Sleep and mental well-being Our bodies have an internal clock which helps regulate when we sleep and when we are awake. 

Dr Chido Rwafa-Mental Wellness

As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community. 

Poor sleep habits can affect the way our brain functions, our ability to manage our emotions, our ability to manage stress and our ability to be productive effective members of families and communities. 

Why do we need sleep?

Sleep is an essential function of our bodies. It is critical for normal physical and psychological functioning. 

When we sleep, our bodies and our minds get an opportunity to repair, rest and recharge. 

The body during sleep produces antioxidants that help to detoxify and prevent damage from the wear and tear of life. Good sleep helps to regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels and hormone levels, decrease inflammation and boost immunity. When we sleep well, our minds get a chance to process new information we absorbed during the day, process emotions we are experiencing and help with forming memories. 

This helps reduce stress levels and helps us to retain new information and have better memory. Good sleep leads to a better ability to concentrate and focus during the day and helps us regulate our emotions, have better energy levels, relate with others better, make better decisions during the day and generally cope better with stress. 

When we do not sleep well, physically, we can struggle with fatigue, increased inflammation, aches and pains, a weakened immune system with increased risk of minor illnesses, poor appetite control, difficulty maintaining a healthy weight, increased risk of hypertension and diabetes. 

Mentally we can become irritable and less able to read and respond appropriately to the emotions of others, we can struggle with poor memory and difficulty concentrating and focusing. 

Poor sleep habits can worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The science of sleep

Our bodies have an internal clock which helps regulate when we sleep and when we are awake. 

As the day ends and daylight decreases, our bodies automatically start to produce sleep hormones like melatonin. These sleep hormones help to slow our bodies down and prepare us for sleep. 

As we sleep, our bodies experience several phases of sleep. 

The first three phases we fall slowly into deep sleep called non-rapid eye movement sleep. During deep sleep our body repairs any damage, detoxifies itself and releases growth hormone. The fourth stage of sleep is called rapid eye movement sleep which is when we dream and our minds process emotions and memories. 

The four phases last between 90 to 120 minutes and we have three or four of these cycles in one night of good sleep.

How much sleep do we need?

 A healthy adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep every night. 

 Older adults (over 65years old) need slightly less sleep. 

 Adolescents need 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night. 

 School going children need 9 to 11 hours of sleep a night. 

 Younger children need up to 14 hours of sleep a night.

Young people and sleep

Young people generally need more sleep than adults. Sleep for children and adolescents is not only essential for mental well-being, it is crucial for physical health and adequate growth and development. 

Sleep deprivation in children can occur due to inconsistent sleep schedules; over stimulation from television and other electronic gadgets like laptops, tablets or mobile phones late into the night; use of caffeinated drinks like energy drinks; stress or anxiety or physical health problems that can interfere with sleep. 

When children and young people do not sleep well, this can result in irritability and mood swings during the day, difficulty paying attention, concentrating and focusing at school, difficulty keeping up with school work, learning and retaining new information learnt. 

It is critical that we help children and young people develop healthy sleep habits that will help them as they grow into mentally healthy adults. 

What can disturb our sleep?

Ten to 30 percent of adults globally struggle with insomnia, a disorder of poor sleep. In some countries up to 30 percent of adults sleep less than six hours a night. 

There are many factors that can lead to poor sleep including:

 Poor sleep habits: often as adults we choose to stay up late to socialise, read, work, watch television, or scroll on social media sites 

 Poor work/life balance: often, work can encroach on home life activities including sleep. 

If we fail to form firm boundaries, we will often work well into the night and early in the morning as well. 

 Excessive use of caffeine: coffee and caffeinated teas or drinks cause stimulation of the brain and this interferes with the normal sleep cycles. Caffeine can actually cause an addiction if consumed excessively. 

 Excessive use of alcohol and other drugs: these interfere with the natural sleep cycles. 

 Excessive use of electronic devices (mobile phones, tablets, laptops, TVs) at night: these produce blue light that interferes with production of sleep hormones and keeps us alert and awake when we should be winding down at night and preparing for bed. Mobile phones and social media sites can also create a behavioural addiction. 

Many of us sleep with our phones in our hands or by our beds and they are the last thing we interact with at night and the first thing we interact with in the morning. 

 Sleep apnoea: breathing problems causing snoring may be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnoea which can result in poor sleep. 

 Mental health problems: poor sleep can be a key symptom in depression, anxiety, psychological trauma and substance misuse 

How to improve our sleep habits?

There is a lot that we can do to try and improve our sleep and ultimately our mental well-being. 

Some helpful ideas include:

 Setting a regular time to sleep and time to wake up: as basic as this may seem, it is crucial that we determine what our bedtime is as adults, just as we do for our children. 

Routines help our bodies to function in their natural (circadian) rhythm. Just as we train our babies to sleep through regular consistent routine, we can re-train ourselves to sleep better through firm decisions about what needs to change concerning our sleep patterns, setting routines and being disciplined enough to stick to our decisions. 

 Limit caffeine in the late afternoon and evening: this gives the body a chance to process the caffeine before bed time.

 Avoid heavy late night meals and snacks: this can make it hard for the body to settle and relax by bed time 

 Have a wind down routine: an hour before you intend to be asleep, start to slow down, put away any electronic devices, you may choose to have a bath or to have a cup of non caffeinated tea, prepare a comfortable place to sleep with dimmed lighting and limited noise. 

 Reach out and get treated for any mental health problem that may be affecting your sleep like depression or anxiety as well as any physical health problems like sleep apnoea.

As we strive to be more aware of our mental health and well-being, it may be time to reflect on our sleep habits and be disciplined to prioritise sleep for ourselves and our children for us to become healthier and happier. 

If you think that you or someone you know may be struggling with poor sleep, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by: Dr. Chido Rwafa- Madzvamutse, Consultant Psychiatrist.(Dr. Chido Rwafa- Madzvamutse +263714987729)( ; [email protected]

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