What does a dog do when it gets tired? It goes to sleep. What does a hamster do when it gets tired? It goes to sleep. What do YOU do when you get tired? You go to sleep…unless you have work to do, or there’s a big game on TV, or another load of laundry needs to be put on—there’s often a long list of things that can prevent you from hitting the sack at a decent hour. 

As the only mammals that willingly delay sleep, people have somehow turned a lack of quality snooze time into a source of pride. An exhausted guy, as the thinking goes, is someone who GETS THINGS DONE by working harder and longer than everyone else. The trouble is, missing out on quality sleep tends to have the opposite effect.

As one of the registered counsellors providing private video appointments at TELUS Health MyCare™, I often hear from guys who aren’t getting the sleep they need to be happy, healthy and productive. 

As it turns out, not getting the sleep you need can have a negative impact on your mental well-being. Research shows that Canadians diagnosed with a mental illness are more likely to have poor sleep quality compared to the general population. On the other hand, poor sleep over long periods increases the risk of mental health problems like depression and anxiety. It goes both ways.

The bottom line is quality sleep is essential for the mental wellness of everyone. So let’s explore the connection between mental health and getting enough quality Zs.

The mental health benefits of sleep

Men need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep for optimal health. While the quantity of sleep you get is important, the quality of your sleep is even more crucial.

Research has shown that brain activity during sleep significantly impacts your emotional and mental health. The four stages of sleep help to activate and deactivate different brain regions that assess and store information and experiences while you snooze. This process improves everything from learning and memory to mood and regulating emotions.

Improves mood

We all know what it’s like when we’ve had a bad sleep. You wake up feeling cranky right from the get-go, and often it goes downhill from there. According to research, some of this crankiness stems from insufficient sleep preventing our brains from processing positive emotions.

Improves focus and productivity

Attention span, decision-making skills and energy levels are all tied to quality sleep. Many new parents can relate to the flipside of this. With a fussy infant preventing them from getting enough shut-eye, they’ll forget to do even the most basic tasks: turning off the oven, closing the front door, and even eating. I remember being a new parent and saying, “Oh, did I have lunch today?” This happens because you’re functioning at the most basic level when sleep-deprived. 

Improves relationships

Healthy sleep improves how we engage with others at work and home. Being in a positive mood, and being receptive and responsive to feedback, is much easier with the proper rest. On the other hand, moodiness, indifference and sluggishness tend to go over poorly with co-workers and family members.

Does poor sleep cause anxiety and depression?

We used to think that a lack of quality sleep caused anxiety and depression, but as previously mentioned, it goes both ways. For example, when men with mental health issues develop a problem with sleep, they can get stuck in a loop of being mentally unwell. In other words, the two problems feed off each other.  

In fact, depression can cause you to sleep too much. That said, if you’re in bed for 12 hours because you’re depressed, you’re probably not getting quality sleep.

Then there’s anxiety, a normal feeling we all experience to different degrees. Anxiety can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep and can be fuelled by thoughts of being unable to sleep well. 

Tips for getting the sleep you need

Well rested man

Keep the bedroom clean, dark, quiet and cool

Your bedroom is not a TV room or a tech hub. Everything in your bedroom should draw you to sleep. So make the room clean, dark, quiet and cool. It’s like Pavlov’s dog; you’re training your body and mind to want to sleep when you’re in that room.

Write down your next day’s to-dos 

One of the things that comes up a lot in sessions is people thinking too much about what has to get done the next day. When you lie in bed and start going over what you need to do tomorrow, it can put you into an insomnia cycle of staring at the ceiling and thinking too much. An effective way to put your mind at ease before going to bed is to write it all out.

Write down everything you are worried about forgetting, so you can get it on paper and put your mind at ease at bedtime. That way, things like having no milk in the fridge go from being a worry to a functional task with a plan. 

Get up if you can’t fall asleep

If you’re laying in bed tossing and turning and can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes or so, sometimes it’s better to get up and do a little light activity. This can help you relax and get you ready to fall asleep. Activity examples: read, meditate, pet your dog, you get the idea.

Get active 

Exercising improves sleep because it reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and the amount of time you lie awake in bed. 

Follow a bedtime ritual

Go to bed at around the same time, and you’ll sleep better. A wild weekend can throw your sleep routine off, so dial it back a bit for the sake of your sleep.

No caffeine after noon

Tea, coffee and cola, which contain caffeine, can wreck your sleep patterns, so switch to decaffeinated or caffeine-free drinks in the afternoon and evening. If you feel like you need an afternoon pick-me-up, eat a little protein or fibre to boost your focus and productivity.

Meanwhile, sleep teas like chamomile or peppermint can help you fall asleep more quickly and are a simple thing to add to your bedtime routine.

Skip the booze and butt out

Don’t be fooled by alcohol’s sedative effects. It can rob you of a good night’s sleep, so go to sleep sober. And if you need another reason to quit smoking, consider how it affects your sleep. The nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant that can keep you awake and interrupt your sleep patterns.

Ditch the nap

Napping can be useful as a quick recharge. In fact, it’s common for doctors and nurses to take a power nap during a work break. But if you’re having issues with the quality of your nighttime sleep, skip the nap and see how you feel. Napping feels great but can mess up our sleep cycle and make it hard to fall asleep at night.

Avoid spicy and heavy late-night meals

Spicy food and heavy meals can disturb sleep, especially if they are eaten close to bedtime. That must be why Kumbhakaran ate so much after he woke up! 

Talk to a counsellor

Speaking with a counsellor can help you get out of negative internal self-talk and break the anxiety loops it causes. This can help you build the skills to not only get quality sleep but to handle your stress and anxiety better during the day.

Keep it simple

Choose one or two tips from this list that will work for you. It’s important to pick things that you’re willing to do so it doesn’t feel like it’s adding to your task list. Trying to do everything on this list may cause more stress, so don’t do that! Keep it simple so you don’t fret over it.

Signs of quality sleep

How much sleep you’re getting is easy enough to figure out, but how can you tell if you’re getting quality sleep? Plenty of wearable options are on the market, like Apple Watches and FitBits. But if a smartwatch isn’t for you, the signs below indicate you’re getting a night of good sleep.

  • You fall asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed.
  • You mostly sleep through the night with less than 20 minutes of wakefulness.
  • You fall back asleep within 20 minutes if you do wake up.
  • You spend at least 85% of your time in bed asleep.
  • You feel good mentally and physically when you get up. 

Signs of sleep deprivation

  • Physical signs like puffy eyes and yawning
  • Moodiness, poor coping skills, depression and/or anxiety, any of which can show up in the family environment or at work
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • Drinking too much coffee or smoking cigarettes to stimulate ourselves, and eating junk food and/or craving sugar to feel better in the short term.

How sleep deprivation affects your physical health

A lack of quality sleep can do a number on your body and mind. Over a long period of time, it can:

Getting less-than-stellar sleep is not only frustrating but can be detrimental to your mental and physical well-being. So don’t give up! Keep trying different tips and see what works best for you. 

Do you have any sleep tips that work for you? Share in the comments below.

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