Lack of sleep could contribute to mental health problems

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A new study carried out by the University of Oxford has revealed that a number of mental health problems could be linked to a lack of sleep.

University students suffering from insomnia were invited to take part in the study where they were split into two groups. One group was offered an online course of six 20-minute sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and the other received no treatment.

At the end of the study, it was found that those who underwent the CBT not only experienced improvements in the quality of their sleep, but also their overall mental health.

Amongst the CBT group, insomnia rates were found to drop by almost half just 10 weeks into the study while both anxiety and depression were reduced by a fifth and paranoia and hallucinations fell by 25% and 30% respectively.

Co-author of the research, Daniel Freeman commented:

“The dominant view is that sleep problems are either a symptom of several mental health problems or it is a secondary consequence. Really, sleep is one of the contributing causes. Having insomnia doubles your chances of developing depression and we now know that if you treat the insomnia, it reduces depression.”

With very little social stigma attached to sleep disorders, it’s hoped that given insomnia-focused CBT programmes can do more than just help improve sleep, it could encourage young people to discuss mental health problems.

How to improve the quality of your sleep

So what can you do if you regularly find yourself lying in bed wide awake? With a few simple changes to your everyday habits, it’s possible to improve the quality of your sleep.

Get in sync with your body’s natural sleep cycle

Our circadian rhythm is our body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and getting in tune with it is conducive to getting a better night’s sleep. There are a number of simple ways to do this, including:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid having a lie-in – if you’ve had a late night, have a nap in the day rather than sleeping in. This allows you to catch up on sleep without disturbing your natural sleep-wake rhythm.
  • If you do have a nap, limit them to 15-20 minutes and try to have them as early in the day as possible.
  • Try not to fall asleep on the sofa before you go to bed.

Control your exposure to light

Melatonin plays a big part in how well we sleep. When it’s dark, we produce more of it and start to feel tired. When it’s light, we produce less of the hormone and therefore feel more alert.

However, several aspects of modern life are altering the body’s production of melatonin:

  • Not getting enough natural sunlight – try to get outside into the sunshine as early as possible. Also, spend more time outside during the day and let as much natural light into your home or workspace as you can.
  • Looking at screens too close to bedtime – the blue light emitted by our mobile phones, tablets, computers and televisions are very disruptive. The lights on these devices supress melatonin production, so try to avoid bright screens for one to two hours before bedtime.
  • Your room isn’t dark enough – in order for your body to continue producing melatonin during the night your room should be very dark. If you can still see your hand in front of your face with the lights off, this could be affecting your sleep cycle.

Exercise

Regular exercise has a number of benefits when it comes to sleep:

  • It helps you to sleep better and you feel less tired during the day.
  • It can improve the symptoms of insomnia and sleep apnoea.
  • It increases the amount of time you spend in deep, restorative stages of sleep.

It is important not to do vigorous exercise at least three hours before bedtime because it stimulates hormones such as cortisol which can make it difficult to switch off.

If you think that you or someone you know may be struggling with mental health problems, please feel free to contact Life Works in the strictest of confidence and we will be more than happy to help.

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