Why Sleep Is Important for Your Mental Health

We have heard it from our friends, family and our very own doctor, ” are you getting enough sleep?” Why is sleep so crucial and what role does it actually play in our lives? If we think about it, there are 24 hours in a day, most of us spend 16-18 hours of our waking hours, up and alert. Between those 16-18 hours our brain is constantly working to process everything around us. From thoughts, emotions, decisions, storing, creating and retrieving memories, our brains are on overdrive during those waking hours. Now imagine a car, you would fill it with gas, but eventually the gas will run out and the car will shut down. In some cases, it might even cause mechanical problems. Just like a car, our brains also will run out of fuel and need to be recharged/refilled.

What is REM Sleep?

You might be surprised to learn that our sleep cycle is actually divided into 5 different stages. The first four stages are non-rapid eye movements (NREM) and the last stage is called rapid eye movement (REM). In addition, we repeat these cycles over and over again throughout the night. The length of these stages varies throughout the night and varies from newborns to adults.

The first stage of sleep is considered a light sleep. It is where our muscle activity slows down. During stage two, our breathing patterns and heart rate slow down, sometimes there is a reduction in body temperature. The third stage is where deep sleep begins, and our brains begin to create slow delta waves. The fourth stage is considered very deep sleep, timed breathing, very little muscle movement, and our brains continue to produce delta waves. During stage five, REM sleep, our brainwaves speed up and dreaming occurs. Our muscles are still relaxed, however our heart rate is increased and our breathing is shallow and deep.

Why are Delta Waves Important?

Delta waves, which are created during our deep sleep moments, is where the body and the brain actually begin to repair and get ready for the next day. Everything from our heart, kidneys and digestion, is all balanced during deep sleep. Some studies have found that the human growth hormone is released during deep sleep. Delta waves also help us to feel refreshed and rejuvenated when we wake up the next morning.

So How Do I Reap the Benefits of Sleep?

The most important thing I tell my clients is to ensure you have a sleep schedule. I understand in this day in age, with rotating shifts, children and travelling, this will be difficult. However, if you can practice at least some aspects of your sleep schedule routinely, you will be able to program your body and brain to sleep when it needs to sleep.

Set aside time to sleep. Yes! Consciously tell yourself the time you intend on going to bed and waking up. It would be best to keep this consistent. For example, ” I will be going to bed at 10pm and waking up at 6am.” My bed is only for sleeping. It is very important to associate your bed only for sleep. It is not a place where you read, watch tv, eat or study. Why is this important? We want to be able to train our bodies that when we lie down in bed, we are preparing for sleep. If we are doing all other sorts of activities on our bed, our body will not know if we are going to be reading or sleeping.

No bright lights. It is important to create an appropriate atmosphere for sleep. If you need to invest in a fan or a heater to create a good temperature, now is the time. If you can block out any light coming from the windows, it would also help. In addition to natural light, no artificial lights. That means not using your cell phone, laptop or tv at least one hour before you go to sleep.

What is your routine? For example, I put my phone to charge in another room. I change into my pyjamas, complete my oral hygiene, take any medications that are needed, lotion my hands, moisturize my lips, close my curtains and then I get into bed. I typically follow this same pattern where ever I am, my own house or on vacation. This way, I am preparing my body and informing my brain, I am starting to wind down to sleep.

I cannot sleep !! If you have been lying in bed for 20 minutes you should get up from bed and walk around. Try a light snack, some warm milk and try to keep the lights dimmed. It is important not to continue to lie on your bed waiting for sleep to come. This activity on its own can be anxiety provoking as you will start to think about why you are not able to sleep. If you feel you have a lot on your mind, write down all your thoughts in a book and tell yourself you will address them tomorrow and that nothing will be resolved right now.

I tried to keep the sleep hygiene short and simple, as there are plenty of websites and information online about how to promote good sleep hygiene. Understanding the stages of sleep and the work that is being done in our body, gives us an appreciation for those 6 – 8 hours.  In conclusion, sleep is where our minds and bodies prepare for the day ahead. If we continue to run on no fuel, no sleep, we will eventually break down; both mentally and physically.