Why sleep is so important for mental wellbeing 

I’m no scientist or doctor but I do know that when I don’t get enough sleep I feel bad. I struggle to concentrate, I’m grumpy, more emotional and anxious and all I seem to want to do is eat. That then ends up making me feel even more lethargic – it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. 

Sleep is as important for our bodies as breathing, eating and drinking water and disturbed sleep or lack of sleep can impact us both mentally and physically. Physically not getting enough sleep can lead our immune systems to become weaker and make us prone to illness. Lack of sleep has also been shown to exasperate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol anymore, I only realised how much poor quality sleep or minimal sleep played a part in feeling  hungover when I stopped drinking.

In my 20s and early 30s I used to suffer with terrible insomnia and fear at night. I definitely thought that drinking alcohol and taking pills would help me to sleep better, but in reality it had the opposite effect and only made things worse. If I was drinking I’d often stay up or out late and taking sleeping tablets made me feel groggy the next day. It’s an easy cycle to get in to. 

Even though alcohol might help you nod off initially, even just a couple of drinks can affect the quality of your sleep and disrupt your sleep cycle – regular drinking even more so. This is because drinking leads you to spend more time in a deep sleep and less time than usual in the more restful, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep.

This can mean that no matter how long you have spent in bed you can still feel over tired the next day and so the cycle continues. 

Since I’ve stopped drinking or taking any sleep aids, my sleep has not only dramatically improved but the times at which I sleep have turned on their heads. If you’d asked me four years ago I’d have said unequivocally that I was a “night owl” but I’m the opposite way now.

Even if I technically get the same amount of hours of sleep or time in bed, it doesn’t work for me to go to bed late and get up later. I personally function much better going to bed early and getting up early these days. 

That being said there are still times when I don’t get enough sleep and then I experience “tiredness hangovers” which make me feel like I’ve been out painting the town red when I haven’t.

For that reason, I now prioritise getting enough sleep as much as I do drinking enough water, exercising and eating – for me it’s the ultimate form of self-care. 

So here are some things I’ve found useful to improve my quality of sleep, avoid tiredness hangovers and ultimately boost my physical and mental health. 

Tips for a good night’s sleep:

Turn off all electronic devices and televisions at least an hour before bed 

Hands up if you take your phone, laptop or iPad to bed with you, have a TV in your room or read on a Kindle? I don’t have an iPad or Kindle (I still prefer real books), but I’m guilty of all of those other things and when I do them I don’t sleep as well and wake up feeling fuzzy. One of the reasons for this is because the backlit ‘blue light’ displays of such devices suppress melatonin production – the hormone that helps you sleep. Falling asleep with the TV on has the same effect, something I always used to do but try never to do now.

Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the eye to parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide-awake.

I have a Himalayan salt lamp in my room which gives off a lovely ambient pre-bedtime glow and I love putting candles on to wind down for the evening (being careful to put them out before I get into bed of course!) 

I also got myself an alarm clock which has a light you can set to slowly go off at night and slowly come on in the morning to mimic sunrise and sunset. This stops me using my phone as an alarm clock and leaving it on all night.

Go to bed earlier 

Research has shown that even going to bed one hour earlier can have huge benefits for your body, your mood, and your relationships but why is this, surely it’s the amount of sleep you get not whether you go to bed at 9pm or 1am? Really its more about the quality of sleep as well as the amount of time spent asleep. Our bodies are in tune to the natural cycles of nature and if we are staying up way into the night and trying to sleep during the day when it is light outside it can be hard.

I used to think that if I stayed up as late as possible working when I was on a deadline I would get more done. I couldn’t comprehend turning my laptop off and going to bed at 9pm but the problem is to stay awake into the early hours I needed stimulants, such as drinking lots of coffee, and this then later interferes with quality sleep.

These days I find if I go to bed early and get up early. I am more productive and achieve a lot more in the hours between 5.30am and 9am than I ever did staying up working until 1am. That may not be the case for everyone so it’s about what works for you. 

Drink soothing herbal teas before bed 

Herbal teas have been used as natural sleep aids for centuries with ingredients such as chamomile, lavender and valerian root being popular choices. I’m a big coffee drinker and can drink a double espresso when I’m out for an evening meal and still go to bed, however, before bedtime it’s much better to have a relaxing herbal tea. Pukka do a lovely nighttime blend which I really enjoy. 

There’s also a good article on healthline about the six best herbal teas to help you sleep.

Have a relaxing bath 

I love a good soak in the tub, I find it a fantastic way to unwind and de-stress and that’s key to getting a good night’s sleep. If we go to bed tense, stressed and busy-minded then it can be hard to get to sleep. For me having a soak in the bath before I go to bed helps relax my muscles and ease away any tension. I also put candles and some classical chill out music on to  add to the relaxation. I love Kneipp’s Sweet Dreams bath oil it smells divine and really helps to relax me.  

Use soothing essential oils and aromatherapy blends

I have an aroma diffuser in my room and at nighttime before bed I like to put a blend of oils into it to help me relax. Our sense of smell is strongly linked to our memories and emotion and certain fragrances have been shown to help promote a state of calmness.

Essential oils can improve sleep quality and provide relief for disrupted sleep. In a 2017 study researchers found that a blend of sleep promoting essential oils worked more effectively to improve both sleep quality and quality of life than a single essential oil, such as lavender.

My favourites are lavender, lemongrass and Ylang Ylang  which I mix myself but you can buy ready-made nighttime blends. 

I also use aromatherapy balms on my wrists and temples to relax if I’m feeling particularly stressed. I love Scentered’s products and in particular their de-stress and sleep well ranges.

Meditate 

I love meditation, it has so many benefits and always try and start my day with meditation practice, but I also find it really useful at night.

I have a couple of meditation apps I use when I fancy a bit of guided meditation – my favourite evening one is Relax Melodies as it has a whole series of sleep-related guided meditations and body scans to help you relax after a stressful day as well as a sound library. I find the sound of the waves really relaxing and comforting but there’s a wide range to choose from.

Although it has a timer you can set for it to stop the sounds and exit the app, I do try and use it earlier in the evening rather than when I’m about to go to sleep as that means falling asleep with my phone on – contrary to tip number 1!

Most of the time I just meditate in silence without an app and that’s the great thing about meditation – it can be done anywhere, any time for free. All you need to do is just sit or lie back and take slow, deep breaths in and out. Even 5-10 minutes can be beneficial and when I do it at bedtime I often fall asleep without even realising it.  

 Useful information

You can download a free booklet Sleep Matters: The Impact Of Sleep On Health And Wellbeing

Vicky