If you struggle with sleep, you’re not alone. 1 in 3 people face sleep issues each year, and that’s not counting the recent phenomena many call “Covid-somnia.”
It’s fair to say that without enough sleep, most of us are not our best selves. We can become cranky, impatient, easily frustrated, and often experience a mental fog that makes it hard to get work done. But beyond that, sleep can affect our physical and mental health.
Sleep and Mental Health
One study examining data from 273,695 participants found that people with poor sleep ( <6 hours) experienced nearly three times the odds of frequent psychological distress than people with 7-8 hours of sleep . Poor sleep is associated with many side effects, ranging from high blood pressure and inflammation to our memory, mood, and mental health.
On the flip side, mental health issues, particularly anxiety, depression, and psychological stress, are associated with 50% of insomnia cases . According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness , numerous mental health issues can prompt sleep issues, which appear with different symptoms based on the condition. For examples …
- Depression may cause early-morning wakefulness, with 75% of people with depression also experiencing insomnia and 40% of young depressed adults experiencing hypersomnia .
- Anxiety Disorders seem to be another common source of sleep disorders, with one study finding that 50-60% of people with a generalized anxiety disorder also had insomnia . Research also suggests that poor sleep can activate anxiety for people already predisposed to it !
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that often prompts poor sleep because of nightmares and hyperarousal .
- Substance Use Disorders often affect both mental health and sleep quality. While it often may make us feel tired, alcohol intoxication actually prompts us to wake up more often throughout the night and contributes to poor quality sleep .
Common Sleep Issues
While many of us may struggle with sleep from time to time, sleep disorders refer to recurring conditions regarding sleep timing, duration, or quality that affect an individual’s ability to function during the day. Sleep issues can result from a person’s lifestyle or as a symptom of an underlying illness.
Few things are more frustrating than lying in bed, mind racing, as you try to go to sleep. Insomnia refers to chronic difficulty falling asleep even when tired and trouble staying asleep through the night. Many with insomnia may also experience cognitive impairments like excessive daytime sleepiness while awake. Studies suggest ⅓ of the adult population are affected by chronic insomnia .
Over the past year and a half, sleep neurologists have noticed the emergence of a new phenomenon called “COVID-somnia.” Affecting people recovering from COVID-19 and people who’ve been especially affected by fear and social isolation, COVID-somnia seems to be marked by everything from night terrors to insomnia to hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) .
<< Explore COVID-Somia with Dr. Bhatia’s full interview on the Morning Show HERE >>
While not directly a sleep disorder, sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that results from the upper airway (nose, mouth, throat) becoming blocked, which can lead to interrupted sleep as people wake up choking or gasping for air. Many people with sleep apnea may experience heavy snoring, fatigue and excessive sleepiness during the day.
Narcolepsy is a recurring sleep disorder that involves extreme and uncontrollable bouts of sleepiness that lead to “sleep attacks” that often last for several minutes. Narcolepsy often occurs despite getting adequate sleep at night but can contribute to sleep issues. About 1 in every 2,000 people across the U.S. and Western Europe experience narcolepsy .
Why and How Does Sleep Impact our Health so much?
At its core, sleep is a healing and restorative process that helps our body and mind heal from daily wear and tear.
Researchers have proposed sleep as a method of energy conservation that helps us reduce energy levels at night when we can’t hunt for food, which is supported by up to a 10% drop in metabolism while sleeping .
Sleep’s been argued as an essential component of brain plasticity and development, which could explain why children and infants require closer to 14 hours of sleep a day .
Of course, there’s the restorative theory that suggests the biological functions we use and deplete during the day (like a car tank running out of gas) often replenish as we sleep. Sleep often facilitates and supports functions, including tissue growth, muscle repair, creation of proteins, and critical releases of hormones .
At the end of the day, sleep likely serves and supports all these theories and functions. Ultimately, each one of us has different responses and preferences when it comes to sleep.
Sleep and the Body
Physically, insufficient sleep can heighten the risk of:
- High blood pressure
- Cognitive decline
- Alzheimer’s disease
Increasing evidence suggests poor sleep may also contribute to increased inflammation responses, which—when chronic—can increase the risk of many diseases .
Sleep and the Brain
Many of us can testify to the effects of poor sleep, which, according to the American Psychological Association (APA)  often include disruptions in:
- Reaction time
- Working (short term) memory
- Executive function (e.g., emotional regulation, planning, impulse inhibition, shifting tasks)
- Shifts in mood (usually for the worse.)
Not getting enough sleep can wreak havoc on our emotions, raising our stress levels and making everyday life sometimes debilitating. Poor sleep heightens our pain response, affects our ability to learn (sleep is when our brains consolidate and cement the day’s events into our memories), and affects our ability to perform .
Because it can often feel like we’re just the ghosts of our best selves when we get poor sleep, every aspect of our lives can be impacted, from experiencing increased daily stress to decreased problem-solving, creativity, and productivity .
Tips for Dealing with Sleep Issues
If you’re looking for help to get a good night’s sleep, here are a few tips.
1. Create an Evening Routine to Decompress
Watching a horror movie, going for a sprint, reading the news—these adrenaline-spiking activities often won’t help you get to sleep. Instead, try cultivating a relaxing and peaceful routine that helps settle your mind before you climb into bed.
That means putting aside the phone to bring your focus and awareness back to the present moment, rather than a million miles away online. Meditation is one activity that many have found helpful for grounding oneself and relaxing before bed. If you’re not a fan of meditation, don’t worry—any relaxing hobby will do.
3. Set Aside Time to Worry
Instead of waiting to unpack the day’s worries till after you’re in bed, schedule time earlier on to explore everything stressing you out. This way, when you head to sleep, you can remind yourself you’ve already investigated your worries earlier and let them go.
4. Talk with an Expert
If you’re struggling to get a handle on your sleep and feel you’ve tried everything, it might be time to talk to an expert. Poor sleep often results from several intertwined and difficult-to-untangle variables, so if you’re at your wit’s end, make sure you’re patient with yourself. If you’d like some support along the way, please reach out to us at Bhatia Psychology Group.