Sleep is one of the most crucial elements for mental health and a really good place to start re-evaluating if you’re struggling mentally or emotionally. Our body has an internal 24-hour clock called a circadian rhythm that tells our brain when to get sleepy and when to wake up. These circadian rhythms can be interrupted and changed by anything from changing time zones, more/less daylight as the seasons change, age, work hours etc. Jet lag is one that many people are familiar with. “Shift work disorder” is another that is created by work patterns of people who work late at night or early in the morning.
Sleep is also deeply connected to our mental health. Traditionally, psychiatrists saw insomnia as a symptom of mental health problems but recent research suggests that sleep deprivation could directly contribute to the development of psychiatric disorders.
“Sleep hygiene” refers to the regular practices that support healthy, sleep. If you’re struggling with sleep, try implementing some or all of these for a week or 2 to see if they’re helpful.
1. Avoid chemicals known to interfere with sleep: caffeine (coffee, energy drinks, some tea, some sodas, chocolate, and some pain medications), nicotine, and alcohol. Limit or avoid these in the 3-4 hours before bedtime.
2. Eat a light dinner because heavy meals can interfere with the body’s ability to prepare for sleep. Same with liquids – hydrate but try not to set yourself up for nighttime trips to the bathroom.
3. Make sure your bedroom is a sleepy environment: We sleep the best in cool, dark and quiet environments. Keep your bedroom below 75, use blackout curtains and dim lighting, and consider a white noise machine to block out some of the noises that may wake you up. Screens create blue light which activates the brain so it’s best to keep TVs, phones and computers out of the bedroom. If you must use them in the room you sleep in, use blue light blocking glasses or change the settings on your devices.
4. Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only. This will help you strengthen the association between your bedroom and sleep.
5. Attempt sleep only if you’re actually tired. Trying to sleep when you’re not sleepy will only create frustration which won’t help. If you’re not asleep after 15-20 minutes, go to another room and do something relaxing like reading, listening to calm music
6. Make sure your body is tired and ready for rest. For many of us, exercising regularly helps us with this and supports healthy sleep patterns.
7. Be careful with naps! For some people, napping during the day leads to less sleep at night. Try avoiding naps for a while to see how that impacts your nighttime sleep, or keep naps short – 20 minutes or so. Long naps during the day that interfere with night time sleep will create a cycle of feeling tired and needing daytime naps which continue to interfere with sleep and so on.
8. Create a bedtime routine. Our bodies don’t have an on/off switch and we might need to have a routine that helps us wind down and get ready to feel sleepy. If you’ve taken care of children, you probably know how important the bedtime routine is. It becomes cues for the brain that sleep is coming. Healthy bedtime routines for adults look similar to those of children. Try dimming the lights in the house an hour or 2 before bed. Make your entertainment (reading, tv etc) slower paced and more relaxing. Try a hot shower or bath to raise your body temperature, or drink some tea (bonus points if it’s a sleepy time blend or bedtime tea). Learn ways to control your mind if worry tends to keep you up like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation or ask your therapist for help with this.
So how much sleep do we need?
To be healthy, adults should be getting at least 7 hours of sleep, preferably closer to 8 or 9. Consider other things like pregnancy, healing (from a disease, injury, surgery, trauma etc), aging and chronic sleep deprivation, all of which mean you might need more than the suggested 7-9 hours per night. Even people who feel fine after less sleep will not perform as well on mental and physical tasks as those who sleep more.
If you can’t sleep for longer periods of time for whatever reason, try to improve your sleep hygiene so that the sleep you do get is more restful.