Sleep deprivation can cause your behavioral health to suffer and increase your risk of chronic disease. Learn how to get better sleep — and more of it.

End sleep deprivation to boost mental health

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You have grocery shopping to do. The kids need help with school projects. The slide deck for tomorrow’s presentation is only half done. The list goes on and the stress mounts. These things manage to get done by consistently sacrificing one simple thing: sleep. 

Most believe sleep is expendable when busy. It’s the first thing to give up. No big deal, right?

It’s actually quite dangerous to be chronically sleep deprived, says Dr. Matthew Angelelli, chief of psychiatry for Sentara Healthcare.

"It causes a level of stress in your body and can cause inflammation," he says. "Lack of sleep suppresses your immune function and it also leads to other illnesses, autoimmune diseases and other health issues."

It can also do quite a number on mental health.

"The number one reason people struggle with sleep — besides sleep apnea — is depression," says Dr. Angelelli. "When people get depressed, they tend to worry a lot, and it disrupts their sleep rhythms."

How does sleep worsen mental health?

While depression causes a lack of sleep, the reverse is also true. It’s a vicious cycle. In fact, insomnia is very common among those with depression, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

Dr. Angelelli calls proper sleep a strong factor in the quality of relationships. When sleep deprived, "you just don’t perform as well, and it affects all your relationships," he says.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), this is especially true of adolescents. They tend to be more angry and impulsive. Mood swings, feelings of depression and a lack of motivation are also more common.

Certain conditions can also worsen without proper sleep. For adults with bipolar disorder, for example, Dr. Angelelli explains that symptoms associated with the condition become exacerbated with sleep deprivation.

"You can become manic or depressed, and it brings things out of balance," he says.

Are you putting yourself at risk for chronic disease?

Poor quality sleep can create stress, according to Dr. Angelelli, which becomes a slippery slope for health. Both stress and depression cause many to adopt high-risk behaviors that have significant long-term consequences.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), stress and depression lead to hypertension (high blood pressure) when people use the following coping mechanisms:

  • An unhealthy diet. Excess weight causes more strain on the heart, while foods high in sodium cause an increase in blood cholesterol and hardening of arteries. Both of these factors contribute to higher blood pressure.
  • Too much alcohol. Regular use of alcohol above the recommended limit (one drink a day for women and two for men) can have a significant impact on blood pressure.
  • An inactive lifestyle. Physical activity is great for the heart and circulatory system, while inactivity makes it easier to become overweight or obese.

These behaviors, according to the AHA, have been clearly linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Sleep apnea is another complicating factor of sleep deprivation that can cause future health issues. "If your quality of sleep is poor, you have to get that checked," says Dr. Angelelli. "It can cause heart disease, worsen diabetes, and create other problems."

So, how much sleep should you be getting if you want to avoid stress? While there isn’t a set number, the NSF offers the following recommendations for optimal sleep time, based on your age: 

  • Newborns (0 to 3 months): 14 to 17 hours 
  • Infants (4 to 11 months): 12 to 15 hours 
  • Toddlers (1 to 2 years): 11 to 14 hours 
  • Preschoolers (3 to 5 years): 10 to 13 hours
  • School-age children (6 to 13 years): 9 to 11 hours
  • Teens (14 to 17 years): 8 to 10 hours
  • Adults (18+ years): 7 to 9 hours

How to get better sleep… and more of it

Since getting an adequate amount of good sleep is key to staying healthy mentally and physically, Dr. Angelelli says people need a sleep routine to get back on the right track. This means having a set time to go to sleep and wake up — even on weekends.

He suggests gradually turning the lights off, finding a quiet place to sleep, and avoiding any drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco and nicotine in the hours leading up to bedtime.

The National Sleep foundation recommends these five ways get optimal sleep:

  1. Keep the temperature around 65°F.
  2. Avoid electronics at least an hour before bed. 
  3. White noise in the background might help.
  4. Put fresh, clean sheets on the bed.
  5. Have a light meal before bed (avoid heavy, spicy, fatty and fried food).

"When you’re chronically sleep deprived, in the long run, your mental effects just go downhill," says Dr. Angelelli. "Without sleep, you also increase your risk for many health conditions."

So, make getting adequate sleep a top priority — for mental and physical well-being.