Why is sleep important? Meaningful Minds Clinical Psychologist, Ethelwyn Rebelo talks about sleep in our latest blog.
Sleep is important. Without enough sleep, the immune system’s functioning in fighting infection becomes compromised. Without enough sleep, the body becomes less sensitive to insulin, a hormone which is produced by the pancreas, so subjecting an individual to greater risk of obesity. Insufficient sleep impacts the central nervous system, affecting memory, emotions and the regulation of appetite negatively.
Anyone who lives for months without sleep will die. For example, there is fatal familial insomnia, an inherited human disorder that leads first to insomnia and then to death. The cause of this illness is a malformed protein known as a prion. Its proliferation is associated with significant losses of nerve cells in two regions of the thalamus, a structure the size of a walnut in the midbrain, which as a way station for incoming sensory information. Just how this damage in the thalamus leads to insomnia or death is unclear. However, we Know that as little as one night of complete or even partial sleep loss can interfere with hormonal activity and the immune’s response to infection.
Despite the damaging effects of restricted sleep on immune and hormonal function, its greatest impact is probably on the brain. When people are sleep-deprived, they tend to form twice as many memories of negative events in their lives as of positive events, producing a biased memory of the day. Sleep researchers have now been able to conclude that poor sleep can lead to depression which may be severe enough to be diagnosed as major depression; and that it may also contribute to other psychiatric problems.
So, what should a person do if he or she is struggling with insomnia?
Firstly, ensure that you are complying with the following principles of sleep hygiene:
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine
Avoid alcohol. While it is initially relaxing, it affects the quality of sleep.
Try to sleep only when you feel tired or sleepy.
Go to bed at the same time each day if possible, to train your body to sleep well.
If, after twenty minutes you are unable to fall asleep, get up and do something calming or boring.
Avoid taking naps during the day.
Use your bed only for sleeping your sex, so that your brain associates your bed with sleep.
Develop a sleep ritual: for example, take a hot bath, do some breathing exercises and have a cup of camomile tea.
Having a hot bath will raise your body temperature and then cause you to feel sleepy when your temperature drops.
Ensure you eat a balanced diet. A light snack and a warm glass of milk before bed can also assist you to fall asleep as milk contains tryptophan which is a natural sleep inducer.
Ensure you exercise regularly.
Try to ensure your bedroom is quiet and your bed comfortable. A cooler room with enough blankets to stay warm is best. Make an eye mask and use ear plugs to block out noise and light if necessary.
Don’t keep checking the clock.
Even if you had a bad night’s sleep the previous night and are tired, try to continue with your daytime activities as planned, if possible, in order to try not to reinforce your insomnia.
Secondly, it is important to remember that a person may struggle to sleep due to mood difficulties and anxiety. If this is the case with you, you will need to go to a psychologist for an assessment and treatment. In addition to psychotherapy, you may require some helpful, non-addictive medication from a general practitioner or, preferably, a psychiatrist. This holds too for that unfortunate group of people who are chronic insomniacs and for whom adhering to the principles of sleep hygiene is not enough.
At times, it may be uncertain as to whether a person is not sleeping well because they are ill or they are ill because they are not sleeping well. The role sleep plays in transforming people’s daily experiences into memories has a great deal to do with its’ effect on mental health. Sleep plays a role in assisting the brain to transform people’s daily experiences into memories. There have been multitudes of discoveries in the last twenty years which have shown that sleep participates in memory processing. It has been found that sleep after learning leads to selective stabilization, strengthening, integration and the analysis of new memories.
In this way, our sleep time controls what we remember and how we remember it. The brain strengthens different types of memories during different stages of sleep. Emotional memories and anything the sleeper views as important will be preferentially enhanced during sleep.
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