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Sleep and mental health: How they overlap and what you can do

Picture this: you’re sitting in traffic and feel like you’re about to doze off. Later you’re in a work meeting and notice it’s hard to keep your eyes open. Then back at home, after dinner is over, the dishes are cleaned, and the kids are in bed, you’re on the couch enjoying your latest binge and you can’t even seem to finish the episode before your eyes get heavy. You may just want to call it the effects of a busy life with young kids — what with childcare, nighttime routines, work, family plans, and of course waking at night for breastfeeding — but have you stopped for a second to think if there’s something more at play? A lack of sleep, perhaps?

If your first reaction to that is, “Yeah, well do any moms get enough sleep?” we don’t blame you. But before you brush it off as just another side effect of motherhood, humor us for a minute. A severe lack of sleep can lead to a rash of health problems like heart disease and high blood pressure, a decreased ability to fight germs and sickness, stunted healthy growth and development, and even increases mental health struggles. The effects of continued lack of sleep shouldn’t be understated. Losing even one or two hours of sleep per night for several nights in a row can decrease your ability to function as if you’ve gone an entire day or two without sleep.1  

If you’re a new mama and are breastfeeding, this task can make it a whole lot easier to lose those one or two hours of sleep at night for a stretch of time and throw a whole other set of disruptions into your sleep patterns. With newborns eating every 2-4 hours on average, that’s at least once a night you’re getting up to nurse. Using products like washable nursing pads helps to avoid additional wake-ups from the unexpected discomforts of leaking between feedings.

But what if your sleep problems are rooted even deeper than that? Well, you’ll find that you’re not the only one. A 2021 study from Columbia Psychiatry revealed that of over 22,000 individuals studied, 20% of participants were identified to have an insomnia disorder, whether that included having trouble falling asleep, having difficulty staying asleep, or waking up too early without being able to fall back asleep.2

Sleep can have far more severe issues than just leaving you fatigued during the day. In addition to resulting physical ailments, sleep has documented links to several mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. The frustrating part about this connection is it can easily be a cyclical thing that’s hard to overcome. Poor sleep can lead to fatigue, which leads to a difficulty in focusing during the day, which can bring on stress and worry, which can lead to a decline in mental health, and that mental health can start the loop all over again.3

No matter your reason for sleep woes, realize that the connection between sleep and mental health is not just a theory. The University of Maryland School of Medicine performed a sleep study on elementary age school children between 6-12 years old. Not only did they observe more mental health struggles with anxiety, depression, and impulsive behavior in those who did not get at least nine hours of sleep per night, they saw proof of mental struggles. MRI scans revealed smaller brain volume in areas that affect attention, memory, mood control, and impulsiveness in those who got less sleep. It wasn’t even just a snapshot result, either. The study added a follow-up result showing that even two years later, those same brains still showed smaller volume in those originally affected areas, lending some worry to the long-term effects of a lack of sleep.4  

To be clear, mental health doesn’t just refer to diagnosed mental illnesses, but also the general emotional, psychological, and social states of mind. Mental health affects our daily lives, from how we act, think, relate to others, and make daily choices. The Centers for Disease Control did a study of over a quarter-million individuals and found that 13% of participants self-reported inadequate sleep and 14.1% noted frequent mental distress. Participants who reported to have averaged less than six hours of sleep per night were 2.5 times more likely to develop frequent mental distress than their counterparts.5 A separate study which examined the correlation between poor sleep and mental health found that those with insomnia are 10 times more likely to experience clinically significant levels of depression and 17 times more likely to experience anxiety than those without insomnia.6  

So, what can you do if any of this sounds like you? First of all, know that you’re not alone. Sleep deficiencies are more common than you may think. Second, if you’re experiencing mental health conditions that may be intertwining with sleep problems, make sure to see your doctor for the underlying causes and the right answer for your case. But what about other lifestyle choices that you can control?

While research is limited on the direct effects of food on sleep, Columbia Psychiatry does report that low fiber, high saturated fat, and high sugar diets are associated with poorer quality sleep and that sleep problems have also been related to those with diets lacking in calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K.2  

There are also natural sleep aids you can try to help your body prepare for sleep. We’re sure you’ve heard of melatonin, but other natural supplements like magnesium, glycine, ginkgo biloba, and l-theanine can also help induce a relaxing effect and signal to your body that it’s time to sleep. As a bonus, all of these supplements benefit your body in more areas than just sleep, too.7 Just make sure you talk to your natural healthcare practitioner about which one is right for you. And remember that these shouldn’t replace healthy sleeping habits; adding them to your routine is best.

Speaking of healthy sleeping habits, there are several things you can intentionally do that go a long way toward improving sleep quality.

  • Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
  • Set a bedtime routine that helps you wind down and your body recognize it’s time to fall asleep soon. Use relaxation techniques like meditation or breathing exercises to help your body mentally shut down for the night.
  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule, even when you’re out of a normal routine, like on the weekends and when on vacation.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and eating too late in the evening, as these can affect digestion and sleep quality.
  • Create a healthy sleep environment in your bedroom. Avoid bright lights, including the blue lights emitted from digital devices. Keep it dark and cool, and do what you can to avoid excess noise, like wearing earplugs if necessary.

Getting quality sleep — and enough of it! — is important to your memory, learning, creativity, decision-making, and overall daily functioning. Sleep helps prepare your body and mind for the next day. The connection between sleep quality and mental health disorders has been well documented, as have steps you can take to help improve your sleep quality. This way, whether your main worries are work, family, new baby and breastfeeding, or your physical and mental health, you’re ready to tackle this important piece of your health.



  1. National heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How Sleep Affects Your Health.
  2. Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. How Sleep Deprivation Impacts Mental Health.
  3. Sleep Foundation. Mental Health and Sleep.
  4. University of Maryland Medical System. The Connection Between Not Getting Enough Sleep and Mental Health.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Effect of Inadequate Sleep on Frequent Mental Distress.
  6. National Library of Medicine. Improving sleep quality leads to better mental health: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.
  7. 10 Natural Sleep Aids for Better Sleep in 2024.

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