Bad sleep? Nip sleep deprivation in the bud before it takes a toll on your mental health


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Just one night of poor sleep can greatly impact our mental wellbeing – and repeating the same mistake multiple nights in a row can make things worse, according to new research


Ever had a bad night's sleep? Of course you have, we all have. And we've all experienced the consequences of it the next day: the grogginess, the irritability, and maybe even the resentment we experience as we attempt to grind our way through a day knowing that our body hasn't quite had enough time to fully recharge.

It feels that the solution is to just grab an extra couple of hours kip the next night to make up for our so-called 'sleep debt'. But what if – like many of us do – we fail to stick our own plan and slowly progress from one night of poor sleep to the next until an uninterrupted weekend lie-in becomes the inevitable sleep deprivation-equivalent of a 'get out of jail free' card?


It's a simple solution to what is a far more complex problem than perhaps many of us realise. Through decades of research, sleep deprivation has been linked to a variety of different health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. With regards to mental health, poor sleeping patterns have long been linked to common psychiatric issues such as depression and anxiety.


And according to new research in the US, it only takes one night of poor sleep to increase our risk of experiencing these detrimental effects.


In a study performed at the University of South Florida, the consequences of sleeping for less than 6 hours per night (the minimum duration of sleep considered to be necessary for optimal health in adults) for 8 consecutive nights was examined.


The study looked at data provided by almost 2000 middle-aged American adults who were asked to record their mental and physical health in a diary for 8 days. Of these 2000, 42% had at least one night of sleeping 1.5 hours less than their usual amount.


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After just 1 night of bad sleep, detrimental effects experienced by respondents rose dramatically and at their highest trajectory. The number of symptoms of poor health continued to increase with the more consecutive days of poor sleep a person experienced, peaking on day 3. At this point, respondents reportedly began to become accustomed to the new sleep pattern. However, the severity of their symptoms continued to worsen and peaked at day 6.


Some of the psychological symptoms reported by study participants included feelings of anger, nervousness, loneliness, irritability and frustration. Physical symptoms included upper respiratory issues, aches, and gastrointestinal problems. The rate of symptoms remained high the longer participants went without a good night's sleep. Symptoms returned to baseline levels only once participants slept for more than 6 hours.


A vicious cycle


Once a habit of sleep deprivation is formed, it's very difficult to snap out of it, says Soomi Lee, assistant professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida, and lead author of the study. As a person becomes more sleep deprived over time, their health issues increase, which in turn could make it harder to fall asleep at a reasonable time to try and regain a normal sleeping pattern.


In previous research from Lee, being denied just 16 minutes of sleep was found to be detrimental to job performance. Other work shows a negative impact on mindfulness too, in turn affecting stress management.


"Many of us think that we can pay our sleep debt on weekends and be more productive on weekdays," said Lee. "However, results from this study show that having just one night of sleep loss can significantly impair your daily functioning."


So what's the best way to avoid all of this? Well it's quite simple: ensure you get at least your recommended hours of sleep every night. For most adults, the NHS recommends between 6 and 9 hours sleep, depending on what works best for you.


"We have to prioritise our sleep in daily life. Because we are all busy, sleep is often compromised because of other responsibilities."


Read an abstract of the full study paper here.


Written by Marco Ricci

Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health