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Sleep Matters: Mental Health

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With the over-used ‘I'll sleep when I die’ mentality these days, 30% of adults aren’t getting good quality sleep. This can not only directly impact your general health but can also impact your mental wellbeing.

Sleep is not just ‘time out’ from our busy routine, it is needed to help our bodies recover from the day and to allow healing to take place. With life getting in the way and the never-ending feeling that there are not enough hours in the day, it is often hard to make sleep a priority. Instead, many of us opt for late nights and caffeine-filled drinks to get us through the day. There's also the recently coined notion of 'FOMO' - 'Fear of Missing Out' - where, even though you may be tired and ready for an early night, social media and the constant 'visibilty' of what everyone is up to makes you feel like you want to be involved and not 'miss out'.

This all needs to change; it's time to make sleep trendy again.

Generally, we spend about a third of our lives asleep - it is an essential and involuntary process, without which we could not function effectively. It is as important to our bodies as eating, drinking (non alcoholic beverages of course) and breathing, and is vital for maintaining good mental and physical health. Sleeping repairs and restores our brains, not just our bodies. During sleep, the body goes through a variety of processes and sleep stages and good quality sleep is the result of spending enough time in all of these stages, including enough deep sleep to help us feel refreshed. Poor sleep over a sustained period leads to a number of problems including (the obvious ones) like fatigue, sleepiness, poor concentration, lapses in memory and irritability and can also contribute to mental health problems like anxiety and depression. In the same way that diet and exercise can help to improve our mental health, so can sleep.

Although sleep may be difficult to regulate and and maximise when doing shift-work, the extra pressure that is often placed on your body with irregular hours makes it even more important that we get the right amount of good quality sleep. There is, however, no universal answer to how much sleep a person need as this varies from person to person. A recent and real-life example of this is illustrated by two of my colleagues: they both have Fitbits, which help record and monitor sleep. One of them is getting only around 3- 4 hours sleep a night and she doesn't feel any negative effects on her health or energy levels; another colleague can sleep for up to 14 hours without stirring and feels awful if she has less that around 8-9 hours a night! What is important is that you find out how much sleep you need and ensure you achieve this as often as you can.

Top tips for better sleep:
  • Try to make your room as dark and quiet as possible. Blackout blinds can be invaluable if you work shifts, and a good set of earplugs is a must!
  • Exercise regularly, but try to make sure you finish your workout at least 3 hours before bedtime 
  • Avoid tea and coffee (and other caffeinated drinks) if you can, at least in the afternoons, and don’t drink a lot of alcohol before bed 
  • Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day 
  • Try to only use your bed primarily for sleep. Your bed should be associated with (mainly!) sleep so your mind knows that it's time to switch off when you are in it
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine that lets you unwind and sends signals to your brain that it’s time to sleep. This can mean leaving your phone or iPad downstairs - the blue light from screens can be really inhibiting to sleep
  • If you can’t sleep, don’t just toss and turn and stress about it. Get up and do something relaxing like listening to music, trying a meditation Podcast or reading until you feel sleepy, then go back to bed and try again.
If your sleep problems don’t improve with the small lifestyle changes above, then it may be worth keeping a sleep diary (or investing in a Fitbit or similar) to record how much sleep you are getting and logging the reasons you may be struggling (e.g stress, waking up a lot throughout the night, waking up really early etc.). Following this, don't be afraid of going to see your GP, who can then look at any underlying medical or psychological reason for the problem and can suggest further help.

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