Around 35% of all U.S. adults aren’t getting enough sleep, and that spells potentially serious consequences for their physical and mental health. Sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Teens, too, are at risk; researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that the average number of hours slept by American adolescents is seven – two hours less than the nine they should be enjoying. It is time to make getting a good night’s rest more of a priority – and that means giving due importance to sleep quality as well as sleep quantity.
Why does sleep deprivation affect our mental health?
We have mentioned the plethora of physical ailments that poor sleep can cause, but sleep deprivation can have serious effects on our mental health beyond feeling stressed, tired, or moody. A recent study by scientists at the University of Oxford found that “sleep disruption is a driving factor in the occurrence of paranoia, hallucinatory experiences, and other mental health problems in young adults with an average age of 25.” Lack of sleep is also linked to anxiety and depression. The reason is that a lack of sleep affects the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex – two areas of the brain that are necessary for managing emotions. Sleep deprivation causes us to see things more negatively, and to become moodier and more emotionally reactive.
What is quality sleep?
In addition to sleeping the required number of hours for your age, it is important to go through all the cycles that make up good sleep – including the restorative ‘deep sleep’ phase, in which Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is produced. HGH helps the body in many ways, stimulating the immune system, increasing muscle mass and bone, and increasing calcium retention. To enjoy quality sleep, you should fall asleep within half an hour of your head touching the pillow, and you should wake up no more than once a night. Frequent tossing and turning or waking up means you are not going through all the different sleep cycles that are necessary for optimal health.
The importance of a comfortable bed and mattress
Sleep hygiene is key when it comes to good sleep, and this begins with having an ergonomic mattress that supports your body. The bed should be wide enough to enable you to move, and the mattress should be of the right firmness for your sleeping position. If you sleep on your back or tummy, you will usually need a firmer mattress. If you sleep on your side, technology like memory foam will ensure your whole body is supported, to avoid issues like hip or shoulder pain. Bedroom design is also key. Make sure your sleeping space is dark, cool, and completely quiet. Keep all technology outside to avoid the temptation to stay up late online or watching T.V.
Mindfulness meditation and other stress relievers
In order to sleep well, it is important to actively reduce stress. Researchers at the University of Southern California have found that adults trained in mindfulness meditation sleep better than those trained in sleep hygiene education intervention. Holistic exercises like yoga and Tai Chi also lower levels of stress hormones, through their focus on mindfulness. At night time, progressive muscle relaxation is a perfect exercise to calm you down and induce a sleepy state. Essential oils like lavender (which is calming) may work for you; try diffusing this oil through your room at night.
If you haven’t been getting enough hours of sleep or you wake up feeling fatigued and tired, try to create a more comfortable resting space and to adopt a strict sleep routine. Avoid coffee and other stimulants in the afternoon, and consider a warm bath to lull you into sleep. If the problem persists, see a sleep specialist to rule out sleep apnea or other problems that can have major consequences for your health.