We are coming to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, a particularly poignant topic during the height of a pandemic. Many of us have experienced great change and isolation, due to circumstances outside our control. It continues to be a huge challenge and rightly, mental health should be prioritised.
Just one of the ways we can do this, is to be kind to others and ourselves.
Kindness is the theme of this year’s #mentalhealthawarenessweek and self-kindness is part of our focus today, when looking at how sleep can affect our mental and physical health. We’ve put together some background information and a quick guide on ways to improve sleep. Focusing on self-kindness and personal investment in optimal sleep quality.
The role of sleep
Sleep is an integral function that we value for maintaining our wellbeing. A reduced quality or lack of sleep can have a profoundly negative effect on our health.
We invest roughly a third of or lifetime sleeping and we’re not just killing time. We evolve, based on the need for efficiency in life and sleep is major a component in that process.
When we sleep, we may feel that we stop or switch off consciously but our body is far from dormant. It provides the chance for our mind and body to sort and assign restorative processes, helping us grow and maintain our health.
Main functions during sleep
- Immune regulation – our immune system produces a protein known as cytokines that are transported throughout our body via the lymphatic and vascular systems, which help to fight infection and regulates our natural stress responses.
- Waste disposal – our lymphatic system isn’t restricted to actions that support our immune system, it’s also a portal for cellular waste. Our central nervous system has it’s own special connection to lymphatic function called the Glymphatic system that allows us to filter byproducts that are produced in the brain, almost exclusively while we sleep.
- Repair and adaptation – our body is able to create a variety of cells to repair damage or make new tissues while we sleep. This ensures that we maintain cells, muscle, bone, brain and our other organs.
- Supports our emotions – our hypothalamus is responsible in part, for managing dopamine and GABA production. These are associated with positive emotions and reduced anxiety and sleep helps ensures that they are at a sufficient level.
- Maintains memory and cognitive function – our hippocampus is designed to create new neurons essential for learning and remembering. We know from clinical research that even in the short-term, poor sleep quality can affect levels of neurogenesis leading to signs of cognitive impairment.
- Facilitates hormone production – sleep can directly impact our hormone levels, which is why the amount of sleep we get can influence our metabolism and weight management. Studies have shown those with regular sleep deprivation can be susceptible to reduced Leptin (the feeling full hormone) and increased Grehlin (the feeling hungry hormone).
What can affect sleep?
Our lives change daily, which means the type of experiences we have that could reduce our sleep quality, is highly variable.
Important factors that may lead to poor sleep:
- Environment – bedroom set-up, ambience or simply our mattress can all have a negative impact on sleep.
- Lifestyles – screen use, shift patterns and routines for our selves or other family members are often factors that inhibit adequate sleep.
- Mood – has anyone ever had a good night’s sleep, if they go to bed angry or upset?
- Health – physical pain can be a real barrier to achieving the comfort we need for a restful sleep and if we’re experiencing anxiety or depression, that can also stop us from being able to relax and sleep well.
Our tips to getting a good night’s sleep
Make the most of your environment
Invest time and a little bit of money, if necessary, in comfort. You deserve to feel safe, secure and comfortable in bed. Your senses serve to influence your thoughts and mood, so a tidy room with a comfortable and clean bed is a good place to start.
If discomfort due to pain is a reason for poor sleep, try looking for advice not just for pain management but also any aids that will help you in or out of bed, or to lie more comfortably in the night. Physical therapists or organisations that specialise in your condition, should be able to suggest orthopedic aids and resources for you to try.
Not ready for bed? Create a bedtime routine
To aim for a specific bedtime every night feels unrealistic for a lot of people and the temptation is to stay up until we feel tired, before going to bed. Put some time aside each evening to develop a few relaxing cues, so that even if you don’t feel tired to begin with, you can aim for a relaxing approach towards a regular bedtime.
This could include having a cut off time for screen use on your phone, tablet or TV each night and engaging in a relaxation technique like breathing exercises or mindfulness. It could just as easily be a bath or warm non-caffeinated drink – allowing a quite moment to your self to unwind. Experiment, and find what feels right for you in order to relax.
The more you practice a routine that works for you – the easier it should become, to feel ready for bed.
Anxious thoughts? Write them down
If you’re finding that your worries are stopping you from getting to sleep, try to write them down in a notebook or even the notes section in your phone. Preferably pick a time in the day to write them down, so that you don’t have to carry them to bed with you. Over time, it will help you to evaluate them and hopefully develop ways to overcome them too.
Even a simple to-do list for the next day before your bedtime routine, can help to reduce negative associations with sleep anticipation.
Can’t get to sleep or keep waking up? Leave the bedroom for a little while
If you’re struggling to get to sleep or waking up without returning to sleep – get up for a while. Over time, lying awake and unable to sleep can become stressful and a habit that’s hard to break. Try getting up and going to another room to sit quietly or practice simple relaxation techniques, avoiding screen activities and create a calming space with gentle lighting rather than a brightly lit room.
Reflect on lifestyle and nutrition
Lack of exercise, late night eating patterns and nutritional intake such as caffeine and alcohol will interrupt sleep quality. Try to include as much physical activity as you can each week and be wary of caffeine and alcohol consumption.
If you’re not sure what’s having an effect, it could be beneficial to keep an activity, food and sleep journal for a week. This could help highlight patterns or associations with your food and drink related to sleep, or whether you’re getting enough exercise for your needs.
Just for starters
There are of course many reasons for sleep interruptions and also sleep disorders that are in need of clinical assessment and support. This is intended to be a simple guide to help you stop and notice whether there is anything you can do to improve your sleep quality. By giving yourself the opportunity to reflect on yourself and your needs, you are exercising the kindness that you deserve.
Always make sure that any changes you make can be maintained long-term by making a few small adjustments at a time and learning what feels truly beneficial. You don’t need to drastically alter exercise and diet routines to start seeing a difference.
Further help and advice
If you have followed all or some of the above and you’re still having difficulty sleeping, there are a number of great resources you can find. Here are just three places online for advice and support:
Sleep Council UK based organisation that campaigns for better services and improved access to educational support in sleep hygiene. Click here for site.
Mental Health Foundation Charity based in the UK with a mission to improve awareness of mental health issues and the impact it has on society and curator of Mental Health Awareness Week. Click here for site.
Suffolk County Council Link to local mental health services in our county. Click here for site.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), Counselling and Hypnotherapy are just a few types of therapy for sleep issues and mental health conditions that we can recommend, depending on your circumstances and requirements.
All of our practitioners are trained to consider your needs holistically – including sleep quality and lifestyle – making it easier for you to adapt your routines and achieve your health and wellbeing goals.