Mental health is holistic. There are a number of factors at play from brain chemicals and neural pathways that are activated by at-home ketamine therapy to what and when you eat. Some factors are physiological and can require external intervention while others are behavioral and are largely in your control. Many health experts agree that sleep is one of the biggest factors connected to mental health and mood that people do have some control over.
Neurologists like Harvard professor Andrew Huberman believe that if you are going to focus on improving just one aspect of your daily routine it should be optimizing your sleep. Improving your sleep has a domino effect that leads to better mental performance, more alertness and decreased risk of mood disorders.
Let’s take a look at what we know about the connection between sleep and mental health to figure out what can be done to improve both.
The Stages of Sleep and Their Effect on the Brain, Mood and Mental Wellbeing
Scientists still aren’t sure exactly why humans have to sleep during the 24-hour daily cycle, but we do know it has profound effects on our mood and mental health.
We also know not all sleep is created equal. There are actually four stages of sleep that impact our brain and body differently.
Stage 1 - N1
This is light sleep that lasts only about five minutes max. During N1 sleep breathing is normal and alpha waves in the brain are beginning to be replaced by low-amplitude mixed-frequency (LAMF) activity.
Stage 2 - N2
The next stage is a deeper sleep that causes body temperature and heart rate to drop. In the brain something called sleep spindles begin to show up in parts of the brain. A sleep spindle is when neurons fire strongly for a brief period. It’s believed this is what supports synaptic plasticity and memory consolidation. K-complexes, a type of brain wave, also show up during N2 sleep. The K-complexes help you maintain sleep and consolidate memories.
Stage 3 - N3
The N3 stage is the deepest stage of sleep. It’s sometimes called slow-wave sleep because low frequency delta waves are present in the brain. During N3 sleep it’s very difficult to rouse a person. If a person is aroused they will be mentally drowsy, and mental performance will be impaired for up to an hour. This stage is also when the body is in repair mode and the immune system is being strengthened. These bodily effects in turn can impact mental health.
Stage 4 - REM Sleep
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is called paradoxical. That’s because your brain is very active yet your body is paralyzed other than eye movement and breathing. If you were to just look at brain activity someone in the REM stage of sleep would be similar to someone who’s awake. Not surprisingly, this is when you are dreaming. But just before REM sleep begins the brain stem gets a signal to basically shut off, which is why you aren’t physically active and don’t act out dreams.
It’s important to understand the stages of sleep because you want to cycle through all of them at least four times a night. A full sleep cycle for most people will be between 90 and 110 minutes. For the majority, REM sleep will begin around the 90-minute mark and last 10 minutes to 1 hour, getting longer as sleep continues.
It’s also good to know that sleep cycles are controlled by our circadian rhythm. That means fine-tuning your circadian rhythm can improve sleep cycles.
How Much Sleep is Enough for Mental Health
How much sleep a person needs varies from individual to individual. The rule of thumb is that adults need at least 7-9 hours of sleep a night. That should be enough time for at least four rounds of the full sleep cycle.
Unfortunately, many people don’t get the recommended amount of sleep per night. Eleven percent of American adults report that they never get the recommended amount of sleep, and 70% of people are short on sleep at some point in a given month.
And getting 10 hours of sleep one night doesn’t really make up for getting just six hours of sleep the three nights before. It’s actually best to establish a sleep routine where you are going to bed and waking up at about the same time each morning and getting around the same amount of sleep each day. This is optimal for the circadian rhythm.
A Word About Short Sleepers
Many American adults don’t get enough sleep on a daily basis. They are repeatedly shortchanging themselves and that adds up over time.
There are some people who are “short sleepers”, but it’s actually a rare occurrence. Researchers have discovered there are short sleep genes that enable some people to get by just fine with only 4-6 hours of sleep a night while suffering no adverse effects. They do this completely naturally without the use of caffeine and supplements. Often short sleepers could sleep more, but they wake up on their own within six hours.
