a mobile phone battery after prolonged use. Maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle allows the natural rhythm of the body to be reset every day and therefore optimises brain functioning and can improve mental health.

Ongoing poor sleep can be a huge risk factor for the development of major depressive disorder. The risk of feeling depressed and/or anxious (as well as worsening existing anxiety and depression) increases with the severity of insomnia, and so it is important to recognise and sort out sleep problems as soon as they are identified.

The effects of a lack of sleep

Missed sleep can lead to psychological and physical ill health in many ways.

Psychological symptoms and effects include:

  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Erratic behaviour
  • Poor cognitive functioning and performance (e.g. forgetfulness, making mistakes and slower thinking than normal)
  • Psychotic episodes

Physical symptoms and effects include:

  • Physical symptoms of anxiety
  • Tiredness
  • Elevation in blood pressure and stress hormones
  • Negative effects on cardiovascular health (increased risk of strokes and heart attacks)
  • Immune damage which can lead to many physical problems

Seven steps to improve your sleeping habits for better mental health

  1. Establish a regular sleep-wake cycle - try to sleep and wake at regular times consistently.
  2. Try to ensure that you have a comfortable bed and bedroom - noise, light and temperature should be tailored to your preferences if possible.
  3. Limit the use of stimulants - such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol near bed time.
  4. Avoid drinking excessive liquids - especially in the evening to minimise chances of waking to empty your bladder.
  5. Avoid going to bed until you are drowsy and actually ready to sleep - Most people who suffer from insomnia spend more time in bed lying awake rather than actually asleep.
  6. Regular daily exercise - but not too late in the evening as this could be stimulating.
  7. Avoid electronic devices late at night - such as computers, mobiles, tablets and so on; the bright light can be overly stimulating and keep you awake.

Page medically reviewed by Dr Natasha Bijlani (FRCPsych, MBBS), Consultant Psychiatrist based at Priory Hospital Roehampton London

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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