Sleep and Mental Health

Most of us know how it feels to not have a good night’s sleep. We can feel lethargic and irritable. Sleep is so important that even after as little as 24 hours we can start to be affected. Compare this to food and water. Generally, people can last a week or more without food and a few days without water, however, after just one full day without sleep our general health and well being suffers. Of particular concern is the effect lack of sleep has on our cognitive functions and our overall mental health. This post examines some of the current research on lack of sleep and poor mental health outcomes.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

You don’t need to have a sleep disorder to be sleep deprived. Work and family commitments can affect how much time we are able to allocate for sleep. Stress and lifestyle factors can also influence both the quality and quantity of sleep. Sleep deprivation can affect us both physically and mentally. Lack of sleep can contribute to memory problems, cardiovascular disease as well as behavioural problems. Poor sleep is also associated with weight gain and type 2 diabetes. There is some suggestion that sleep deprivation has been used as a way to control prisoners of war as well as recently being used as an interrogation method, essentially as torture. I won’t expand on these claims further but as usual, do your own research if you have any doubts as to the importance of sleep. Sleep is clearly important for both our physical and mental well-being but is often neglected as being crucial in an overall health plan.

Sleep Disorders and Mental Health

Recent research by Delhikar et.al (2019) found a relationship between individuals with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and memory impairment. Their study demonstrated reduced auto-biographical memory recall, as well as an impaired ability to remember specific events from the past. The authors state this effect on memory is a contributing factor to depression in individuals with OSA. Krizan and Hisler (2018) found a link between restricted sleep and increased anger. They suggest losing as little as two hours sleep over a couple of nights was enough to produce increases in anger particularly when exposed to unpleasant situations. Additionally, they present studies that show short sleep duration is a major contributor to depression and substance abuse.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that being continually tired whether by a sleep disorder or shorter sleeping hours would contribute to feelings of irritability and depression. Being tired just doesn’t feel good and some of you may be thinking, I don’t need science to tell me that. While it is true our own experience is what really matters, I feel it is helpful to realise the science behind it is validating that experience. The relationship between poor sleep and poor mental health is of course reciprocal. Individuals who experience depression or anxiety may have trouble sleeping and individuals who have trouble sleeping may have increasingly poor mental health. Hopefully the information presented so far has helped you to realise the value of sleep as part of your mental health approach.

Improving your Sleep

Regardless of your current situation there are steps you can take to improve your sleep. Many of them are common sense, such as, avoiding caffeine close to bedtime, reducing alcohol and tobacco and making sure your bed and bedroom are comfortable. Improving sleep quality is often referred to as sleep hygiene or sleep health. As it is beyond the scope of this post to provide solutions to every person’s individual sleep requirements and situation, I will provide a link to a great resource on sleep health. Tuck.com provide a comprehensive website on all aspects of good sleep as well as the relationship between mental health disorders and sleep. I have no affiliation, either financially or personally with this site but feel it is a great one stop resource for improving sleep. If you feel that your sleep quality or quantity is affecting your health, then do your own research as well as discussing with your health professional. Make sleep a part of your overall health plan and particularly an important part of your mental well-being. Sleep well.

Wishing you all the best in your journey

Phil Miranda

Sources:
Delhikar, N., Sommers, L., Rayner, G., Schembri, R., Robinson, S. R., Wilson, S., & Jackson, M. L. (2019). Autobiographical Memory From Different Life Stages in Individuals With Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 1-9.
Krizan, Z., & Hisler, G. (2018). Sleepy anger: Restricted sleep amplifies angry feelings. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000522
Tuck, Advancing Better Sleep (2019) Everything you need for a great night’s sleep. Retrieved from http://www.tuck.com

Nutrition and Mental Health

Most of us would have heard the old adage “ you are what you eat” . Many of us are familiar with the concept of how poor food choices can contribute to obesity, heart disease and generally poor health. We are told from a young age, eat your vegetables and you will grow up to be big and strong. Rarely are we told eat your vegetables to reduce your chances of experiencing depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. Current research is suggesting that nutritional deficiencies are contributing to poor mental health.

The effect of diet on Mental Health

There are a number of recent studies that have shown a correlation between a lack of specific nutrients and an increase in frequency and intensity of depressive episodes and panic attacks. One study by Marx et.al (2017) found that schizophrenic and depressed populations showed lower levels of antioxidants such as vitamin E and C. The authors also state that results from 21 studies which included 117,229 participants, showed an increased risk of depression when diets high in processed meat, refined grains, sweets and high-fat dairy products were followed. They also assert that the probability of depression was reduced when a diet of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil and low-fat dairy was adhered to. Much of the negative effect of poor diet is attributed to inflammation. It is thought that a healthier diet not only increases the levels of important nutrients but reduces inflammation as well. Mikawa et.al (2013) suggest low levels of B6 and iron are related to panic attacks and hyperventilation episodes. Their study of patients admitted to a hospital with a panic attack or hyperventilation had significantly lower serum levels of B6 and iron when compared with a non-affected control group. While both studies acknowledge the need for further investigation it appears that nutritional deficiencies are partially responsible for poor mental health outcomes.

The Gut/Brain connection

When we hear the word “bacteria” most of us have a perception that if it is our bodies it must be bad. After all, bacteria cause illness. That’s why we wash our hands before eating or after using the bathroom. So, it may surprise you to know that the human intestines contain nearly 100 trillion bacteria which are essential for good health. There is growing research to suggest there is a direct link between the brain and the gut. Put simply a healthy gut is synonymous with a healthy brain. Foster and Newfeld (2013) assert that good gut bacteria affects the brain which can then reduce the risk of anxiety and mood disorders. They present evidence that suggests an increase in probiotics resulted in less psychological distress in individuals when compared to a control group. Marx et.al (2017) state that the study of good gut bacteria and good brain health is relatively new but is showing promise as an additional treatment for mood disorders.

What should I eat?

There are probably as many suggested diets as there are foods available. It is not the intention of this article to provide dietary advice but simply to inform as to the potential of diet to improve mental health. Not everyone is going to like all of the many fruits and vegetables that are available. You could however increase the intake of the ones you do like while reducing your intake of takeaway and pre-packed foods. Some people prefer to use supplements to bridge the gap of nutritional deficiencies. For what it is worth I take a multi vitamin, a magnesium and a vitamin C tablet daily. I also consume a probiotic drink every second day as I am not a fan of yogurt or many of the other probiotic foods. I also take an omega 3 supplement daily. I find that it helps my general health as well as my general mood. Like any lifestyle change it needs to be consistent and sustainable. Do your own research and find what works for you and what helps you to feel more energised and healthier in both mind and body. Common sense should always prevail.

Wishing you all the best in your journey

Phil Miranda

NOTE: If you are currently taking medication for a mental health issue, then under no circumstances should you cease treatment without consulting your health care professional.

Sources:
Foster, J. A., & Neufeld, K. A. M. (2013). Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression. Trends in neurosciences, 36(5), 305-312.
Marx, W., Moseley, G., Berk, M., & Jacka, F. (2017). Nutritional psychiatry: the present state of the evidence. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 76(4), 427-436.
Mikawa, Y., Mizobuchi, S., Moritoki, E, & Kiyoshi. M. (2013). Low serum concentrations of vitamin B6 and iron are related to panic attack and hyperventilation attack. Acta Medica Okayama, 67 (2) 99-104