If you’re an adult 18 or older, you need seven or more hours of good-quality sleep per night. If you don’t get enough sleep, or if your sleep quality is poor, you put both your physical and mental health at risk. Signs of poor sleep quality include waking up tired, even though you’ve been in bed for the requisite number of hours; waking up repeatedly during the night; and experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder, including snoring or gasping for air.
At City Care Family Practice in the Murray Hill area of New York, New York, our team of family medicine physicians understands just how important good sleep is for our patient's mental health, and they want to impress upon you the need to seek medical advice if your sleep isn’t up to snuff. Here’s what you need to know about how sleep (and a lack thereof) affects your mental health and what you can do about it.
Natural sleep is an essential function that allows both your body and mind to rest and recharge. Sleep flushes out toxins, forms new memories, and replenishes all systems. Without sufficient sleep, the brain can’t operate properly — causing physical or mental impairment. “Sleeping Pills” only dampen the workings of all your brain cells and do not stimulate natural sleep. Training to sleep spontaneously provides the most benefit.
Your “internal clock” works on a 24-hour cycle called the circadian rhythm, and the need to sleep seems tied to it. Adenosine is an organic compound produced in the brain, with levels increasing throughout the day making you feel more fatigued. When you finally sleep, the body breaks the compound down so you can start a new cycle.
Light also plays a role in the circadian rhythm. Within the hypothalamus region of the brain lies a cluster of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which processes light signals from the eyes. As the sun goes down and the light decreases, the body releases melatonin, a hormone that makes you drowsy. When the sun comes up in the morning, the body releases cortisol, a hormone that promotes energy and alertness. Sleep is a system tailored to enhance optimal brain and body function.
According to the CDC, insufficient sleep increases the risk of physical diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, because the body can’t refresh and repair itself — it’s like never taking your car to the garage for maintenance… ”something’s gonna break!”
But while sleep is essential for the body’s physical upkeep, natural sleep helps maintain cognitive skills, such as attention, learning, short- and long-term memory, and emotional regulation, because the brain needs time to relax and refresh, too. A full night of good sleep even allows us to perceive the world accurately. Research suggests that people who go completely without sleep for three nights in a row or more develop perceptual distortions, hallucinations, and delusions.
The evidence for sleep's effect on mental health is pretty overwhelming.
A research review found evidence that insomnia led to the development of depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders, and the researchers also found a link (though not necessarily a causal one) between insomnia and an increased risk of suicide.
In 2020, a study in JAMA Psychiatry identified an association between sleep problems in early childhood and the development of both psychosis and borderline personality disorder in adolescence.
And sleep disturbances are also a common characteristic of most mental illnesses, including anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia.
The exact mechanisms of sleep’s effect on mental health aren’t well known at this time, but some studies have shown that mutations in “circadian clock” genes can lead to particular psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and schizophrenia — but not, interestingly enough, to depression.
However, several lines of evidence implicate changes to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the period where we do most of our dreaming, as leading to depression.
During normal REM sleep, we process emotional memories, and dreaming helps us “unlearn” difficult, frightening, or painful experiences. Sleep scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, though, have speculated that the normal pattern of that processing breaks down in people with depression, consolidating memories instead of helping the mind unlearn them.
Treating an underlying sleep problem can prevent mental health problems. However, if you’re at the point at which your mental health has already been affected, the City Care Family Practice providers can help, too. Their multipronged approach usually includes sleep hygiene/lifestyle changes and cognitive therapy, which is best suited for long-term relief.
Struggling to fall or stay asleep? Concerned about your mental health as a result? It’s time to come into City Care Family Practice for an evaluation. Give our office a call at 212-545-1888, or book online with us today.