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Sleep and Mental Health

There are four essential pillars for life; air, water, food, and sleep. Sleep is a vital part of the physical and mental health of the human body. 48% of adults agreed that sleeping badly has a negative effect on their mental health. Feeling alert and energised, your mood in general, as well as your productivity levels are greatly dependent upon the amount of sleep you have had.

Sleep plays a crucial role in:

  • learning and memory
  • the regulation of our emotions
  • the renewal and repair of body tissue
  • metabolism
  • growth
  • development
  • infection control

The Mental Health Foundation commissioned a survey with YouGov in March 2020 of 4,437 UK adults aged 18+. In the survey:

So, if we are aware how low levels of sleep will negatively affect us, why do we all struggle so much with positive sleep patterns?

There are numerous people with caring responsibilities, extreme work pressures, long hours in work, health issues, and more. Many end up putting themselves and their own wellbeing at the bottom of a long ‘to do’ list, having to prioritise other things on a daily basis. However, just as flight attendants caution us ‘If the cabin air pressure changes dramatically, oxygen masks might fall from the ceiling. If a child is seated beside you, put on your own mask before helping to put a mask on the child…it is vital that we prioritise sleep, as much as the other pillars of air, water, and food.

Try not to be frugal where sleep is concerned as Dr. Matthew Walker advises:

“Sleep is not like a bank, in the sense that you can’t accumulate a debt and then hope to pay it off at a later point in time. Let me give you the evidence to make that point very clear, if I were to take an individual and deprive them of a whole night of sleep (eight hours of lost sleep), and then I give them all of the recovery sleep that they want on a second night or a third night, yes, we see that they sleep longer, they try to ‘sleep it off’ as it were, but do they get back all of that eight hours that they’ve lost, and the answer is no. Even if we keep measuring them, they never get back that sleep that they lost. So, you cannot accumulate a debt and then hope to pay it off at a later point in time. Many of us do this in society we’re short sleeping during the week and then we binge with our sleep at the weekend.”

He explains that this sleep pattern, of sleeping less in the week and binge sleeping at the weekends, is associated with a far less healthy life, you’re far more likely to suffer from diabetes, to be obese, to have poor cardiovascular health, and are almost twice as likely to report being in very poor health relative to people who consistently get a good 7-9 hours of sleep every night, both weeknights and at the weekend.

Sleep is like breathing, it’s biological, none of us can go without sleep. Yes, there are pressures on our lives that can make sleep hard to come by, but we have to figure out how to build healthy sleep patterns. You may feel you are sleeping okay, or that you could sleep better/more, or you may have sleep troubles that need attention.

A great way to assess your sleep patterns is to complete a sleep diary, as well as making a note of your bedtime routine. Reflect on what is going well, and what areas you could make improvements in. We have created a ‘sleep diary and tips to try’. If you have a long-standing sleep problem that requires professional attention, get help from your GP, or a medical professional.

Getting a good night’s sleep starts long before you actually get into bed. Constructing a routine, and planning a positive bedtime routine, is necessary to creating regular and positive sleep patterns. A sleep routine begins hours before sleep.

Take these things into consideration:

  • caffeine consumption throughout the day
  • switching to decaf six hours before sleep
  • eating a filling and healthy dinner meal roughly three hours before sleep
  • alcohol consumption - refraining from drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • stopping alcohol consumption at least three hours before bed

Other ways to aid in positive sleep patterns are; regular daily exercise (at least 30 minutes) that increases your heart rate and burns through any excess energy - making sure to finish any energetic exercise at least 2 hours before sleep, refraining from any work in the hours before sleep, turning-off technology (or setting a night-time/low blue-light emission mode on any technology).

When reflecting on your sleep diary, if you find you are one of those people whose mind wakes up when lying down in bed at night, then focusing on relaxation rather than sleep would be more beneficial, as sleep will naturally occur when your mind and body are fully relaxed.

Try using relaxing activities such as:

  • reading
  • a warm bath/shower
  • stretching/gentle yoga
  • guided meditations
  • a guided body scan
  • a guided muscle relaxation
  • a guided breathing technique
  • a relaxing playlist of music
  • relaxing noises of rain/waves/white noise/etc

The Wakelet link below contains many relaxation strategies, guided meditations, and relaxing playlists to try.

Another important area to reflect upon when building healthy sleep patterns, is your diet. As I’m sure you are aware, what we eat has a substantial effect on our body, mind, and general health, it also has a big impact on our sleep.

Eating ready-made meals, fast-foods, or foods high in saturated fats will negatively impact your sleep patterns. Eating late into the evening and near your bedtime will also negatively impact your sleep. Try and add some of the food in this image to your diet, as well as eating other fresh natural ingredients, fruit, veg, etc. This will not only improve your sleep but will also improve your physical and mental health.

Watch the information video below to learn more from professor of neuroscience and sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker.

Websites for more information:

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