Restoring sleep for mental wellbeing

You've likely experienced the short-term (and long-term) effects that poor sleep can have on your mental health, and you’ve probably noticed that when one of these aspects of your wellbeing is compromised – it can influence the other.

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Both sleep and mental health concerns are global issues caused by a complex combination of factors. While researchers continue to understand the relationship between sleep and mental health, it’s clear that poor sleep and mood disturbances are intrinsically connected.

Studies have found that sleep disturbances are more prevalent among people who struggle with their mental health. One large study conducted during the 2020 global shutdown found that among over 22,000 adults, one in three participants demonstrated signs of insomnia. The study identified that these sleep disturbances were linked to higher levels of mental stress and low mood, and while it is plausible that increased levels of stress were induced by the sudden onset of restrictions and confinement – it also demonstrates the direct influence that poor sleep has on our mental wellbeing.

In the past it was assumed that mental health concerns led to sleep disturbances, but it turns out that the reverse may also be true. In a positive light, this multi-directional relationship demonstrates that supporting one area may help boost the other.

How to support quality sleep

Morning sunlight

Neuroscientist Andrew Huberman is a big believer in the benefits of morning sunlight, not only for sleep but for overall health. The reason that doing this in the morning is so important is because it triggers the release of cortisol which makes us more alert – and in turn supports the onset of melatonin later in the day that helps you fall asleep at night.

Morning sunlight creates a cascade of positive effects from improving mood and mental clarity to increasing the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin. Studies show that morning blue light may have a mood-boosting effect in animals, highlighting the potential use for morning light to support seasonal mood changes in humans.

In a podcast, Huberman shared that “Getting sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning is absolutely vital to mental and physical health. It is perhaps the most important thing that any and all of us can and should do in order to promote metabolic well-being, promote the positive function of your hormone system, and get your mental health steering in the right direction.” He recommends exposing yourself to sunlight within 30-60 minutes upon waking (or turning on artificial light until the sun comes up if you want to wake up earlier than the sun).

Stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule

It may seem obvious, but sometimes we need to remember the basics! Setting a sleep/wake time that you can stick to long-term will help your body adjust to a healthy sleep cycle. Tips for resetting your sleep-wake routine include:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day: being consistent reinforces your body’s circadian rhythm and will help you develop a solid sleep schedule.
  • Creating a wind-down routine: dimming the lights, avoiding screens and practicing relaxation techniques 30-60 minutes before bed will help signal to your body that it’s time for bed.
  • Avoiding naps: or reduce naps to 30 minutes max to prevent an early evening energy-surge.

Avoid caffeine 8-10 hours before you sleep

After drinking caffeine, it will remain in your bloodstream for several hours before it is cleared. In fact, around six hours after you consume caffeine, half of it will still be in your body. Sleep expert from UC Berkeley Dr. Matthew Walker recommends avoiding caffeine 12-14 hours before sleep, but everybody is different. Having your last cup of coffee for the day around 8-10 hours before you plan on sleeping sounds like a reasonable compromise for the average adult.

Supplement your diet with magnesium

Magnesium is involved in over 300 enzymatic reactions within the body. It helps regulate several critical functions, and almost every cell and organ need it to function properly. This mighty mineral plays a key role in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ division of the nervous system – which is a big reason why it’s so tied to sleep.

There are many ways that magnesium works to encourage a good night’s sleep, from regulating melatonin to supporting the production of neurotransmitters. But research also shows that a deficiency in magnesium can impair sleep. You can increase your consumption of magnesium by eating more nuts and seeds, leafy greens, avocado and even dark chocolate – or supplement with a good quality form of magnesium to boost your intake.

Reduce your daily stress load

The stress you experience in your day-to-day life can significantly impact your quality of sleep (and vice versa!). Implementing mindfulness-based practices into your daily routine can help restore your circadian rhythm by regulating your stress hormones, like cortisol. Research indicates that by reducing stress, mindfulness practices like meditation can improve sleep quality and total wake time over a period of 6-weeks.

Similarly, a meta-analysis found that mindfulness practices like meditation, body scanning, walking, yoga and breathing awareness improved sleep quality over a 2-week period in comparison to controls. The best thing about mindfulness-based practices? They are low cost, easily accessible and can support both stress reduction and sleep quality simultaneously.

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Support cell health

Stress activates an ‘alarm’ in your brain, disrupting the body’s normal balance. This signals the mitochondria – our cells’ powerhouse – to produce more energy to mediate our stress response. The by-product is increased free radicals.

Oxidative stress (cell stress) builds up due to increased free radicals, compromising mitochondria health. Mitochondria in the adrenal glands are particularly important as they play a role in our sleep/wake cycle and help create our stress hormone - cortisol. It’s our cells that send the signal to trigger the stress response in the first place, so maintaining the function of our cells (and mitochondria that live inside them) is key when it comes to supporting the stress response.

  • The mitochondria in the adrenal glands are responsible for the last step of cortisol production, and it’s from the mitochondria that cortisol is released into the cell.
  • Healthy cells are better able to mitigate oxidative stress and support cortisol regulation.

Learn more about cell stress

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