The Importance of Sleep
And effective methods we can implement at home to improve our sleep and harness its benefits
Apoorva Madan, Clinical Psychologist at PsychMed
You may often hear about the importance of sleep for our wellbeing, but what makes sleep so special? Though the full extent of why we sleep and how it affects us continues to be explored by researchers, the current consensus is clear – sleep is a vital pillar to our wellbeing and functioning. Whether it’s mood, memory, creativity, physical or mental health, or even weight maintenance, the quality and quantity of our sleep can have far reaching effects in many aspects of our lives.
Studies suggest that managing our sleep can help reduce the severity of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, suicidality, and even the risk of mood or manic episode relapses in bipolar disorder. Sleep also plays a role in helping us to better process and regulate daily emotions and stressors, making us notably less reactive. In children, insufficient sleep has been associated with increased anger and aggression. In addition to our minds, our bodies stand to benefit from sleep too. Studies have consistently shown that routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night impairs our immune system functioning, and that conversely, sleeping well can help us prevent infection and ward off illness. Sleep has also been associated with reduced risk of health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and obesity.
Regarding cognitive functioning, sleep acts as a memory aid, both before learning to prepare the brain for making new memories, and after learning to prevent forgetting newly learned information (memory consolidation). Sleep can offer up to a 40% memory retention benefit, which is a significant amount. This is worth considering when staying up late in preparation for a test or performance the next day. Researchers have even begun exploring methods to selectively remember information using sleep, which sounds like something straight out of science fiction! Another area of interest is attention; sleep deprivation can significantly impair our capacity to concentrate and is a major contributor to vehicle accidents, with significant sleep loss having effects similar to that of drunk driving.
Evidently, sleep has an array of impacts on our health and functioning. Fortunately, there are many effective methods we can implement at home to improve our sleep and harness its benefits.
These include (but are not limited to):
- Keeping a sleep schedule: try to go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time each day, including weekends. Adjusting to a change in schedule can be challenging for our bodies, and regularity can maintain our internal body clocks.
- Sleep environment: make your bedroom and bed as conducive to sleep as possible. Assure you have comfortable bedding, a relatively cool room temperature, and remove devices (such as phones and TV) that may distract you from sleepiness
- Avoid caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that has a half-life of up to 5 hours, meaning it can remain in your system for up to 10 hours, impairing sleep.
- Avoid alcohol before bed: Though it is believed to be relaxing, alcohol actually impairs deeper sleep, affecting sleep quality.
- Bedtime ritual: Try to include time for unwinding into your bedtime routine. Avoid exerting yourself or over-scheduling until the very end of the day. Relaxing before bed can include listening to calming music, reading, or having a warm bath.
- Clock watching: If you have trouble falling asleep or worry about getting enough sleep (which commonly occurs in Insomnia), then face your clock away from you and avoid looking at the time during bedtime.
If you have ongoing difficulties with sleep, speak to your GP or medical professional. Sleep difficulties can sometimes indicate a sleep condition which may require referral for specialist assessment. Psychologists can also assist in understanding and addressing sleep difficulties, for example, the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is a widely established evidence-based treatment for insomnia and can help to increase sleep quantity and reduce barriers to falling asleep.
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