We’ve all been told repeatedly that it’s best to get at least eight hours of sleep a night, but how many of us follow this expert advice? In the U.S., 35.2% of adults reported sleeping less than seven hours per night on average (2010), with African American adults being almost twice as likely to describe sleeping too little and 60% more likely to report sleeping too much (2013).
Many people associate sleeping less than eight hours a night as being harmful to the body, but it can be just as detrimental to your health and well-being to consistently sleep longer than the recommended time. So, keep that in mind the next time you stay up until 3 a.m. watching your favorite TV show or sleep in until two in the afternoon.
Sleep and Mental Health—How Are They Connected?
Could your frequent all-nighters be causing your heightened anxiety? Do you find yourself constantly waking up in the middle of the night and struggling to fall back asleep, making it difficult to focus throughout the day? If so, you’re not alone. Many people who have poor sleeping patterns often discover that their mental health has been suffering too.
Sleeping disorders such as insomnia—where people have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting quality sleep—can be directly linked with mental health concerns. In fact, 50% of insomnia cases are related to anxiety or depression, and poor sleeping habits have also been associated with other mental health concerns and disorders, including panic attacks, OCD, substance use/abuse, ADHD, and PTSD.
Other sleep disorders such as hypersomnolence—also known as the “sleep-awake disorder”—narcolepsy, and sleep apnea can result in people feeling drowsy and fatigued throughout the day. If you suffer from any of these sleep disorders you might find yourself feeling unusually stressed or on edge, or you might experience memory issues or severe mood changes.
This happens because your brain is not able to function at the level it requires to help you:
1. Understand what is going on around you
3. Critically think through problems
4. Keep you alert
5. Defend against harm
How Do I Know If Sleep is the Problem
Staying up late into the night to watch a movie series with your roommate or sleeping in after a long day of travel is not enough to impact your mental health, so don’t stress if you went one or two nights without getting the right amount of sleep. To determine if your sleeping patterns are concerning, it’s important to keep these three questions in mind:
o Does this occur at least three nights per week?
o Has this lasted at least three months?
o Does this occur even when there is an adequate opportunity to get a good night’s sleep?
If you can answer “yes” to all three of these questions, it’s time to evaluate your daily and evening activities to see if they’re the cause of your sleeping concern.
1. What are you eating or drinking throughout the day and into the night?
Tea, Mountain Dew, Coke/Pepsi, chocolate, energy drinks, diet supplements, and coffee are all directly linked with difficulty sleeping. In fact, consuming caffeine six hours before bed can make it more difficult to fall asleep and cause frequently interrupted sleep.
Eating right before bed can also contribute to heartburn—keeping you up due to the pain—or it can spike your energy levels and stimulate your digestive organs—resulting in your body’s natural functions disrupting your REM.
2. Are you exercising late at night?
You might think that late-night workouts are wearing you out, making it easier to fall asleep, but that’s not always the case. Just like eating later at night, working out after the sun sets can spike your energy levels at the wrong time. Every "body" is different...literally. For some, working out at night doesn't impact their sleep or it helps their sleep. For others, it energizes them. The only way for you to know where you fall is to try it out. Once you find what works for you, keep doing it. Just a side note, your body changes as you age, so what worked for you in your 30s may not work for you in your 40s.
3. Are you napping throughout the day?
While it’s important to rest when your body needs it, it might be a sign of an underlining medical issue if you’re finding yourself sleeping for longer than 20 minutes during the day. Naps can interfere with nighttime sleep, so it might be worth it to consult your physician if you can't make it through the day without napping.
4. Are you using your bed for more than sleep and sex?
If you’re working from bed, reading in bed, watching TV in bed, or scrolling through your phone in bed, then those factors might be associated with your poor sleeping. When you only associate your bed with how it’s meant to be used, then you’re wiring your brain to only expect healthy associations.
Next Steps for Sleeping Concerns
If you still can’t pinpoint your issues, it might be time to schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. During your visit make sure to ask about your sleep concerns and ways to combat them—don’t just ask for a prescription as a “quick fix” for your problem.
If you suspect that your sleeping issues are also creating mental health concerns, make sure to schedule an appointment with a mental health provider too. During your visit, you can be assessed for disorders that are commonly associated with sleeping problems. There’s a high probability that diagnosing and treating mental health concerns like depression or anxiety will automatically address your sleeping problems—helping you get back on the right sleep track.