Sleep. Where would we be without it? Well, probably in exactly the same place as we are now, but just so much more tired! You may not think getting a good nights sleep is important to your mental health, but it is! Trust us on that and here's why.
Sleep plays a crucial role in our physical and psychological wellbeing. It is an essential part of our lives. We all need sleep and, as a species, we are designed to sleep at night, thanks in part, to melatonin. We are diurnal by nature.
Sleep acts as a protector of the brain, and every aspect of our brain's functions rely on 'normal' sleep patterns. Sleep less = function less.
HOW CAN SLEEP HELP?
The relationship between mental illness and sleep is bi-directional; in other words it flows both ways. When it comes to mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and psychosis, one of the first changes you may notice is a change in sleeping patterns.
You (or whoever it affects) may find it harder to get to sleep, to stay asleep or that you begin to wake up at odd hours of the night and can't get back to the land of nod, but it works the other way too.
People who suffer with insomnia, for example, often find that their sleep disorder becomes a risk factor which can develop into depression. In fact many of the symptoms of sleeping disorders are very similar to depression.
So now we know how important sleep is to our well-being, what can we do to ensure we get a good night's sleep? The quality of sleep isn't as simple as how long you can be asleep. As girlfriend's have said to me in the past, "size isn't important sweetheart" ....sorry, I mean "it's quality, not quantity".
When it comes to sleep, as with most things in life, everyone is different. People will tell you we need 8 hours of sleep per night, but that isn't strictly true. Some people can have much less than that and still wake up full of beans, whilst other need more. On average, we sleep for around 7 1/2 hours per night.
Our circadian rhythms, a.k.a. our body clock, is what, for the most part, determines our sleep patterns. We are hardwired to get tired and want to fall asleep as it gets dark, and similarly, we instinctively know to be fully awake and alert during the day. It's what we do and it's how we function.
Nowadays we have more control over the light in our lives than ever before. We can make it light when we want and dark when we want, often with just the touch of a button. So, to ensure a good night's sleep, we need to get our body clock and our hours of light and dark into joyous synchronicity. We can do that in a number of ways.
Create a regular routine for yourself at the end of the day. This will give your brain a pattern to work to, so it knows that it's time for bed, and therefore sleep. The chemical we mentioned earlier, melatonin (we did, you probably weren't paying attention) is sometimes referred to as the 'darkness hormone'.
Melatonin is a natural hormone, made by your brain's pineal gland (which is about the size of a pea), and its levels rise during the night and help to stabilise your sleep/wake cycle. The amount of melatonin your body makes decreases as you get older, so enjoy it while you can.
If you're working on the computer or watching TV at night and expect to be able to just switch it off and go straight to sleep, you might not find it that easy. Give yourself time to wind down, and your melatonin levels to rise up.
Know Your Body
When it comes to sleep, work out what's best for you. You can read plenty of things on the internet that tell you that 'this' will definitely work or 'that' is guaranteed, often only lead to confusion. Instead, think about you and you alone.
Think about times when you've enjoyed a good night's sleep; what did you do beforehand, what time did you go to sleep, what time did you get up and felt refreshed. Try to repeat these as much as possible.
Bear in mind that these will change over time. We need more sleep in our teenage years or during growth spurts, but try and stick to what works for you at the time.
Environmentally (Sleep) Friendly
Try to make the room you sleep in as conducive to sleep as possible. It might be easier said than done, but try and keep your bedroom as cool, dark and quiet as you can.
You may need additional help with this if, for example, you have a partner who snores (earplugs) or have a streetlight outside your window (blackout curtains or blinds).
If you have any experience about how any sleep has helped you and you'd like to share it with our community, please take a look at our 'Men Tell' section.