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Nature’s primary provision for mental health is our sleep

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Professor Colin A Espie PhD

Professor of Sleep Medicine & Senior Research Fellow, University of Oxford

Sleep is nature’s medicine, especially for our mental health. Most of the time, emotional and mental repair is going on completely without our awareness. 

What would be on your short-list of things that are crucial to good mental health? I immediately think of close relationships, a sense of purpose and sufficient resources. We might all agree on those, amongst other things.  

What advice would you give to someone needing help with their mental health? I expect we would listen and support that person, perhaps share a wellbeing strategy that has worked for us and suggest they should speak to a professional with a view to treatment or therapy. All of these things are hugely important. 

Nature’s role in mental health  

However, there is something even more fundamental. Nature has put something in place for our mental health, and that provision is our sleep. Your brain is a shift-worker – there is so much essential development, repair and maintenance going on during sleep that it’s a whole night of work. Even evolution hasn’t managed to get it down from six to eight hours!  

You may think sleep is down time, respite from the busyness of the day, so that you can rest and recover. Sleep does all that as well. However, sleep is when our brain does its best work. Don’t you look forward to getting the kids off to school or settled down at night, so that you can finally get on with things? If our brain was the parent it would say “You get yourself off to sleep now, I’ve got a whole load of things I need to get through in the next few hours”.  

Sleep provides us with the emotional intelligence and the power of reasoning to live our lives. 

Regulating our emotions  

One of the crucial functions of sleep is what we call ‘emotion regulation’. It is during sleep that our thoughts, feelings and experiences are processed, learned and stored for future use. Sleep provides us with the emotional intelligence and the power of reasoning to live our lives.  

Although it is good news that sleep is there for us, we need to do much more to recognise the importance of addressing sleep concerns. For too long we have seen struggles with sleep, like insomnia, as a symptom of other problems like depression, anxiety or daytime attentional and behavioural problems. 

It’s time to see sleep for what it is – a provider of mental health and wellbeing. Let’s make sleep a health priority and provide help that is evidence-based when people need it.

Colin advised the Mental Health Foundation on its report “Taking Sleep Seriously”, published in 2020.

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