How Sleep Quality Can Affect Your Overall Mental Health

Have you ever suffered through a night of bad sleep and spent the next day feeling grumpy and unfocused? Of course, you have. We all experience sleep disturbances from time to time, whether that means inexplicable restlessness, laying awake stressing over a personal problem, or intentionally pulling an all-nighter to study for a big test. And, according to the Sleep Foundation, up to 30% of all adults deal with chronic insomnia.

There can be a number of reasons you can't get a good night's sleep, from the temperature of your bedroom to the flavor of your toothpaste. But what do these sleep issues mean for your health? Scientifically speaking, we still don't completely understand the role of sleep in our biology. There are a number of theories — such as the idea that sleep allows time for our brains to detoxify and repair daily damage — but ultimately, the only clear conclusion is that, for whatever reason, we need sufficient rest to function (via Big Think).

Whenever our sleep gets thrown seriously off schedule, there tend to be consequences. Not only does your physical body feel slower and clumsier when you're poorly rested, but it can have a significant impact on your mood and cognition. So if you're struggling with persistent crankiness, listlessness, or general discontent, your sleep habits may be playing a part.

Why sleep is important for your brain and mood

While we may not completely understand sleep, we do know that it's crucial for our well-being. Sufficient rest — typically defined as more than seven hours a night for adults — is associated with everything from a stronger immune system to reduced risk of diabetes and heart disease (per the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion). Sleep is also considered vitally important for your mental and emotional health.

For instance, you may fall prey to disproportionate emotional responses when running low on rest. Your emotions are usually regulated by an area of your brain called the amygdala. But sleep deprivation can cause your amygdala to overreact to negative stimuli, which may be why you find yourself snippy or disgruntled after a night spent tossing and turning (via BBC Science Focus).

One recent study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease also found that "inadequate sleep was associated with significantly increased odds of frequent mental distress" — specifically, subjects who got less than six hours of sleep per night were 2.5 times more likely to report poor mental health. Sleep problems have even been linked to serious mental health diagnoses like depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, which can both cause sleep disturbances and be worsened by them (via Columbia University Department of Psychiatry).

In short, poor sleep can equal poor emotional regulation, contributing to a downward spiral in your mood, reasoning, and overall mental health. So what can you do to set yourself up for better sleep — and, by extension, better mental well-being?

How to set better sleep habits

Setting better sleep habits begins with a choice. Yes, it's tempting to scroll your brain into oblivion checking social media before bed, but it's not going to help you achieve fulfilling rest. In fact, screen time is one of the major culprits in sleep disturbance, as many devices emit blue light that can disrupt your sleep cycle (via Scientific American).

Instead, try to establish a bedtime routine that preps both your mind and body for restorative sleep. For instance, put down backlit devices and lower the lights in your home about an hour before you turn in. This will signal your body to produce the calming hormone melatonin, which will help you drift off to Slumberland (per Harvard Health Publishing).

In the same vein, you should limit your evening intake of sleep-disturbing foods and beverages, such as anything containing caffeine, sugar, or alcohol. Experts recommend that most people avoid coffee after about 2 p.m. (via CNBC). And despite the common conception that alcohol will knock you out, the Sleep Foundation reports that a boozy nightcap is likely to lower your sleep quality.

If you still find yourself lying awake, you might try tactics like meditation or listening to relaxing audio. There are many soothing frequencies that can help distract your overactive thought patterns and lull you to sleep. For example, some people find that pink noise — a harmony of frequencies that can sound like the shushing of waves or the rustle of leaves — can help them achieve deeper sleep with fewer interruptions.