Can Sleep Affect Mental Health?

December 15, 2023 · John Gallagher

How Does Sleep Affect Mental Health?

Getting a good night’s sleep can feel more like a luxury than a right. It’s not simply a period of rest — it’s also critical for your physical health, affecting systems like your breathing, circulation, and digestion.

Sleep health also plays a large role in determining mental health, particularly when it comes to the sleep-wake cycle.

How Does Sleep Work?

Understanding how sleep works is the first step in connecting sleep with mental health. Each night, you experience several sleep cycles. These cycles are made of alternating periods between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. REM sleep is the stage associated with dreaming, which helps improve your memory, cognition, and mood.

Non-REM sleep is often divided further into stages, depending on how deeply you’re sleeping. As the night progresses, your periods of REM sleep should get longer. By the final sleep cycle, REM sleep can last up to an hour.

Sleep is an important process that provides various biological and cognitive benefits. These can include:

  • Memory consolidation: Sleep helps consolidate the day’s memories while you sleep. Particularly during REM sleep, yesterday’s memories are processed and stored as you prepare for the next day.
  • Physical healing: Sleep also encourages cellular growth and regrowth. This growth happens primarily during sleep with the release of growth hormones.
  • Cognitive function: Sleep hel;p[s improve your ability to reason, solve problems, and pay attention to fine details.
  • Emotional regulation: REM sleep stages are particularly important in helping you process emotions. Just as easily, inadequate sleep can lead to mood swings or inappropriately heightened emotional reactions.

Our internal biological clock, or circadian rhythm, governs the sleep-wake cycle. This rhythm is influenced by factors like light exposure that indicate daytime and nighttime. As the sun sets and it becomes dark, our eyes send a signal to the brain, releasing melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy. As morning light emerges, melatonin production drops, and cortisol levels increase to wake you from sleep.

What Aspects of Sleep Can Affect Mental Health?

Many aspects of your sleep can affect mental health. In particular, your bedtime routine, sleep duration, quality, regularity, and existing disorders can affect your daytime mental health.

Sleep Duration

Overly short and overly long sleep durations can both be problematic. Lack of adequate sleep, known as sleep deprivation, can lead to irritability, mood swings, and decreased cognitive abilities. It can also make symptoms worse for mental health conditions like depression, PTSD, and OCD. In some cases, sleep deprivation can further increase your risk for developing an anxiety disorder.

On the flip side, oversleeping can also indicate and contribute to certain mood disorders. In some cases, oversleeping is a recognized symptom of a mood disorder like major depressive disorder. Oversleeping can disrupt your circadian rhythms, reduce your exposure to sunlight, and contribute to social isolation that further depresses your mood.

Sleep Quality

It's not just the length, but the quality of your sleep that matters. Tossing and turning throughout the night, waking up multiple times, or spending extended hours in light sleep without reaching deeper sleep can lead to daytime fatigue and grogginess. Poor sleep quality can also weaken emotional resilience, amplify feelings of hopelessness, and reduce our overall life satisfaction.

Sleep Regularity

Keeping a consistent sleep schedule — waking up and going to bed at the same time each day — helps regulate your body's internal clock. An erratic sleep pattern, or frequently changing your bedtime routine, can disturb your circadian rhythm which leads to sleep disorders. These disturbances have been linked to mood disorders, decreased motivation, and heightened stress levels.

Sleep Disorders

Conditions like insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep), sleep apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep), and restless leg syndrome not only disrupt sleep but also act as potential triggers or amplifiers for mental health issues. People with insomnia, for instance, have a higher risk of developing depression or anxiety.

What Factors Influence Both Sleep and Mental Health?

Sleep and mental health are deeply intertwined. Quality of sleep can directly affect our emotional and psychological well-being, and vice versa. On the spectrum of factors that affect both sleep and mental health, they often overlap.

Here are a few factors that might influence both your sleep and your mental health:

  • Age: Sleep patterns evolve with age. Newborns can sleep between 14 and 17 hours each day. Adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Age also plays a role in introducing mental health challenges, particularly with the onset of adolescence and the stressors of adulthood.
  • Lifestyle: The lifestyle you live, particularly the amount of exercise you receive each day, goes a long way toward determining your quality of sleep. Lack of physical exercise can also affect mental health, contributing to lethargy and depression
  • Stress: Feeling stressed is one of the most common symptoms of sleep deprivation. Whether it’s due to personal issues, work responsibilities, or other external factors, stress can lead to restless or incomplete sleep patterns. Chronic stress can also worsen mental health, paving the way for mental health challenges like anxiety.
  • Diet and nutrition: Your diet plays a huge role in determining both the quality of your sleep and your mental health. Consumption of alcohol or caffeine, for example, can overstimulate the brain and make it more difficult to fall asleep. A diet of nutrient-rich foods can also reduce depression risk.
  • Environment: Factors like your bedroom environment, temperature, lighting conditions, and noise level can affect both your sleep and your mental health. Using a white noise machine, for example, can help reduce background noise and calm your thoughts as you prepare for sleep.

How Can I Protect the Quality of My Sleep?

It’s important to take sleep seriously — no matter what else you might have going on. Here are a few ways that you can make sleep a lasting priority:

  • Create a sleep schedule that identifies when you will go to bed and wake up each day.
  • Use pillows, blankets, and sleep accessories that encourage rest.
  • Refrain from using your phone, or other electronics, for at least 60 minutes before bed.
  • Get a healthy dose of regular exercise before going to bed.
  • Give your body time to digest your food before ending your day.
  • Keep a sleep journal to track your patterns of rest over time.
  • Record more data about your sleep patterns through a sleep tracking app.

There’s one more ingredient in the recipe for better sleep: the right mattress. Using the right mattress can make a huge difference, both in the quality of your sleep and in preserving your nighttime mental health. That’s exactly why we created our bedMATCH sleep diagnostic program: to pair sleepers with mattress options based only on your body type and sleep position.

Take our five-minute bedMATCH quiz to find mattress choices made for your height, weight, body type, and other metrics that decide the quality of your sleep.