Help! I can’t sleep.

Sleep. We all need it, yet most of us get enough. We live in a society that thrives on productivity; we sacrifice sleep in order to meet deadlines at work or to cram for exams. Most of us don’t make healthy sleep a priority.

When we don’t get enough sleep, it takes a toll on us physically, emotionally and psychologically. Did you know poor sleep makes it more difficult for us to deal with minor stress, much less major stress. We become more easily irritated by little things. We get snappy with others and we have impaired thinking and difficulty regulating our emotions. Insomnia may amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders, and vice versa.

On the flip side, when we consistently sleep well, we have a stronger immune system, better memory and recall, increased learning capacity and improved self-control.

One study compared sleep for the mind with quiet hours at the office. When there is less to respond to, you get more work done. Same goes for the brain. When we are asleep, the brain can really get to work because it doesn’t have to respond to all the external stimuli we encounter when we are awake.

Here is a brief overview of how our brains are impacted by sleep. The amygdala is in charge of our emotional responses. Some refer to it as the brain’s smoke detector. It alerts the brain of danger and activates the fight, flight or freeze response. We process emotion when we sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep the amygdala goes into overdrive, much like a smoke alarm that goes off when there is no fire. This is why we it’s harder to control our emotions when we are tired.

Another part of the brain impacted by sleep deprivation is the prefrontal cortex. This is the rational, critical thinking part of the brain. It is “the voice of reason” to our emotions. When  the amygdala kicks into overdrive, the prefrontal cortex shuts down, making it difficult to control impulsivity. This is why we often say and do things we regret when we are tired.

Lastly, we need to discuss the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands that plays a big role in our “fight or flight” response. It helps keep us alert. When the amygdala, smoke detector, is triggered, cortisol is released. Think of it as the sprinkler system reacting to the smoke alarm. It’s very important for cortisol levels to be just right. When we don’t get enough sleep, too much cortisol is produced. This puts our body in a constant state of stress, unable to relax. This is the reason individuals under a lot of stress struggle with insomnia—the increased amounts of cortisol keep them awake! So most of us want to sleep more but struggle to do so.

Next week, I will share some practical tips to help you improve your sleep. Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter to ensure you don’t miss out on the video on Sleep Hygiene.

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