The importance of sleep for mental and physical health

What if I told I you there was a ground-breaking evidence-based treatment available to everyone that helps you manage anxiety, depression, PTSD, reduces risk of heart attacks, decreases your chances of diabetes, protects you against cancer, lowers food cravings, reduces risk of dementia, increases your life span and makes you more attractive?

It’s called sleep!

March is Sleep Awareness Month, and I thought I’d help increase your awareness of how sleep affects you. My favorite book for 2019 was “Why we sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,” authored by Matthew Walker, doctorate professor of neuroscience and psychology (and director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory) at the University of California, Berkeley.

What happens when we sleep?

In the book, Walker writes about how research has demonstrated that sleep is not just a passive state. Instead it’s a highly active time, a period during which the brain and some physiological processes may be hard at work.

The two main types of sleep are rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep.

  • REM is responsible for forming new neural connections, problem-solving, dreaming, blunting emotional responses to painful memories, reading other people’s facial emotions and neonatal synaptogenesis.
  • NREM is responsible for pruning memories, transferring short-term memory to long-term memory, gaining muscle memory, growth hormone secretion and parasympathetic nervous system activation.

What happens when we don’t get enough sleep?

Sleep and anxiety neuroscientists have found that sleep deprivation fires up areas of the brain associated with emotional processing. The resulting pattern mimics the abnormal neural activity seen in anxiety disorders. Researchers also believe that chronic worriers – those who are naturally more anxious and therefore more likely to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder – are acutely vulnerable to the impact of insufficient sleep.

Lack of sleep directly affects the part of the brain that’s used for managing emotions. Emotion regulation is controlled by the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. When we’re not getting enough sleep, we can get angry, frustrated or upset more easily. We can feel less control over our reactions to things and people. With poor sleep we’re more vulnerable to low moods, such as feeling sad and lacking enthusiasm.

We might find ourselves crankier and more irritable. 

Good ideas

Here are some tips for getting the healthy eight hours recommended.

  • Get your room dark and cold. Why dark? When your brain detects light from a blue light spectrum (electronics) it suppresses the release of melatonin. Its melatonin that initiates the first sleep cycle. Why cold? Our body needs to drop two to three degrees to enter deep sleep.
  • Sticking to a sleep schedule can help your body fall asleep more easily. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, should be part of your bedtime ritual. Exercise is great, but not too late in the day.
  • Try to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days but no later than two to three hours before your bedtime. Avoid caffeine nicotine and alcohol. Having the right sunlight exposure is key to regulating daily sleep patterns.
  • Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day. If possible, wake up with the sun or use very bright lights in the morning.

Liz Austin, BA, is a PSR (Psychosocial Rehabilitation) specialist at Community Reach Center and has been with this program for almost four years now. Prior to joining the PSR team Liz was part of the Mesa House team for five years. Liz has recently gotten into rock climbing and enjoys the family bonding time spent belaying each other on challenging climbs.   

It is vitally important for people experiencing mental health conditions and their loved ones to know mental illness is treatable. Please don’t hesitate to seek assistance. Remember the Behavioral Health Urgent Care (BHUC) center, 2551 W. 84th Ave., in Westminster is open 24 hours. And to learn more about Community Reach Center, a nonprofit mental health center with numerous outpatient offices in north metro Denver, visit or call 303-853-3500. If you have any questions about where to turn for help for older adults, please call the Senior Reach team at Community Reach Center at 303-853-3657. Community Reach Center provides comprehensive behavioral health services for all ages at locations in Thornton, Westminster, Northglenn, Commerce City, Brighton and Broomfield. As always, we are here to enhance the health of our community. Mental wellness for everyone is our goal.