Healthy sleep equals a healthy mind

Everybody knows sleep is important, but we don’t all necessarily appreciate how it can affect our mental health. Dr Michael Grandner is the Director of the Sleep and Health Research Institute Programme at the University of Arizona. Here he explains why sleep is crucial to both our physical and mental well-being and offers practical advice on how to sleep better.

  • Poor sleep is strongly linked to poor mental health.
  • As an athlete, your lifestyle might be making it difficult to get into the habit of sleeping well.
  • Learn how to mitigate the downsides of an unpredictable schedule with our expert’s advice for sleeping well.

Sound asleep, sound of mind

What if I told you that I had a method that could not only improve your athletic performance significantly but could also improve your mental performance, your mental health and your relationships?

Sleep and mental health are very closely connected. Anyone who hasn’t slept well can tell you that it tends to make you more irritable, more short-tempered and in a worse mood in general. On a more scientific level, there’s a whole biochemistry of how sleep and mental health are connected. People who don’t sleep well or who don’t sleep enough have a much higher risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders, and have more difficulty managing stress.

What’s more, it’s a vicious circle. Not only can poor sleep lead to mental health issues, but mental health issues, worries and stress can all in turn interfere with sleep. If you’re struggling with your mental health, focusing on your sleep is a good place to start, but equally ensuring you’re getting a good level of quality sleep will help you protect your mental well-being in the first place.

Ensuring you’re getting a good level of quality sleep will help you protect your mental well-being

If you don’t snooze, you lose

Unfortunately, as an athlete, there are a number of factors that might actually make it more difficult for you to be sleeping well most of the time compared to most people. When it comes to sleep, having a routine is very, very important, but athletes often have pretty chaotic schedules.

A typical adult needs about seven hours of sleep at night but, even if your schedule is fairly consistent, many athletes struggle to find enough time to sleep because they have to get up early so often for training and travel. On top of that, as an athlete you might actually need a little bit more sleep than others, especially if you’re a young adult or an adolescent, for whom eight or nine hours of sleep is required to be at your best.

Aside from the mental health benefits, sleep is when your muscles are rebuilding and when your body is reorganising and utilising nutrients – so if you’re training hard but not sleeping, then you’re not training; you’re injuring yourself. That’s why athletes should do what they can to make sure they’re getting the right amount of high quality sleep.

Top tips for better sleep

To help you do this, here are a few key things you can do to protect your sleep and get the most from your resting hours.

  • Make your bed and sleep in it Your bed should equal sleep. Do not spend time in bed that’s not sleeping: sex is fine, but don’t spend time reading, watching TV, working, thinking or worrying. If you’re in bed and can’t fall asleep then get up; the worst thing you can do is spend time struggling to get to sleep, because over time the ability of the bed to trigger sleep response will become diluted. Don’t do anything too mentally stimulating so that hours go by, and don’t turn on any bright lights, but if you can watch an episode of a show and go back to bed – or read a few pages of a book – then do that.
  • Getting up on the right side of the bed No matter what time zone you’re in or how quickly you’ve travelled, if you want to tell your brain it’s daytime get some bright light. A lot of athletes get up really early – earlier than their bodies want to – so one way to feel more energetic and enhance your performance is to get as much light in the morning as possible. If that means opening your blinds and standing in front of an open window for a few minutes, do that. If it means getting outside within a few minutes of waking up and getting moving, do that.
  • Make sure you wind down If you’re getting into bed and it’s the first time your mind has the chance to wind down, that will cause problems. Turn off the TV an hour before you’re getting ready for bed to give yourself that time to relax. A lot of people confuse distraction with relaxation. Relaxation is more of an active process, and a lot of athletes know this because it’s like stretching. Stretching is an active process; it’s how you prepare yourself. Giving yourself some time to wind down and relax before sleep is just as important as stretching before training.
  • Get talking If you think you might be suffering from a long-term sleep disorder, talk to your doctor or someone who has expertise in this area. There are medications that can be helpful for treating sleep disorders. Usually though, the side effects of these medications tend to create slowness, dulled senses, a slowed reaction time and might even increase injury and illness risk. For an athlete those could be pretty serious problems. As an alternative, there are behavioural treatments for sleep disorders, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which don’t have the same side effects as medications and have been shown to work as well or better.

Over the next 12 months we will be addressing a number of other key topics related to mental health, featuring insight from athletes and experts. Sign up to Athlete365 to stay updated.