Good sleep is important to your health, studies show. Now researchers are even warning: who sleeps a little, reacts emotionally and anxiously. What helps sleep better? And why can sleep aids be fatal?
Berkeley / Tübingen – Sleep can be a "balm for the soul," William Shakespeare already knew. In fact, a good night even helps stabilize our emotions and soothes us. On the other hand, a sleepless night can increase anxiety and emotional stress by as much as 30 percent. This shows a new study of American neuroscientists from the University of California at Berkeley.
"We have identified a new feature of deep sleep that reduces anxiety overnight," says study author Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology. At this stage of sleep, the connections in the brain are reorganized. "Deep sleep seems to be a natural inhibitor of anxiety and anxiety – as long as we get it every night," Walker says. Sleep is even a natural cure for anxiety disorders, which are not only prevalent in the US, and are even increasing among young people. Also in Germany more and more people are suffering from this.
The dream that contributes most to the reduction of anxiety and tension is the so-called NREM dream (slow eye movement), in which brain wave activity slows down massively. Heart rate and blood pressure also drop sharply at this stage of deep sleep. "Our study strongly suggests that deep sleep helps reduce emotional stress," says Eti study leader Ben Simon.
NREM sleep diminishes emotional response
Scientists measured the brain activities of young adults in the lab for their study while watching emotionally distressing video clips. Once after a full night's sleep and again after a sleepless night. Thereafter, the subjects' anxiety level was examined. After a sleepless night, the so-called medial prefrontal cortex was shown to be nearly inactive, but other emotional areas of the brain were overactive. The medial prefrontal cortex – the part of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex that lies at the front of the brain – is usually responsible for holding back our fears. The researchers repeated the results with other subjects in the lab and conducted an online survey. The result has remained the same: the quantity and quality of sleep predict how anxious someone will feel the next day. Even small changes in sleep influenced the anxiety and restlessness of the study participants.
Without sleep, according to the study's authors, the brain pressed too hard on the "emotional gas pedal." However, after a night of sleep, subjects' anxiety levels dropped significantly, especially when sleepers experienced more NREM periods when their brain wave activity slowed. "Deep sleep in these cases restored the prefrontal brain mechanisms that regulate our emotions," says Eti Ben Simon. "It reduces emotional and physiological response and prevents anxiety from escalating."
Which dream matters – and what the REM dream means
The fact that good sleep significantly contributes to the treatment of anxiety and other mental health problems has long been known, says Tübingen sleep researcher Albrecht Vorster. "It's more emotional, we're more relaxed and more balanced." It also means that after a night of sleep, or if the duration of sleep is constantly shortened, people are more emotional, more fear-driven and less able to make rational decisions. Worster, author of Why We Sleep. But the surprising thing about new research from the US for him was that researchers identified NREM sleep as important for processing emotions. Until now, it has been assumed that REM sleep is the main reason for this – i.e., a sleep phase in which we dream a lot and is characterized by rapid eye movements. "That deep sleep is important to our serenity, it's pretty new," says Worster. "But we know that the REM dream is at least as important."
What helps with sleep disorders – and how much sleep is enough?
In fact, good sleep helps treat anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses such as depression. Only: "The problem with people with such disorders is just that they just can't sleep well and sleep," says a Tübingen behavior biologist. Therefore, it is extremely important to specifically treat people with mental illness from the onset of sleep disorders – through behavioral therapy. Generally, Worster advises sleeping pills. "We know that drugs reduce our deep sleep, have less REM sleep and quickly become accustomed to the means," said Tübingen sleep researchers. If you postpone sleep aid again, you usually sleep worse than before. "Behavior therapy methods are therefore a first-choice approach – but they are rarely thought of," says Worster.
Read Here (Plus): When Men and Women Should Sleep Better Separately
But how do you manage to sleep deeply and live through the important stages of sleep? "The body does everything by itself," says Worster. "We just have to go to bed in a relaxed mood." It is generally important to reduce tension and stress in daily life. It could also help to clear the phone an hour before going to bed and put thoughts on the kitchen table on paper, which still haunt and employ him. "Even breathing meditations can help bring down the body, as well as a warm bath or a sauna session." The more relaxed you are, the deeper you sleep – and the better your sleep. Researchers at the University of California also recommend staying in a regular bed, keeping the temperature in the bedroom cool and getting out of bed between yourself to do something relaxing when you can't sleep, rather than tossing and turning.
In the end, the question remains, what does lack of sleep mean to everyone? How much sleep is enough, how little is enough? "That company is distributed just as much as T-shirt sizes," says Worster. In fact, short sleepers were born, as were people who needed ten hours of sleep to be fit and rested. It is significantly genetically determined. "You should always sleep so much that you can easily get out of bed in the morning and not have to deal with fatigue during the day," says a sleep expert.