Sleep smart for your wellbeing

by Ezra Hewing | 14 Mar 2023

Sleep smart for wellbeing: Making the connection

Suffolk Mind’s Head of Mental Health Education, Ezra Hewing, explains the human tech behind sleep and why we should all be waking up to making better sleep a real priority. 

Sleep is a built-in human resource that’s designed to keep us mentally and physically well. In recent years, we’ve come to recognize that what we eat/drink and how much we move (exercise) impacts our wellbeing. We also understand how we can influence and change things for the better through conscious action.

Now is crucially the time to start looking at sleep that way too. Tackling insomnia and getting the right sort of sleep could not only support our mental health now, but set up a lasting legacy of immeasurable benefit to ourselves, future generations and the NHS.

An introduction to sleep

Two kinds of sleep – deep sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep – make up our human sleep cycles. They do different, complementing jobs.

During periods of deep sleep, reduced brain activity sees hormones released to repair cells in the body, supporting our physical health. In contrast, our bodies use REM sleep to calm the brain and support our mental health by burning off cortisol (stress hormones) to disperse the intensity of emotions still hanging around from our waking hours.

Both kinds of sleep are vital and it’s always a bit of a see-saw between the two. When our emotional needs are well met, things balance nicely. But if, as during the pandemic, things around us change to the point where our pattern-matching brains can’t predict how to help us meet some or all of our human needs, the nature of our sleep alters.

If REM sleep finds itself with a bigger, more intense job to do, it will spend longer and use up more energy doing it. The knock on effect is less deep sleep, so less time spent repairing the body’s cells. And when REM sleep is working harder to sort out our worries, because we’re not meeting our needs during the day, we’re more likely to wake up tired and in a low mood – and even less well equipped to meet our needs the following day!

Getting the right amount of REM sleep is essential not just for our wellbeing in the short term, but for our long-term mental health too.

Meet the in-house team

During REM sleep, it’s the brain’s ‘bouncers’ or ‘security team’ (amygdalae) which disperse emotions left-over from the day. If there’s a crowd of them to disperse, they might work overtime but still not get their job done. That leaves them frustrated or ‘edgy’ and has the knock-on effect of making us 60 % more likely to react to emotionally charged stimuli and take risks the next day.

When longer REM sleep robs us of regenerative deep sleep, the ‘security team supervisor’ (medial prefrontal cortex) hasn’t got the energy to manage effectively and the team suffers. Overloaded, the security guys struggle to do their job, if they can at all. For us, that means our emotions build up and left unchecked, things might spiral and get on top of us. So how does that work?

Putting the squeeze on things dear to us

Cortisol stress hormones in our blood levels (from those lingering emotions) deposit proteins in the ‘memory-maker’ area of the brain (hippocampus) – the place where new memories are formed and old ones updated.

When the deposits reduce its capacity, the ‘memory-maker’ finds it increasingly hard to do its job. This affects our ability to concentrate/think clearly and short term memory recall – symptoms often associated with ‘stress’.

If persistent stress over a long period sees the protein-deposit build-up continue, the impacting loss of memory-maker capacity puts us on a concerning trajectory. Research suggests that for every 1% loss, we are + 9% more likely to develop symptoms associated with dementia.

The proven correlation between poor/disrupted sleep and depression, flare-ups of auto-immune conditions, dementia and many mental health disorders, including those marked by suicidal thoughts is striking. But it’s important to see things in context – the human make-up is innately programmed towards recovery.

As humans, we have the in-built technology to get well and stay well – we just need to listen to our bodies and keep our side of the bargain. So how can we do that?

Sleep better now for a healthier future

A regular good night’s sleep is inextricably linked to whether we are able to meet our physical and emotional human needs during our day. Just like changing our lifestyle choices around diet and exercise to make a difference to our mental and physical health, we can take action to turn poor sleep patterns around and support our wellbeing.

Start by making sleep a priority. Establish a distraction-free bedroom environment which promotes better sleep. Create a bedtime routine which lets you wind down and find sleep a natural bedfellow. And above all, work on meeting your physical and emotional needs to reduce worry and stress.

Typically, it’s something we can all do for ourselves without intervention and at no extra cost, although some of us may need a little encouragement or professional support along the way.

Suffolk Mind are here for your sleep journey to making a lasting difference.

Help is at hand too

For info, videos, tips and support on how to meet emotional needs in healthy ways and improve the quality of your sleep visit are related articles here – Sleep Archives – Suffolk Mind

by Ezra Hewing

Ezra Hewing is Head of Education at Suffolk Mind and a Human Givens Therapist. Since joining Suffolk Mind in 2009, he has grown our busy workplace wellbeing service, training frontline mental health workers, doctors, nurses, substance abuse workers, members of the emergency services and heads of organisations, amongst others, in how best to understand and support emotionally healthy workplaces. He holds an MSc in the psychology and neuroscience of mental health from the internationally renowned Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, King’s College, London, where he researched REM sleep and mental ill health, with a focus on the symptoms of schizophrenia.

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