Sleep and Mental Health – What’s the Big Deal?

April 9, 2020

Sleep and mental health -- what's the big deal?

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night's sleep. E. Joseph Cossman

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Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep expert at the University of California, Berkley, wrote about sleep and emotional distress in his widely acclaimed book Why We Sleep

If you haven’t picked up this book yet, do it. It’s a fascinating read. (Just don’t try to read it before going to sleep.)

Now, we don’t really need a neuroscientist to tell us what we already know by experience: sleep deprivation messes with our emotions. Just think of the meltdowns your children (and maybe you) have had, and the go-to solution that was probably passed down to you through umpteen generations: “Somebody give that kid a nap.”

But the research studies Walker cites in his book reveal a disturbingly long list of sleep-related issues.

In children and adolescents, sleep disturbance is linked to behavioral problems, bullying, aggression, and suicide.

In adults, disrupted sleep patterns are found in depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. In fact,

There are NO psychiatric conditions in which sleep remains normal. 

Science simply provides a more detailed picture of what’s happening behind it all. Sleep deprivation acts like a lead foot on the brain’s emotional “gas pedal.” This ramps up feelings of irritability, impulsivity and anxiety. At the same time, it hampers the brain’s emotional “brake” that usually checks unhelpful and unhealthy feelings.

This brain imbalance is a common part of mood disorders like depression and anxiety. As Walker points out, it probably points to a two-way relationship between sleep and mood. Our mood can certainly affect our sleep, but brain imaging studies would suggest that sleep can also affect our mood.

If that’s the case, then one important way to improve our mood and make sure we can effectively with workplace stress is to make sure we get enough sleep.

How to get a great night’s sleep

There are 3 parts to healthy sleep: amountregularity, and quality.

In terms of amount, seven to eight hours is thought best for most of us.

Sleep regularity means that we go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same times every day, including weekends. (I know. I like sleeping in on weekends, too.) This helps regulate our biological clocks and produce those all-important mood chemicals in the brain.

You’ve probably heard that changing work shifts – morning to night or night to morning – can be particularly hard on your mind and body. The drastic effect this has on the biological clock explains why. If you must do this, try to ease into the change gradually, shifting one hour at a time.

In terms of quality, here are some tips from Matthew Walker:

Do's and Don'ts of Quality Sleep

The following tips come from Matthew Walker's book How We Sleep:


  • Get enough sun during the day. This regulates our biological clock and aids the production of important brain chemicals. Shoot for thirty minutes of sun exposure a day. Using a sun lamp during the winter months may also help.
  • Exercise, but no later than two to three hours before bedtime. Exercise will help you feel tired in a healthy way, and also boosts good mood chemicals in the brain.
  • Relax before bed. Try these tips from the National Sleep Foundation.
  • Take a hot bath. This will relax your body. After getting out of a hot bath, your body temperature will drop, helping you feel sleepy.
  • Sleep in a dark, cool, and quiet room. Our biological clocks are light-sensitive, so keep your nighttime room as dark as possible. Optimum room temperature for sleeping seems to be around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Seek professional help as needed. Suffering from any of the following conditions can amp up sleep problems: depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, thyroid issues, heartburn, arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, respiratory issues, urinary issues, and chronic pain.
  • Challenge distressing thoughtsYou may be sabotaging your own sleep with thoughts like, “I’ve just got to get to sleep in the next hour.” Such thoughts just stir the pot of anxiety, making it even harder to feel relaxed and sleepy. A good alternative might be, “Hmm, what 3 things can I do right now to help me relax?”


  • Nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol. Nicotine and caffeine artificially stimulate the brain, which keep us from falling asleep and make us sleep more lightly. Keep in mind that caffeine can take up to eight hours to wash out of the body. So, a cup of coffee in the afternoon can still keep you wakeful at bedtime. Research shows that heavy use disrupts healthy REM sleep and impairs our breathing during the night.
  • Sleeping pills. These can have adverse side effects and over the long term increase our insomnia problems.
  • Heavy meals and lots of fluids close to bedtime. A working digestive system can disrupt our descent into dreamland, and a full bladder will wake us up.
  • Medicines and herbal remedies that delay or disrupt sleep. Ask your health care provider or pharmacist about the side effects of any medicines you take. Some common ones are for heart, blood pressure, and asthma. Some over the counter medicines for coughs, colds, and allergies can also disrupt sleep.
  • Nap after 3 pm. Naps have their place. They can help us catch up on some Zs that we’ve missed. But napping in the late afternoon will mess with our ability to get to sleep at our regular time at night.
  • Bright lights and LED gadgets close to bedtime. Compared to reading a book, reading on a device using blue LED light decreases the amount of melatonin released at night by 50 percent.
  • Other distractions and noise in the bedroom. TVs, phones, and clocks can distract and deprive us of needed sleep. Turn that offensive alarm clock toward the wall; move devices off bedside tables.
  • Lying in bed awake. “Watching the clock will help me go to sleep faster,” said no one ever. If you find yourself still wakeful after twenty minutes, get up and find something relaxing to do until you feel sleepy.
This post also appeared on another website of mine, Leaving the Shadowland.


Buysse D. J. (2014). Sleep health: can we define it? Does it matter? Sleep, 37(1), 9–17. doi:10.5665/sleep.3298.
Geoffroy, P. A., Schroder, C. M., Reynaud, E., & Bourgin, P. (2019). Efficacy of light therapy versus antidepressant drugs, and of the combination versus monotherapy, in major depressive episodes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep medicine reviews, 101213.
Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribner, NY. pp.146-152, 269-270, 277.

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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