SLEEP ∙ 3 minutes read

How does lack of sleep affect mental health?

By Joseph Lee | Medically reviewed by Dr Jaskirt Matharu

A deep sleep can leave us feeling refreshed and in a great mood, ready to tackle whatever the day has to throw at us.  

But when someone is a bit cagey or snappy, especially in the morning time, it’s not unusual to hear the question “did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?”. It’s not the most tactful of things to say to someone who has spent half the night tossing and turning, waking up multiple times. Or even worse, never getting to sleep in the first place.

When we have a bad night’s sleep we can expect to be a bit grouchy the next day, perhaps even a little headachey or feeling a bit anxious. Lack of sleep can impact the way we think, act and function. But how does a lack of sleep affect mental health?

What happens if you don’t get enough sleep?

Not getting enough sleep has the potential to impair someone’s perception and the way they think. The impact on a person’s cognition due to a lack of sleep can directly feed into their behaviour and ability to perform physical tasks.  

But when you are already suffering from a mental health issue, lack of sleep can bring about even more pronounced symptoms, even potentially increasing the risk of suicidal behaviours or ideas. There is research to show that severe insomnia is an indicator of suicidal ideas for people suffering from depression.

You may be suffering from insomnia if you’ve regularly been experiencing:

  • difficulty going to sleep
  • waking up many times during the night
  • lie awake at night for what feels like hours
  • wake up early and can’t get back to sleep
  • still feel tired after waking up
  • struggle to nap during the day even though you're tired
  • irritable during the day and always feel tired 
  • find it difficult to concentrate during the day due to tiredness

Insomnia that lasts up to 3 months is considered short-term, but the effects of insomnia can last for years. Improving your sleep situation could directly benefit psychological health, with some research finding that treating insomnia leads to a reduction in paranoia and hallucinations.

Some mental health conditions such as depression can cause sleep issues, with lack of sleep, irregular sleep patterns or insomnia often being a symptom. So, the relationship between sleep (or lack of it) and mental health can be a destructive one. 

Why is sleep important for mental health and wellbeing?

On average, we spend at least one-third of our life sleeping. But for some people experiencing sleep disruption, it probably feels a lot less. Less time dreaming and more time, frustrated, exhausted and emotionally worn out.

The mental health benefits of sleep are linked to what our brain gets up to whilst we are asleep. When we sleep our brain experiences different levels of activity at varying stages in the overall sleep cycle. Two stages within the sleep cycle that explicitly impact the way our brain functions are Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM).

During NREM, activity in the brain slows down, however it still experiences quick bursts of energy. Brain activity is more rapid during REM, which is the type of sleep that is most closely associated with vivid, emotional and hallucinogenic dreaming.

Both stages of sleep play a crucial role in brain health, by enabling the brain to engage in more or less activity throughout the night, which in turn helps our learning and memory. Sleep also has the ability to affect how we encounter and maintain disturbances in mood. With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that we associate lack of sleep with a bad mood. 

Your overall performance in daily tasks, ability to learn and remember things can be significantly reduced if you don’t get enough sleep. So if you suffer from bad sleep, your mental health could also suffer. 

How to get a better night’s sleep

Getting a better night’s sleep comes from consistency in your sleep habits. If you suffer from a lack of sleep, switching up your sleeping habits can positively impact your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. 

If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep and have noticed that your mental wellbeing is being negatively impacted, here are a few helpful suggestions to get you drifting off:

Get your worries written down

If your mind races with a never-ending list of things to do, or one particular worry circulates over and over whilst you are trying to sleep, you should try writing down your thoughts. Writing your worries down or tasks that you need to do for the next day can help you to offload thoughts and clear your mind for a restful sleep.

Get up to fall asleep

If you are wide awake but lying in bed, why not get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepier. You are more likely to feel like you aren’t wasting time lying wide awake and will be ready to fall asleep feeling relaxed. 

Cut out your caffeine 

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that makes you more alert and less drowsy. The effects of caffeine provide the exact opposite energy we need to fall asleep. You don’t have to cut caffeine out completely, but consuming any caffeinated substance within 6 hours before bedtime can have a disruptive impact on sleep.

Exercise your ability to sleep

If you are experiencing sleep disruption regularly at night time, are you being active in the daytime? Exercise helps to promote fewer sleep disturbances at night, whilst also supporting mental health by improving your mood.

There are also many natural remedies to help you get to sleep. These herbal supplements promote a more restful night’s sleep by containing active ingredients that set you up to visit the land of nod. 

The bottom line 

Sleep has the direct ability to affect our mood and levels of irritability. Lack of sleep can not only seriously affect our ability to function during the day, but also be detrimental to our mental wellbeing. If you regularly find it difficult to get to sleep or struggle with tiredness throughout the day, there are supplements to help you get a sound night’s sleep. 

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