It should be stressed that very few people are short sleepers. Even if you can get by with less sleep most days of the week, you could be feeling the effects mentally without being fully aware of it. So it’s best to not assume you’re a short sleeper and instead aim to get at least seven hours of quality sleep each night.
Timing Sleep for the Biggest Mental Boost
Optimizing your mental health isn’t just about getting enough sleep. It turns out when you sleep also makes a difference.
We all have unique circadian rhythms, however, night owls tend to suffer from mood disorders more than early risers. In addition to not getting enough sleep, this is most likely from lack of viewing natural light during the early morning hours and throughout the day. Research has shown that morning light supports sleep and a healthy circadian rhythm.
If you’re a night owl there’s an easy way to adjust your sleep schedule. Simply go to sleep a little earlier and get up a little earlier each day for a week. Let’s say you normally go to sleep at 1:30am and wake up at 8:00am. Adjusting your sleep schedule can go something like this:
Day 1 - Go to sleep as normal, wake up as normal.
Day 2 - Go to sleep at 1:00am, wake up as normal.
Day 3 - Go to sleep at 1:00am, wake up at 7:30am.
Day 4 - Go to sleep at 12:30am, wake up at 7:30am.
Day 5 - Go to sleep at 12:30am, wake up at 7:00am.
Day 6 - Go to sleep at 12:00am, wake up at 7:00am.
Day 7 - Go to sleep at 11:30pm, wake up at 7:00am.
Using this strategy you’d slowly start going to bed two hours earlier and waking up an hour earlier. You’d also be sleeping an extra hour each night and getting the recommended amount of sleep. As long as you’re committed to adjusting the time each night and stick to the new sleep schedule once it’s established, following the new routine should be fairly easy.
What We Know About Sleep, Depression and Anxiety
There are theories for why people must sleep and most are related to the brain. Some of the top hypothesis for why we sleep include:
- Neural maturation and development
- To facilitate memory and learning
- Decluttering the brain of nonessential information
Research from the Center of Human Sleep Science has determined that abnormal sleep is present in all major psychiatric disorders. That means there is a direct connection between emotional mental health and sleep.
REM sleep is also connected to longevity overall. Basically, the more REM sleep a person gets the longer they tend to live, which suggests they are healthier and behavior is less risky.
Sleep and Depression
Sleep disorders are actually a symptom for depression. Around 75% of people with clinical depression suffer from insomnia. Hypersomnia (excessive sleep) is also a problem for many people with depression. In people who are clinically depressed, insomnia increases the risk of suicide. And when insomnia is an existing problem it can actually lead to depression.
Depression is closely associated with impaired sleep regulation. Studies have shown that people with depression have reduced sleep efficiency, increased wakefulness and impaired sleep continuity. Slow-wave sleep is shortened in people with depression, and this is believed to reduce blood flow to parts of the brain.
Sleep and Anxiety
It’s not surprising that anxious people have difficulty with sleep. People with clinical anxiety have increased levels of stress, fear and worry. This can make it harder to get asleep and harder to stay asleep through the various stages. The problem is sleep deprivation increases anxiety. It can create a very negative cyclical effect of insomnia and heightened anxiety with each one feeding the other.
Sleep disorders are so common in generalized anxiety disorder that it’s part of the disorder’s definition. The high level of stress that’s associated with anxiety has been shown to affect arousal systems in the brain. One of the clearest findings is that chronic stress causes disruptions that decrease slow-wave sleep and increase REM sleep.
Taking steps to improve depression and anxiety can lead to better sleep, but it isn’t automatic. People have to actively work on changing behaviors as well so that sleep duration and quality are improved.
If you’re getting enough sleep at the right time of day but still dealing with symptoms of depression or anxiety, it may be time to explore at-home ketamine treatments. In just one treatment many patients notice a significant improvement of symptoms that makes everything throughout the day, including sleep, easier to manage.
Schedule a time for a free ketamine therapy consultation to learn more.