Sleeping and the Brain – What’s the Connection?

We have all been told how important sleep is - but why?

Time to read: 7 minutes

Sleep is an essential part of our everyday life. Without sufficient rest, people would quickly become fatigued and unable to focus on tasks throughout the day. Unfortunately, around 40% of adults still do not get enough sleep, averaging about six rather than eight hours per night. Getting at least eight hours of sleep is necessary for physical and mental health, as it allows our body to recharge and reset itself.

A good night’s sleep helps you:

– Leave you feeling energised and rested

– Better able to focus on tasks

– Work efficiently

– Maintain your overall wellbeing

We have all had those mornings after a rough night’s sleep where you may feel groggy, and your mood and energy levels are drastically low, so it’s time we understand exactly why sleep is vital to our physical and mental health.

How Sleep Deprivation Affects the Brain

When you don’t get enough sleep, this can cause sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a serious issue that can significantly affect your health. The brain needs quality sleep to function optimally, and when the brain is deprived of sleep, our brain function suffers. These consequences involve:

–       Brain fog, making it harder to concentrate and remember things. 

–       Mood, leading to elevated levels of anxiety and depression. 

–       Cognitive function; causing problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making. 

Trouble sleeping might not seem like much of an issue initially, but the results can pile up over time. Our brain and body are incredibly active during sleep, even though we may not realise it! It is where our body consolidates memories, processes emotions, and repairs itself. Think of sleep like unconscious therapy! It is the foundation of our basic functioning, and without it, we can’t move onto higher level stuff like goals, aspirations, and dreams, because our brain is just trying to function!

Sleeping correctly every night and prioritising quality rest are critical. Even if it feels hard, getting into the routine of healthy sleep habits may be one of the best steps we can take for our mental health in the long run.

How Sleep Reduces Stress

Did you know that studies have shown that people who get less than eight hours of sleep per night report higher stress levels than those who get eight hours or more per night? These results highlight the importance of sleep for reducing stress and how much our brains need rest to function correctly. Stress and sleep have a close relationship:

When we don’t sleep enough > our cortisol increases > which then makes it harder to get good quality sleep.

Whereas when we get good sleep > our cortisol decreases > making it easier to get good sleep the following night.

Not to mention, our brains can’t process information effectively when running on low power. So not only does fatigue take its toll on our bodies, but it messes around with our minds too!

What Stage of Sleep is Most Important? 

During sleep, we go through what is known as ‘sleep cycles’; each cycle has a purpose. Scientists have declared stage 3 to be the most important, and this is because during this stage of sleep, your body repairs tissue, regenerates cells, and even strengthens the immune system. Let’s take a closer look at these stages of Sleep:

  1. Stage 1 is called Non-REM 1 and occurs when you first fall asleep; your heartbeat and breathing slow down, and your muscles begin to relax. This stage lasts for only a few minutes. 
  • Stage 2 is called Non-REM 2 (light sleep) and occurs after stage 1. During this cycle, your breathing and heartbeat slow down, your body temperature lowers, and your brain produces brain waves called ‘sleep spindles’. This stage lasts for approximately 25 minutes.
  • Stage 3 is called Non-REM 3 (deep sleep) and occurs after stage 2. This stage of sleep is the most profound state of sleep, and scientists believe it is the most important. During this age, your heartbeat and breathing are at the lowest rate, your body is completely relaxed, and a particular brain wave called ‘delta’ (or ‘slow wave’) is produced. 
  • Stage 4 is called the REM stage. During this stage is when dreaming occurs. Your eye movements become rapid, breathing and heart rate increase, arms and legs are temporarily paralysed, and brain activity increases. 

So, if you’re looking for a way to improve your health overall, ensure it includes some quality shut-eye!

Why am I having Trouble Sleeping?

Have you ever lay there and wondered night and night again, why am I not sleeping? People struggle with sleep for various reasons, including poor sleep hygiene, shift work, or a medical condition. Uneasiness about sleeping can also be a factor, as well as everyday stress.

Here is a deep dive into some reasons you may be finding it hard to sleep or stay asleep at night:

1. Poor sleep hygiene

 Poor sleep hygiene is a set of habits that can disrupt sleep, such as having an irregular sleep schedule, eating late at night, or consuming too much caffeine or alcohol. Shift work can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm, and so can lights from technology before bed.

