Sleep your way to happiness

In this final article of a three part series exploring how we can improve our mood without using medication, we look at how valuable good sleep is to maintaining healthy mood.

When I was at university and doing my first degree I was the student who would pull an all-nighter to cram in as much study as possible ahead of an exam. I would drink coffee throughout the night and roll into the exam feeling moody, tired and definitely not on my A game. Often, my results reflected that. I didn’t realise this at the time but those all nighters were the worst possible way I could get ready for a big moment like an exam.

Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist who wrote the book ‘Why We Sleep,’ would shake his head at this sort of behaviour. His research shows that people who are sleep-deprived over periods of their life are more vulnerable to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, stroke, diabetes, heart attacks, chronic pain and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

In this day and age of coffee worship, being stressed out by our lifestyles, working long hours and swiping through our Instagram and facebook feeds just before going to sleep, we are facing a sleep debt epidemic. We are doing ourselves no favours by failing to get the the right amount of good quality sleep.

Sleep is integral to our mental health. Getting enough sleep removes one of the factors which can contribute to a mental health problem. Research has drawn a direct connection between insomnia and other sleep problems and the increased risk of developing depression.

How sleep deprivation affects mental health

We sleep in 90 minute cycles. We have two main types of sleep, quiet sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Quiet sleep is the period where you move through four stages of sleep into deep sleep. REM sleep is the stage of sleep where we do our dreaming and it is the stage that enhances our learning, memory and mood. Not getting enough sleep or sleep disruption means less REM sleep and the result is increased stress hormone production, changes in neurotransmitter levels and the result is mood changes.

The role of adenosine

When we are low on adenosine we are susceptible to insomnia. Adenosine is a chemical that plays a role in control of circadian rhythms, sleep homeostasis and mood regulation in the brain.

As we wake up and are exposed to light our adenosine levels build up and melatonin (your sleep hormone) drops. Then in the evening our adenosine levels build up to their maximum level and assist us in getting to sleep. Once we are asleep adenosine is removed from their receptor sites and we begin the process of building up levels again when we wake in the morning.

Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors and stops the build up process of adenosine that is so important for helping you get a good nights sleep and for keeping your mood balanced. One way to enjoy your co << >>ffee and it not impact your sleep quality is to ensure you don’t have it after midday. This works for most people but if you still find yourself feeling anxious and struggling with sleep you may want to cut caffeine out entirely for a while.

For some, that will be a horrifying suggestion. But if you discover it is hindering your sleep it’s a worthwhile trade off.

The problem with ‘blue light’

The other thing that impacts sleep quality and then leads to mood problems is too much blue light exposure. Our internal clock in our brain is responsive to light and dark cues to determine when to sleep and wake. Sitting on your laptop staring into the blue light of the screen at 10pm is sending a message to your brain that it is day time, that you should be awake and you should stay awake. That’s precisely the opposite sort of message we need to be sending to our brains.

Using the fl.ux app, wearing blue light blocking glasses, turning down the lights in your home and ensuring they are warm coloured light will help to tell your brain to relax and start the wind down process for sleep to come. Black-out blinds are a great addition to your bedroom too.

What about eating late?

A late dinner could also contribute to poor sleep quality because our digestive tract is left to work late and process our meal while we sleep. The result is a higher heart rate over night and that is overstimulating for some of us. The best thing to do is to aim for a three to four gap between dinner time and bedtime. If that doesn’t work for your lifestyle then eat a lighter dinner.

What else can you be doing to sleep your way to happiness?

Ditch the weekend sleep in. Go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday.

Ensure your bedroom temperature is cool, aim for 18 degrees celsius

Avoid alcohol before bedtime as it blocks your REM sleep

Manage your stress. Learn more about the relationship between melatonin and cortisol here

How much sleep should we be aiming to get for maximum happiness?

This is going to vary from person to person. Nick Littlehales is a sleep coach to elite soccer teams and he says people generally need somewhere between four and six sleep cycles a night. That is something to try out for yourself. You may need six hours, seven and a half hours or nine hours a night.

Sleep cannot be underrated as a way of improving your mood. And it’s not only your mood that will improve. You’re likely to be more productive, more patient, less likely to buy junk food or binge on sugar and feel more motivated to exercise. That’s powerful stuff.