Is Poor Sleep Wrecking Your Mental Health?
Ask pretty much anyone about how they feel after a bad night’s sleep and you’re likely to get a negative response. Sleep issues can affect everyone from time to time, but did you know that poor sleep could also be impacting your mental health (1)?
The Link between Sleep and Mental Health
There is a clear connection between sleep and mental health. During our teen years the brain is developing – forming new connections and consolidating existing ones. It is also when the brain’s prefrontal cortex more strongly wired, which is important for maturity, thinking and judgement. When you’re asleep your brain is undergoing a monumental reconstruction improving how it functions and responds to the world.
This means without sufficient sleep the prefrontal cortex is less active and this affects our thinking, mood, memory and concentration. Depression and anxiety increase, and it is common to feel short tempered and irritable.
Various studies indicate that many teenagers are failing to get the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. One study found that teens who regularly sleep less than five hours per night have an 81 percent increase in the likelihood of thoughts of self-harm (1).
“When we don’t get enough sleep, it changes how our brain works. It changes how we see the world”
Why are teens struggling with sleep?
There are various things that can impact our sleep and identifying them is often the first step to getting a more restful night.
Areas to consider include:
- stress or worry (e.g., exam nerves, family or friendship troubles)
- poor sleeping environment (e.g., noise, temperature, uncomfortable mattress)
- poor sleep routine (e.g., late night screen time)
- some medications
- inactivity during the daytime
- a diet containing inadequate nutrition
- physical or mental health problems
Can I catch up at Weekends?
Many teenagers feel that if they sleep in until lunchtime at weekends it will resolve their sleep issues. However, switching back and forth between two schedules, one during the week, and then one when at the weekends, is very confusing to the brain. It’s not ideal for teens to sleep in as much as they do on the weekends. We call it social jet lag.
Ways to improve sleep
There are many ways we can try to improve our sleep. Creating a bedtime routine is often a good place to start, but you may also consider some of the following tips:
- Establish a regular bedtime routine (away from electronic screens) that lets you unwind around 30 minutes to 2 hours before bed. This could include leaving your phone out of reach, reading, journaling or listening to relaxing music. Find what works best for you.
- Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day including weekends.
- Eat a balanced diet. Various nutrients from our food are involved in a good night’s sleep, for example, tryptophan is an essential amino acid (from protein foods) that helps regulate melatonin, an important hormone in the sleep/wake cycle.
- Create a more restful environment: bedrooms that are dark, cool and quiet are generally the best environments for a good sleep.
- Incorporate more movement to your day, such as walks or team sports. However, try to avoid exercising near bedtime as this can affect your sleep.
- Avoid using screens in the evening. Blue light from the screen can have a negative effect on sleep and the stimulation from social media, news and games can cause feelings of anxiety.
- Write down your worries if they keep you awake, this can help put your mind at rest.
Whilst these tips can work for some, it’s important to reach out for additional support if you have any concerns about your mental health or how your sleep is impacting your wellbeing. You can speak to your GP or reach out to organisations such as Mind or Samaritans.
- Scott AJ, Webb TL, Martyn-St James M, Rowse G & Weich S. (2021) Improving sleep quality leads to better mental health: A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Sleep Med Rev. 60:101556.
- Mari Hysing ,et al. The British Journal of Psychiatry , Volume 207 , Issue 4 , October 2015 , pp. 306 – 312 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.114.146514