How does sleep affect our mental health?
Published: 5 August, 2019
Sleep Awareness Week runs from 5-11 August and gives us the chance to understand the importance of sleep, and why it is being targeted by researchers to prevent mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
To mark Sleep Awareness Week run by the Sleep Health Foundation, we spoke to Black Dog Institute Senior Research Fellow and Clinical Psychologist Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, whose work focuses on the links between poor sleep and mental health.
Dr Werner-Seidler and her team are currently developing and trialling Sleep Ninja – an app designed for young people who are having difficulty sleeping. “Insomnia and depression are highly related, so improving sleep can reduce symptoms of mental health conditions,” says Werner-Seidler.
Why is sleep important?
We spend about a third of our lives asleep, so it’s no surprise that sleep is important for our day-to-day lives. But what is the science behind it? Sleep is vital because it serves several functions which are necessary for human survival.
“The first function relates to the physical need for our bodies to rest. The body requires periods of sleep to grow muscle, repair tissue and synthesise hormones,” Dr Werner-Seidler says.
The second function is about cognition and helping to consolidate memories.
“During the day, we are faced with huge amounts of information that can’t possibly all be retained. At night while we sleep, our brains do some work in processing and storing new information from the day, moving some parts of data from our short-term memory stores into stronger, more stable, long-term memories. This process is called memory consolidation,” says Dr Werner-Seidler.
How does sleep affect our mental health?
Poor sleep and poor mental health go hand in hand. While most people who get poor sleep do not develop mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, poor sleep and insomnia do pose a higher risk of mental ill-health.
“There is a two-way link between poor mental health conditions and poor sleep. That means that sleep disturbance like insomnia is both a symptom of depression and a risk factor for depression and anxiety. So, the risk of developing a mental health condition increases by up to 10 times for people who experience insomnia.”
The reverse is also true. Just as poor sleep increases the risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions, if you have a mental health condition it can make sleep problems worse.
How do I figure out if I am getting enough sleep?
Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer because everyone needs a different amount of sleep. There are sleep guidelines that give recommended hours of sleep for people of different ages. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 11-14 hours for babies and toddlers, 9-11 hours for school age children, 8-10 hours for teenagers and 7-9 hours for adults.
However, it is important to remember that this does vary from person to person and some people can function better on less sleep than others. The most important indicator is if you are feeling fatigued or sleepy during the day, you probably aren’t getting enough quality sleep.
If this is the case over a long period of time, it can increase the risk of developing a mental health condition. So, if you have been experiencing sleep problems, it’s a really good idea to get some help and talk to your GP.
“Interestingly, for people with depression, disturbance to their sleep is often the first thing they noticed when their mental health has deteriorated,” says Werner-Seidler.
Reducing depression by helping teens get a better night’s sleep
The Sleep Ninja app aims to help young people who are showing signs of insomnia sleep better by teaching them Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia, or CBT-I, strategies.
The next phase of the study will involve a randomised controlled trial involving about 300 young people.
“We will be testing whether the app assists with sleep and mental health, and young people aged between 12 and 16 anywhere in Australia will be invited to participate. In this phase of the study we will also be looking at how sleep problems contribute the onset of mental health issues, like depression and anxiety,” says Werner-Seidler.
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