What’s the color of sleep deprivation? Based on most people’s experience, it would likely be some dismal shade of gray. Providing just enough light to get out of bed and muddle through the day, but not enough luminosity to enjoy it, excel, and thrive.
That’s because sleep is fundamental to life, enabling us to function during the day, and impacting our mental and physical health
When we don’t have enough sleep we experience fatigue, irritability, and become unwell, much like we would with too little food or water.Dr. Colin Espie, Big Health’s Co-Founder and Chief Scientist
Unfortunately, good sleep is not easy to achieve, even in the best of times. In an August 2021 survey of over 2,000 Americans, half of respondents said their sleep has been disrupted during the pandemic. The survey also suggests that many people have felt isolated due to lockdowns (57%), and overwhelmed due to constant societal changes (49%) and work stress (30%) — all of which the National Sleep Foundation says are common causes of sleep disruption.
Understanding drivers of and remedies for, poor sleep is an important step toward improving overall mental health. Dr. Espie recently joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Health Bites podcast to provide insight on the importance of good sleep, and advice on how to get it. Below are a few key takeaways from the program, which was distributed to all UNHCR employees for World Mental Health Day.
Sleep: the brain’s self-medication
The body needs sleep just like it needs lungs to breathe and a heart to pump blood. It’s vital to our physical and developmental needs, as well as our everyday mental functions such as paying attention, learning, accessing memory, and performing tasks. Moreover, Dr. Espie says, “Sleep supports our emotional regulation, and poor sleep can cause us to become flat, anxious, and sad. It underpins so much of our daily function that there’s literally nothing sleep doesn’t touch or even cure to some degree.” Given how much of our basic functioning relies on having good sleep, poor sleep can become a terrible burden to bear.
Sleep supports our emotional regulation, and poor sleep can cause us to become flat, anxious, and sad. It underpins so much of our daily functioning that there’s literally nothing sleep doesn’t touch or even cure to some degree.Dr. Colin Espie, Big Health’s Co-Founder and Chief Scientist
Sleeping: Just as important as eating and drinking
Sleep is essentially a biological drive in the same way hunger and thirst are. Dr. Espie says, “We all have a body clock, which is not just a figure of speech, it’s a scientifically proven construct.”
We all have a body clock, which is not just a figure of speech, it’s a scientifically proven construct.Dr. Colin Espie, Big Health’s Co-Founder and Chief Scientist
Forcing ourselves to go to bed early or stay up late when it feels unnatural is counterproductive and can cause stress and sleep problems. Therefore, taking the time to figure out our natural body rhythms is an important step toward getting good sleep.
Dr. Espie explains, “We can also use behavioral approaches to cultivate productive sleep. While a good sleeper doesn’t have any tricks up their sleeve, the person with insomnia may lie awake thinking, ‘How can I empty my mind and get to sleep?’”
That’s where cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) comes in. Once we understand our natural body clock, CBT can help us modify our behaviors and thought patterns to achieve healthier sleep. One example is a technique called “putting the day to rest.” By spending ten minutes or so in the evening tying up loose ends from our day we can quiet our racing minds and fall asleep faster.
Dr. Espie says that we should all try to remember that sleep is so fundamental to our well-being that it should and can be as easy to achieve as breathing. When it doesn’t happen so naturally, CBT-I can help us reach a state where we can fall asleep without trying and wake up feeling rested.
Added bonus? The color of “well rested” is all the colors of the rainbow.