How sleeps contributes to your health
A healthy body is a healthy mind. As described in other articles in this series, taking care of ourselves benefits body and mind. Another important area of taking care of ourselves that is often neglected is sleep.
Most of us have experienced what it feels like to have a bad night’s sleep,
maybe even no sleep at all. The next day we wake up feeling tired and maybe a little grumpy. Research has shown that frequent episodes of poor sleep can be linked to diseases like diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and mental health diagnostic manuals state that sleep disruption (too much or too little) features in almost every major mental health diagnosis. While we don’t necessarily use those diagnostic frameworks here, it is important to consider that sleep plays a key role in being well.
Research studies have shown that sleep deprivation has negative effects on cognition, our ability to think. This includes our attention, working memory and decision making. It has also been found that lack of sleep negatively affects our ability to manage emotions, which means it can lead to increased irritability, anxiety and sadness. Negative changes in our thinking and emotions are often involved in keeping cycles of fear and low-mood going and over time can lead to more serious issues. When poor sleep affects our thinking and emotions, we find it harder to get a good night’s sleep and this turns into a vicious cycle that causes greater problems in the long run, like those found in diagnostic manuals.
On the flip-side, good enough sleep is important for keeping everything running smoothly. Neuroscience studies using various scanning technologies have shown that during sleep our brain completes all kinds of chemical and electrical activities, such as forming connections and clearing out toxins. The research suggests these functions are important for our ability to manage our emotions and feel good, as well as our ability to think clearly and effectively. One particular part of the brain that really loves sleep is the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a big part in the processing of our memories and emotions. Sleep helps the hippocampus with “neurogenesis” - basically the creation of new cells that will support our memory and our emotion regulation. Good sleep also supports our bodies immune function, which is crucial for keeping us fit and well.
So what is “good-enough” sleep, and how do we make sure we get it? Sleep duration has been identified as the most important indicator of good sleep. Recommendations about how much sleep is needed vary between 6-9 hours, depending on your age, gender and lifestyle, but 7 hours is typically good enough for most adults. However we are all different and rather than getting too hung up on numbers, a good indication is how rested you feel when waking up in the morning. Another indicator is having a regular bedtime and wake time. Human beings thrive on routine and finding your body’s natural sleep and rise cycle (which might be a challenge with all our commitments and distractions) helps promote good sleep, which as we have already identified, promotes good everything else.
If sleep is something that doesn’t come naturally to you, there is plenty of information about sleep that we can draw on to help change that. Take a look at our Resources section for further information and ideas you can use. Here are a few points to help you get started:
Cut back on alcohol and caffeine
Ditch the smartphone at bedtime
Be more active during the day
Learn ways to relax/reduce feelings of stress