You have probably heard the saying that when someone is in a bad mood or grumpy, the person "woke up on the wrong side of the bed." Sleep and mental and emotional health are strongly connected and linked to depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow - Charlotte Brontë.
In this article, I want to discuss the problems of not sleeping, their causes, and consequences, the effects on sleep, and how you can improve your sleep.
🌱 Travel health insurance for digital nomads
Insomnia means simply putting that you want to sleep but you can't. People who suffer from insomnia have either problems falling asleep, or staying asleep all night, or worst case they suffer from both types. When our body doesn't get enough sleep, we develop sleep deprivation, meaning a lack of sleep. And this can cause fatigue, low performance, lack of energy, and mood changes including irritability, preoccupation with sleep, memory problems, slower reaction time, troubles with concentration and focus, and feeling unrefreshed.
There are different types of insomnia. Acute insomnia is sleeplessness caused by the environment, such as acute work stress, pre-wedding jitters, an upcoming long-distance flight, or any other acute short-term stressor. Acute insomnia resolves itself, once the stressor is gone, meaning the event has passed. Then there is chronic insomnia which can be caused by medical issues but more often by mental disorders.
Many people suffering from insomnia are struggling with a mental health disorder - Well Clinic, San Francisco.
Problem #1: falling asleep
Oftentimes, people suffering from anxiety have problems falling asleep. Excess worry and fear make it hard to fall asleep and sometimes also to stay asleep. Anxiety means that the person worries throughout the day and the fear is proportional to the situation and these feelings become persistent. Anxiety can because by a general anxiety disorder, a post-traumatic stress disorder, any form of phobia, or a social anxiety disorder. In the USA, around 25% of all teenagers, and 20% of all adults suffer from anxiety which causes sleeping problems.
Problem #2: staying asleep
People who suffer from depression find it often easier to fall asleep but they wake up during the night and have a hard time falling asleep again. Around 4.4% of the world's population suffers from depression, which is together with anxiety the most common mental health issue.
😵💫 The interconnection of sleep and mental health
Sleep quality has a major impact on one's mental health. And one's mental health has a strong impact on one's sleep. It is the chicken-egg-dilemma, it is hard to say what came first.
People with depression fall asleep but can not stay asleep. Depression and sleep have a bi-directional relationship, meaning that depression can lead to sleep problems, and sleep problems can lead to more depression. About 75% of all adults suffering from depression also suffer from insomnia. When a person gets treated for depression, it often comes with betterment in sleep quality.
I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know? – Ernest Hemingway
People with anxiety can stay asleep but have a hard time falling asleep. Anxiety is oftentimes linked to a person's changing sleep cycles, which means that changing the environment often, traveling, and jetlag can contribute to low sleep quality.
Depending on the stage the bipolar person is in right now, meaning in a more depressed and low-energy phase or a maniac and high-energy phase, the person suffers either from not staying asleep when depressed or not wanting to sleep at all when maniac.
The conclusion of this paragraph is that most likely, when a person develops a sleeping disorder the chances are high that the person suffers from a mental disorder or mental issue, too. If you suffer from insomnia, that you either struggle with falling asleep or you have problems staying asleep, please consider the possibility that you might have depression or some sort of anxiety you want to get help with.
☀️ Effects on sleep
After identifying the two common sleeping problems, by either struggling to fall asleep or having problems staying asleep, let's see what distractions can support sleeping problems and which distractions are in our control. We can not heal our depression or anxiety by dimming the light or canceling out the noise, but there are some little but effective environmental changes you can control to improve your sleep. Hopefully.
But first, let's have a quick look at the Circadian Cycle and why it is important to maintain it well in order to improve your sleep.
The Circadian Cycle is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats itself roughly every 24 hours. The Circadian Cycle divides the day into a sleep phase between 3 am and 7 am, where the body temperature and energy level are at their lowest point. This is followed by an active phase between 10 am and 1 pm where the body temperature and energy are at the top and the alertness and sharpness are increased. Between 2 and 5 pm, the afternoon slump kicks in where you feel blah and you want to have an afternoon nap. Don't take naps longer than 30 minutes though as that could disturb your sleep cycle and makes you stay awake longer in the evening. With the sunset and the low amount of light, the body gets sleepy. The natural hormone of melatonin rises in the body and should you make tired so you want to go to bed around 10 or 11 pm. The hormone melatonin plays an important role in falling asleep. And if your body doesn't create enough of it, you get in trouble. Many people intake melatonin orally, but oftentimes people are actively suppressing the melatonin by doing the following mistakes.
Light: Room light and light coming from electronic devices can have a negative impact on your melatonin production. Avoid direct light exposure before going to bed and switch off your phone. Instead, read a book on your kindle and use the night-shift mode. If you have to work in front of your screen close to bedtime, get the Google Chrome extension flux which dims your screen and exposes you to warm yellow light which doesn't affect melatonin production so badly.
