Why poor sleep impacts mental health

According to the Sleep Council around 40% of people suffer from sleep issues and 25% of children are not getting enough sleep. For the vast majority of us who have suffered from a poor night's sleep, the impact on our psyche is all too obvious. Experiencing raw tetchiness, irritability, lack of patience and inability to focus are all common features. We all know that the brain reacts differently after sleeping badly.

Sleep - or lack of it - is serious

Commenting on sleep issues associated with the menopause, consultant gynaecologist and hormone specialist, Mr Michael Savvas says, "Poor sleep has long-term effects including heart disease diabetesdementia and obesity, reduced immunity and even cancer". He goes on to explain that, "The neuropsychological effects of acute sleep deprivation have been consistently shown to be deleterious". 

These effects include the following:

  • A decreased reaction time,
  • An increase of repetitive and negative thoughts,
  • Impaired sense of humour,
  • Increased risk taking,
  • Impaired moral judgement,
  • Increased negativity with with enhanced memory for adverse events, and
  • Increased distractibility

See also - disturbed sleep in women

Although unpleasant, most of us deal with these bad days and mood is restored following a good night's sleep. But what what happens in the minds of those who cannot get the benefit of those precious restorative hours?

My mind won't stop

It is little wonder that sleep and mental health are so closely connected. There is also a two-way insomnia street - with part of the diagnostic approach being to discover what came first. Doctors treating patients with psychiatric disorders have viewed lack of sleep as symptoms. But studies in both adults and children suggest that sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders. So, treating a sleep disorder may also help alleviate symptoms of a co-occurring mental health problem.

The pain caused by lack of sleep is also often under estimated and people may find themselves inadvertently self-medicating with alcohol, prescribed medicine or illicit drugs as inappropriate coping mechanisms. Those people with mental health problems are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disorders. These sleep disorders are particularly common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Sandman Switch

A potentially big breakthrough has been the Oxford University discovery of the Sleep Brain Switch or what they call the "Sandman Switch". They say that , "the sleep-control neurons are either on or off based on the activity of the ‘Sandman’ switch, a physical gate which allows or blocks electrical signals to the cells. When dopamine production stops, the switch is flicked and sleep is triggered. Finding a drug to trigger the Sandman switch could help insomniacs. Scientists think that making a drug to flick the switch could create a new generation of super-efficient sleeping pills". However, this is obviously still very early days in terms of the research, and much more work will be needed.

Emotional resilience

The brain basis of a mutual relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood. But neuro-imaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night's sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep deprivation sets the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.

In some cases, problems can be made worse by inappropriate self-medication with behaviours, substances and alcohol. However, specialist help is also available for people seeking additional support.

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