Part 1: Recap on Sleep: The Foundation of Health and Wellness
Sleep is the foundation of health and wellness. It is also perhaps our most underutilized health-promoting behavior. Up to two-thirds of adults do not regularly get the recommended 8 hours of sleep every night. Sleeplessness is so prevalent that both the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have declared sleep loss a public epidemic. So, why do we fail to prioritize a good night of sleep? First, the dangers of sleep loss have not been adequately broadcast, leaving the public largely uninformed as to the risks of cutting sleep short. Second, the misconception that we can “catch up” on sleep over the weekend or on vacation is widespread. However, this has been invalidated throughout sleep research time and again. Even just one night of short sleep has a lasting impact on our bodies and brains. Finally, our society sometimes values achievement above personal wellbeing. Professional and family life demands often relegate sleep to the bottom of our priority list. This is where we get it wrong. Sleep is essential to keeping our minds sharp, our skills honed, and our ability to make sense of information in new and ingenious ways intact.
Sleep and the Body
Sleep resets and regulates a diversity of physiological functions within the body. Sleep loss is associated with increased heart rate, high blood pressure, heart disease, and increased risk of stroke. Short sleep leads to depletion of our immune system and the shutdown of growth hormone production, resulting in a drastic decrease in our ability to defend the body from illness and carry out routine repairs. Therefore, sleep-deprived individuals are more likely to experience frequent or severe illness. Sleep is also vital to maintaining a balance between hormones that control appetite, as well as balancing insulin and circulating glucose levels to support an optimal metabolic state. While we often think of diet and exercise as the pillars of physical health, sleep must be acknowledged as the foundation. No form of diet or exercise compensates for the detrimental effects of sleep loss on the body.
Sleep and the Brain
Sleep promotes a variety of functions within the brain. It is essential for memory consolidation, organization, and encoding into long-term memory, all critical to learning. Sleep also provides an important phase of motor memory development: the motor-skill enhancement often referred to as “muscle memory.” Sleep fosters creativity, providing the space in which the brain tests out and builds connections between information that shares distant, obscure associations. These connections are responsible for creative problem-solving and transformative thinking. Even the smallest amount of sleep loss can impact our ability to concentrate and slow our reaction time, sometimes with serious consequences, such as when driving on too little sleep. Research indicates that individuals experiencing sleep loss consistently underestimate the extent of cognitive and motor impairment they are experiencing, further adding to the risk we pose when sleep deprived.
Sleep and Mental Health
The fields of psychiatry and psychology have long accepted an association between sleep disturbance and mental illness, with most psychological disorders involving some form of sleep disturbance. Many of the same brain areas responsible for sleep regulation and affected by sleep loss are impacted by psychological disorders. While it has been widely accepted that psychological disorders can cause sleep disruption, it is only in recent years that research has emerged demonstrating that otherwise healthy individuals can exhibit signs and symptoms of mental disorders by simply disrupting their sleep. For example, sleep deprivation results in difficulty regulating strong emotions. Sleep is necessary to maintain the strong connection between the brain's emotional center and the area that allows us to exert inhibitory control. Lack of sleep, therefore, results in irritability and emotional irrationality. With a bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health, good sleep can promote psychological well-being in many ways.
An important psychological function of sleep is the reduction of emotional reactivity associated with specific memories. During REM sleep, the production of the stress-related chemical norepinephrine is completely shut off, and the brain's key emotion and memory-related structures are reactivated. During this sleep stage, emotion-specific memory processing occurs in an environment free of neurochemical stress. That is, sleep allows us to reprocess emotionally charged memories in a calm, safe cognitive state, reducing the negative charge associated with bad experiences, which can help mitigate reactive depression and anxiety. Research indicates that good sleep habits may serve as a protective factor in the development of mental illness. Additionally, along with pharmacologic treatment and psychotherapy, improved sleep quality may promote symptom reduction in some individuals with specific psychological concerns.
Sleep is a powerful tool capable of promoting and sometimes restoring our physical and mental health. Different stages of sleep provide benefits to different brain and body functions. Consequently, loss of any type of sleep results in cognitive and physiological impairment. The amount of sleep needed for optimal functioning depends on the individual. General sleep recommendations vary by age. According to the American Academy of Sleep, school-age children should get 9 to 12 hours of sleep, while teenagers require 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night. Current recommendations suggest that adults get 8 hours of sleep a night. While how much sleep you get is important, good sleep quality is also critical. Signs of poor sleep quality include repeatedly waking during the night and not feeling rested in the morning, even after getting enough sleep. We can improve our sleep quality by practicing good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to behaviors that promote healthy sleep habits.
Sleep Hygiene Tips:
Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning, even on weekends. This reinforces your body’s sleep cycle.
Watch your intake. Avoid drinking caffeine four to six hours before bed and drinking alcohol within three hours of bedtime. You should also avoid using nicotine products and eating large meals too close to bedtime.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Not only will a routine help you relax before bed, but your body will recognize the routine as a signal that it is time to sleep.
Avoid using electronic devices within two hours of bedtime. Electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers, and televisions emit blue light, which reduces your body’s melatonin levels. If you must use a screen, wear blue-light blocking glasses and use the bedtime display settings on your device.
Move your body during the day. Taking a walk, exercising, and moving your body in other ways can help you fall asleep more quickly. This is particularly important if you spend most of your day sitting at a desk. However, you should avoid exercising within three hours of bedtime.
Create a comfortable sleep environment. Making sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet can help you fall asleep and stay asleep. You may prefer to play a relaxing sound like white noise or rain. Your mattress, pillow, and linens should be comfortable.
Use your bed only for sleep and other relaxing activities. Your brain will associate your bed with sleep, making it easier to fall asleep.
Address stress before going to bed. Going to bed with a lot on your mind may make it more difficult to fall asleep. Try journaling, writing down your to-do list for tomorrow, or meditation to help you de-stress before bed.
Sleep problems that do not improve through good sleep hygiene may be indicative of a sleep disorder. You may want to consult a physician for further evaluation.
If you or someone you love is struggling with sleep problems or related emotional concerns, WBMA is here to help. Call us at (301) 576-6044 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consult today!
Rebecca Liberty, MA, MBS, MS