Temperature: Body temperature is affected by room temperature and is connected to the Circadian Cycle. Exposure to extreme hot or cold room temperatures can have a negative impact on your sleep, too. In order to sleep, the body temperature needs to decrease, whereas your body temperature rises before and during the awake phases of the Circadian Cycle. The best room temperature for sleeping is between 15 and 19 degrees Celsius (brrr).
Other sleep distractions
Besides light and temperature, there are other factors that have an impact on sleep, including noise, food, drinks, social media, and many more. Let's have a look.
Noise: Scientists found that travelers are exposed to many external factors, such as new environments, or noise. Norwegian scientists proved that sleep quality decreased by noise exposure. Well, you might be not surprised when you think back to that noisy highway or that loud construction that kept you awake all night. But I wanted to include noise to make you more aware of the negative impact it can have, and be more mindful of your accommodation choices. There is the dilemma of being in a great central location with loads of restaurant options within walking distance but central locations come often with nighttime activity, traffic noise, and/or loud construction.
Social media: Young adults who were asked to put their phone away from their bed often feel disconnected and suffer from the fear of missing out which increases by an increased distance between the bed and the phone. Different studies on the impact of social media intake on mental health show different results. Some studies conclude that social media has negative impacts, and some prove positive impacts. However, it is important to monitor yourself and evaluate whether reading social media increase your heart rate, and your stress level, and switches the thinking brain, or if social media helps you to feel less lonely, or serves your curiosity on what's going on. Only you know what the impact on social media is for you, but you might want to consider switching your light from blue to yellow.
Working hours: A study published by the Occupational Medicine magazine revealed that people with long working hours are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than those who work fewer hours per day. And those people working long hours show lower sleeping quality than people working fewer hours.
Environment: Chinese scientists found out that travelers' sleep is affected by a new and changing environment. Morning-type travelers have lower sleep duration and develop a high sensitivity to the sleep environment. So, according to Chinese scientists, if you are an early bird person, you are more impacted by new accommodations than night owl persons. Interestingly, the study came also to the conclusion that business travelers are more affected by the new environments than leisure travelers. Plus, travelers who are satisfied with their hotel choice show better sleeping quality than unsatisfied hotel guests. My conclusion is, if you suffer from a type of insomnia, invest in a satisfying accommodation and make yourself as comfortable as possible.
Time zones: The freedom of being a digital nomad comes with the flexibility to hop on the next intercontinental flight which comes with changing time zones. The new destination's time zone is a disruption of our Circadian Cycle and therefore, it affects our sleep quality negatively, commonly known as jetlag. If you suffer from jetlag, plan ahead and adjust your inner clock beforehand by getting closer and closer to the upcoming time zone.
😴 How to improve sleep
Here is a quick list with tips to consider adapting, adjusting or changing if you want to improve your sleep quality.
- Reduce caffeine intake, and avoid drinking coffee at least 8 hours before going to bed.
- Minimize alcohol, drugs, and tobacco consumption closer to bedtime. I am not here to judge you, but if you enjoy drinking a glass of wine in the evening, have in mind that it might interfere with your sleep.
- Make your bedroom a dark, cold, quiet, and cozy place.
- Establish an evening routine that could include a good-night story, good-night meditation, calming music, light reading, and in general consuming light information. Avoid emotionally heavy discussions or work-related tasks before going to bed.
- Put your phone at the other end of the room. First, you can not reach it and read your Facebook newsfeed, and second, you need to get up in the morning to turn off the alarm. This could help to stop snoozing.
- Try to sleep at regular hours, which means try to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time to help your body get a routine.
- Nap early, nap short, or don't nap at all.
- Stay hydrated during the day but don't drink too much fluid before bedtime which would wake you up in the night to use the bathroom.
- Exercise, but not 3 hours before bedtime. Your body needs a while to calm down, lower the body temperature, and normalize the heart rate.
- If you struggle to fall asleep, you can use the body-scan technique which is often used at the beginning of meditations. If you do the body scan the first time, do it with guidance, and once you understood the concept, you can do it yourself. Here is a guided body scan if you want to know how it works.
📚 Book tips
I asked our Genki team to share their favorite books or resources about sleeping. Here are our team's findings.
- Why We Sleep: Mark and I are big fans of this book by Mathew Walker. Alexey Guzey added a list of factual errors in Walker's book. Although that doesn't sound very promising now, the book itself is amazing and absolutely worth reading.
- The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time: Our team member Laura recommended this book by Arianna Huffington.
- Headspace: Our team members Peter and Mehrdad both recommended using Headspace on Netflix.
- Good-Night-Stories: Although I don't suffer from not falling asleep, I know that my sister sometimes uses good-night stories to fall asleep as they distract the brain from keep thinking about daily life stuff.