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We all know sleep is a fundamental pillar of our health and well-being and we’re increasingly understanding that it has a huge impact on our mood and mental health. In 2021 Dr Alexander Scott and his team from Keele University reviewed existing research on the relationship between sleep and mental health. They conducted a meta-analysis of 65 randomised controlled trials involving 8,608 participants, one of the largest studies of its kind. Dr Scott said: “We all know that poorer mental health can mean a poorer night’s sleep. However, recent evidence suggests that the reverse might also be true – that poorer sleep can also lead to poorer mental health”. 

The researchers found that improvements in sleep provided significant benefits to mental health regardless of whether people had a physical health problem, and that improving the quality of sleep leads to a reduction in symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, regardless of their severity.

The research highlights 3 key takeaways: 

  • A Causal Connection: sleep has a significant effect on mental health, depression, anxiety, and rumination. In other words, our mental health is directly affected by the quality of our sleep – so poor sleep can be a cause of poor mental health. Understanding this should guide us towards prioritising our own sleep. 
  • Dose-Response Relationship: The greater the improvement in sleep quality, the more pronounced the enhancement in mental health. We can improve our mood and mental health by improving the quality of our sleep – the better we sleep, the better we are likely to feel.
  • Improving sleep quality benefits all of us: the researchers found that targeting sleep proved beneficial for mental health across diverse populations, irrespective of the presence of physical or mental health issues. Put simply, we can all benefit from better sleep.

Whilst these takeaways seem so simple, they emphasise our ability to significantly improve our own mental health by taking our sleep more seriously. If you’re looking to act on this (and the research definitely suggests we all should be!), then try experimenting with some of the tips below. Not every technique will work for everyone, however it’s worth investing time and effort into experimenting to discover what works best for you.

  1. Prioritise a consistent sleep routine:

Make sleep a non-negotiable priority in your daily routine. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Establish a consistent sleep schedule so that you are going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. Ideally you want to align this to your natural body clock – ie go to bed and get up at the time that feels right for you. This is often easier said than done! 

  1. Optimise your bedroom for sleep:

Try sleeping in a cool, dark room – the darker the better. Limit screen time and bright lights 1-2 hours before bed so that your sleep environment is conducive to rest and relaxation. Many people benefit from leaving the phone in another room at night time.

  1. Limit fluid and food consumption in the evenings: 

Stop drinking fluids 1-2 hours before bed and focus on hydration (1-2 glasses of water) as soon as you wake up. Try to have your last meal 2-3 hours before bed. Limiting your evening fluids and food will help to prevent or reduce the need to use the bathroom during the night. 

  1. Reduce alcohol and caffeine: 

Whilst some people can fall asleep right after drinking an espresso and many more after enjoying an evening of drinking, the reality is both caffeine and alcohol impair sleep quality. This means that even though these beverages may not prevent you from falling asleep they will almost certainly reduce the time you spend in deep sleep. We recommend limiting your caffeine intake to before mid morning. Be conscious about your alcohol intake and consider how you balance and prioritise your lifestyle with your need for quality sleep. 

  1. Maximise natural light: 

Try to get as much morning sunlight as possible. A short walk in the morning, breakfast outdoors, or simply looking out of an open window for 5-10 minutes are all good options. Likewise, dwindling evening light can also help to improve sleep. It’s thought exposure to natural light helps regulate our circadian rhythms (our natural body clock), leading to better sleep. 

  1. Exercise regularly:

High activity levels are related to longer hours of sleep. Research suggests exercising for 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of high intensity each week can help you to fall asleep faster and help you stay asleep for longer. Be sure not to exercise too close to bedtime as this can make it harder to fall asleep. 

  1. Experiment with relaxation techniques: 

Yoga nidra, meditation, breathing protocols and journaling can all help reduce stress and clear the mind before bed. An active mind can make it difficult to relax so it’s worth experimenting to see whether you can find a ‘go to’ technique or routine to help you unwind before sleep.

  1. Explore Evidence-Based Interventions if needed:

Consider trying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTi) if you’re struggling with sleep. These interventions have been scientifically proven to improve sleep quality and subsequently alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Consult with a healthcare professional to explore tailored interventions that suit your individual needs.

  1. Monitor and Adjust: 

Understand that improving sleep quality is a journey, not a destination. Continuously monitor your sleep habits and patterns, and be proactive in making adjustments as needed. Experiment with the techniques above to fine-tune your sleep routine and maximise its benefits for your mental and physical health.

Sources:

Scott, A et al. (2021). Improving sleep quality leads to better mental health: A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Sleep Medicine Reviews,

He, J.-wen, Tu, Z.-hao, Xiao, L., Su, T., & Tang, Y.-xiang. (2020). Effect of restricting bedtime mobile phone use on sleep, arousal, mood, and working memory: A randomized pilot trial. PLOS ONE, 15(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0228756 

Noorwali, E. A., Cade, J. E., Burley, V. J., & Hardie, L. J. (2018). The relationship between sleep duration and fruit/vegetable intakes in UK adults: a cross-sectional study from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey. BMJ Open, 8(4). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-020810 

Zhu, G., Catt, M., Cassidy, S., Birch-Machin, M., Trenell, M., Hiden, H., Woodman, S., & Anderson, K. N. (2019). Objective sleep assessment in >80,000 UK mid-life adults: Associations with sociodemographic characteristics, physical activity and caffeine. PLOS ONE, 14(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226220

Martin, T., Arnal, P. J., Hoffman, M. D., & Millet, G. Y. (2018). Sleep habits and strategies of ultramarathon runners. PLOS ONE, 13(5). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0194705

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