Three surprising mental health benefits of sleep

The study of sleep science has been around for hundreds of years. Even so, you don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate the mental health benefits of sleep.

There’s nothing quite like waking up rested and relaxed after a good night’s sleep.

Whether it’s the morning after a stressful day at work or your first full night’s sleep since your baby was born, the difference between yesterday and today can seem almost astounding. And yet, that huge difference comes down to nothing more than eight or so hours of uninterrupted sleep.


Three surprising mental health benefits of sleep

The study of sleep science has been around for hundreds of years. Even so, you don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate how sleep can benefit you.

There are many good reasons for trying to get the best sleep you can. You’re almost certainly familiar with many of the benefits, from improvements in concentration to energy levels. However, there are many more benefits to good sleep when it comes to mental health. Here are three lesser known mental benefits of sleep.


1) Good sleep may help indirectly with chronic disease

A chronic illness is “an enduring health problem that will not go away (like) diabetes, asthma, arthritis or cancer. Chronic physical illnesses can be managed, but they cannot be cured.” Not only that, but there is a strong link between chronic illness and a higher prevalence of mental health disorders. Indeed, people who live with a chronic illness are at greater risk of developing anxiety and depression.

With that in mind, there is evidence that suggests poor sleep is related to higher levels of inflammation, a known risk factor for heart disease and stroke. That’s according to a 2010 study of people who routinely slept for six or fewer hours.

The takeaway? Inflammation is linked to chronic illness. Improved sleep may help reduce it in some people.


2) Better sleep improves your attention

Sleep is a highly complex state during which many processes affect different parts of the brain. When you’re sleep-deprived, your reaction time tends to be slower. You’re also more likely to get angry or frustrated, feel anxious, act impulsively, or otherwise behave unpredictably. Yet, your basic sensory responses (this is your ability to see and hear) remains mostly unchanged.

Attention is the capacity to focus on a single ‘thing’ (such as traffic or a co-worker) while also being able to ‘ignore’ or pay less attention to other things (such as the car stereo or phone notifications).

According to one 2015 paper, lack of sleep disrupts “our ability to deal with high perceptual load (large amounts of information), and disrupts functional connectivity between different brain regions.” The authors suggest that, “sleep could be the price we pay for our capacity to pay attention — to maintain precisely timed communication across multiple circuits in the brain.”

In other words? Your brain relies on sleep to remain fine-tuned. When you’re sleep deprived, your brain is still subjected to the same amount of information from around the world as when you’re rested. What changes after poor sleep, it seems, is the brain’s capacity to efficiently process all that information.


3) It can improve memory and learning

There are two kinds of memory: declarative memories and procedural memories. The first relates to things like facts, knowledge, figures and names. The second relates to tasks and routine, like typing on a computer or driving a car.

It’s well known that poor sleep affects memory. This is one reason why, after a rough night, you might suddenly have forgotten someone’s name, or wonder how you managed to leave the stove on in the morning or forget your phone.

Despite years of study, the exact way in which all the things happening throughout the day are committed to memory during sleep remains poorly understood. Even so, what is known is that quality sleep improves memory and the capacity to absorb and retain information — whether it’s an important fact or the ability to drive a car.

That means good sleep doesn’t just improve your ability to remember important things — it also means you’re less likely to do silly things (like forget to lock the front door) in the morning.


Other mental benefits of sleep

There are an incredible number of ways in which sleep can improve your wellbeing. The mental benefits of sleep are thought to include the capacity to improve creativity and problem solving; lower the likelihood of depression and other mental disorders; and even increase life expectancy.

As the understanding of sleep science improves, we’re likely to learn more still about the importance of sleep for mental health. Even so, one thing remains certain: the benefits of good sleep for your mental health cannot be understated.


Further reading


If you or someone you know is struggling and want to speak to a professional counsellor, SuicideLine Victoria is available 24/7. Call us on 1300 651 251.

If it is an emergency, call 000.

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