Sleep for Mental Health

sleep and mental health

In times of uncertainty, globally or personally, sleep is sometimes the first thing to get affected.  Emotions like fear, worry, grief and sadness keep us searching for answers, glued to our screens, or looking for distraction.  It can be hard to shut off our minds, with thoughts and questions running repeatedly, various scenarios playing themselves out.  But sleep is essential for the nervous system. Mental health and sleep are (ironically) completely interdependent on each other: it’s often harder to sleep when we’re down, depressed or anxious, and harder to find our “window of tolerance” or balanced mood when we haven’t slept enough. Our Toronto naturopaths support every patient to attain healthy sleep patterns, since sleep is a major pillar of health and matters to every single body system.  Let’s look at the where/what/when and how of supporting restorative sleep.

Where: Let’s start with your sleep environment. It should be a place that is comfortable and with positive associations, but without any distraction or association with work or your daily activities.  So using your bed to read an enjoyable book, take breaks, or do exercises is fine. But using it as a work station or spending your whole day there is not ideal.  Taking your phone or any screen to bed is likely to create lots of alertness, mental activity and stimulation, so make the bed a screen-free zone.  If you use your phone as an alarm clock, put it on airplane mode or leave it charging in a different room.  If you use it to play music or meditation apps, set it aside after you’ve pressed play and  be strict about not engaging with visuals on your screen after that point.  Last but perhaps most important is the darkness level of your bedroom.  You want it to be so dark at night that you can’t see your hand if you hold it in front of your face.  If there’s city light or street lamp light coming in through the window, this will change the quality of your sleep by reducing melatonin, a hormone our bodies produce when it’s dark.  Try hanging thick curtains over your blinds, that are opaque and let no light through.  A blanket or sheet will also do, or a sleep mask.

What: Sleep. So simple and yet so complicated.  Ideally 7-8 hours.

When: Sometimes it can seem that 7-8 hours of sleep at any time is good enough, but unfortunately there is a difference between an early and late schedule.  Going to sleep early, particularly before midnight, is going to yield better quality sleep and more benefit to the brain.  This has something to do with melatonin production ramping up when it gets dark, but also has to do with a funny thing about sleep: sometimes the more tired we get, the more wired we get (past a certain point).  Stay up past midnight and you may find that second wind you get makes it harder to fall asleep and makes for a much more restless sleep as well – even if you sleep in and get the same total hours.  It is thought that an hour of sleep before midnight is like two hours after midnight.  That’s a pretty amazing advantage especially for anybody who’s tired, is short on time, or has trouble with sleep.  And what about naps, you ask?  There’s no problem with naps, but not everybody can nap and they tend to be inconsistent. Our “circadian rhythm” means all the physiological changes in the body that occur at a regular, predictable interval dependent on our sleep-wake cycle.  To optimize the restorative effects of sleep, and to make sleep easier to get, consistent timing is key. That means bed time and wake-up time.  In fact, one trick for insomnia is to set a consistent, early wake-up time – say, 6am – and get out of bed at all costs at that time.  Bed time will often take care of itself.

How: Hopefully the above pointers give a sense of how to actually get to sleep and stay asleep (though if there are still issues with either, or if you just don’t feel rested, our Toronto naturopaths can assess the reasons why and help improve sleep).  But beyond that – how you sleep is actually vital in the long run! We all know a bad mattress, pillow, or position can create tension or pain, but did you know that something as simple as breathing through your mouth at night can cause tooth decay, bone loss, and lower sleep quality?  If you’re mouth breathing, it is worth your while to find out why and do anything possible to change that pattern.  Have you been told you snore? Are you overweight or obese?  Or do you simply wake up in the morning feeling ready to go back to sleep?  Identifying and addressing sleep apnea is one of the most important things you can do for your health and quality of life.  Optimizing your airway during sleep ensures that your brain gets a chance to go through all the phases of sleep and not get woken up due to a shortage of oxygen throughout the night.  Once you’ve had a sleep study, our Toronto naturopaths complement your airway treatment (whether it’s CPAP or an oral or positional device) by helping reduce issues like congestion, digestion and obesity that worsen sleep quality. 

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