2. Medical conditions 

Conditions such as sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome, and narcolepsy can lead to difficulty sleeping. If you’re struggling with sleep, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor first to address any medical issues that may be at play.

3. Anxiety 

Do you lay in bed and can’t quiet your mind? This notion of having trouble sleeping and being unable to stop thinking is familiar with anxiety and stress. There may be concerns about being unable to sleep, or it may be a generalised anxiety.

4. Stress

Similar to the above, stress can cause people to have trouble relaxing and winding down, leading to difficulty falling or staying asleep. To-do lists, school drop off, exams, work, and the list of things we could be stressing about when lying down are endless.

5. Pregnancy

Having Trouble sleeping while pregnant is typical for a variety of reasons, such as bladder and needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, hormonal shifts overnight, and physical struggles such as discomfort and heartburn.

6. Quitting marijuana

When you’re used to sleeping after marijuana use, not using it can make it hard to sleep. Vivid dreams or nightmares are a common complaint due to the return of REM sleep.

7. Trouble sleeping without a spouse or partner

Believe it or not, hormones can play a significant role in sleep. Estrogen for women and oxytocin for both men and women can help create a deeper sleep. When used to sleeping with a partner and suddenly being without it, it can generate some sleep disturbances.

If you find yourself having trouble getting adequate sleep, it’s always best to take the advice of a medical professional. Not only can your doctor provide medications or other treatments to improve your sleep, but they can also conduct further analysis that may uncover underlying medical conditions disrupting your rest.

Furthermore, qualified mental health professionals specialise in helping people understand what keeps them from sleeping easily. They can work with you to identify those issues and create a plan to put obstacles out of the way so you can get the necessary rest!

How to improve your sleep

Sleep is a vital part of our overall well-being, so it’s essential to ensure we’re getting enough sleep and that it’s of good quality. Thankfully, you can do some simple things to help yourself out, find some tips below and don’t forget to check out this article for more tips to improve sleep

  1. Avoiding caffeine right before bed or shortly afterward can make a big difference in the quality of your sleep – though if you need that cup of tea in the evening, why not switch to a caffeine-free blend? 
  2. Establishing a regular bedtime routine for yourself – try winding down at least half an hour before you turn in for the night with something relaxing like reading or listening to music – this helps your body transition to sleep mode better. 
  3. Make sure that your bedroom is suitable for sleeping. This means ensuring it is dark (no lights – even lamps, as this can disrupt your sleep). Remove electronic devices (such as TVs, computers, and phones) from your room. Make sure your bedroom is not too hot or too cold of a temperature. And ensure your bed and bedding are comfortable. 
  4. A few drops of lavender essential oil (not too much) onto your pillow can help you feel relaxed and ready for sleep.
  5. Try a wind-down activity before going to be, such as meditation, breathing exercises, or even some relaxing yoga. 
  6. Addressing underlying medical conditions, such as TMJ. TMJ is a common health concern and accounts for many people’s struggles with sleep. The temporomandibular joint connects your jaw to your skull, and when there are problems within this joint, it can cause an array of issues such as pain, discomfort, and difficulty sleeping. Sleep and TMJ therapy go hand-in-hand; you will learn sleep positions to relieve and prevent pain and other strategies to relax and correct your TMJ. Improving TMJ may even help avoid apnoea sleep since TMJ sometimes causes sleep apnoea. 

Notably, medical conditions can seriously impact sleep. Please see a medical professional if you think an underlying medical condition may cause your sleep issues. All these small changes can have a tremendous impact on how well-rested you feel!

Overall, sleep is crucial to our physical health, mental health, and brain function. Ensuring we have enough quality sleep is vital to our overall health and well-being. If you have sleep difficulties, there are many strategies you can try to employ to help improve your sleep. We spend one-third of our entire lives sleeping, so we better make sure to make it worthwhile!

So if you’re feeling anxious or down, or having trouble concentrating, get some extra Zzz’s – your mind and body will thank you!

About the author

Angela Harrisonis the founder of Mindspace Training and has been working in the mental health industry for over 7 years. She is a resiliency specialist and is passionate about changing the way society approaches mental health. Her mission is to move from reaction to prevention; giving people back the power to create wellness for themselves.

If you are in Australia and need to reach out for support, please seek help from one of the following:

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