The Importance of Sleep for Brain and Mental Health

by | Oct 27, 2023 | Lifestyle, Science

Medical Review by Chris Palmer, MD

Young person experiencing insomnia on the bed

After a long and stressful day, it’s not uncommon in our hyper-stimulated society to forgo a long, restful sleep for scrolling through seemingly-rewarding social media or binge-watching our favorite TV shows. Although not nearly as appealing, sleep is exactly what we need to recharge and improve our mental health.

While we may be aware of the importance of sleep for our well-being, the social and economic demands of modern life make it difficult to realize sleep is our best friend. However, the consequences of sleep deprivation are significant and may even be a causal factor for many metabolic and mental disorders.1, 2 Therefore, prioritizing this activity is necessary for optimal mental and metabolic health.


What happens when we sleep?


Sleep is fundamental to human health and is a process that evolution carefully selected to help humans thrive.

After a busy and stressful day, the mind and body ideally wind down to conduct necessary detoxification and maintenance protocols which are inactive while we are awake. At night, the brain engages in its most fascinating work, processing the demands of the day, integrating knowledge and learning, and repairing dysfunctional cells and mitochondria (the directors and producers of energy in the cell).

These processes are integral to our ability to recover quickly from stress and utilize it as an adaptogen instead of a debilitating experience. Research shows that sleep plays a vital role in balancing our emotions, supercharging the immune system, regulating appetite, and improving our metabolism, all contributing to a healthy mind and body.3, 4


What happens when we don’t sleep?


Over 70 million people suffer from chronic sleep disorders in the US. Sleep deprivation is one of the most common clinical problems among children.5

As many as 30% of people get under 6 hours of sleep per night. This can have serious repercussions, including a shortened life span and increased risk for psychological disturbances.6

Studies show just a few days of sleep restriction (less than 7 hours) equates to severe acute sleep deprivation, resulting in reduced working memory, mental instability, and attention issues.7

There also is a direct association between a lack of sleep and mental disorders. Research has shown that the circadian rhythm, disrupted at the genetic level, is altered in patients with mental disorders and acts as both a presenting symptom and an indicator of deeper neurobiological dysfunction.8 Restricted sleep accounts for reduced neuronal activity in four brain regions, including the hypothalamus, the body’s center for metabolism and stress control.9

Consistent lack of sleep increases our risk for obesity, cancer, diabetes, neurocognitive disorders, and metabolic disorders of all kinds. However, improving sleep is shown to improve psychological disorders. One study even showed a 60% improvement in paranoia after treating insomnia with mindfulness meditation.10


How can we get optimal sleep?


These three simple techniques may help you achieve restful sleep, maintain sleep throughout the night, and wake up feeling refreshed. 

  • Establish a Consistent Routine.
    Maintain a regular sleep and wake schedule, even during the weekends. It’s crucial for optimizing daily sleep patterns and energy levels. Research shows one of the most powerful impacts on improving your sleep quality and mood is to get early and frequent sun exposure and watch the sunset, which activates and deactivates our circadian rhythm.11The circadian rhythm is our internal clock that helps maximize metabolic efficiency by reducing “thinking” which is required when the body reacts to an unknown stressor. Think of it like training your body to be energized and to wind down at the correct times.
  • Create a sleep-friendly environment.
    Aim for sensory deprivation when considering building the ideal sleep environment. For instance, it should resemble a cold dark cave with no lights or sounds and no electrical stimulation or technology bombarding you with EMFs. Leave work, stress, and worries for another time and in another room.
  • Reduce stress accumulation.
    For individuals prone to high stress, it is essential to block out time to take short mental breaks scattered throughout the day. If the mind is always on, turning it off will be challenging when we want to sleep. Tools such as taking a midday nap,12 mindfulness meditation,13 slow-paced breathing,14 and yoga nidra or NSDR or non-sleep deep rest,15 are all incredibly effective methods for reducing stress, improving vagal tone, increasing productivity, and improving sleep quality later that night.

Sleep can be challenging to prioritize in today’s modern lifestyle. However, when you prioritize sleep, you’ll discover that each day feels more fulfilling, productive, and extraordinary compared to living in an unconscious haze, profoundly impacted by each emotion that arises.

In the long run, prioritizing sleep will lead to an extensive string of high-quality, highly productive days building the foundation for you to inhabit your best self.

The best advice is to give these techniques a try.

All the research in the world can encourage you to prioritize sleep, but it doesn’t make a difference until you implement it yourself. Start by incorporating these habits for just one day and see what happens. Then continue for a week. You may find an entirely different existence full of possibilities on the other side.


More resources:

Brain Energy – Chris Palmer, MD

Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker, PhD

Huberman Lab: Matthew Walker

Peter Attia: Matthew Walker

Joe Rogan: Matthew Walker

Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra For Insomnia and Deep Rest – 1.5 Hours


Meditation: HeartMath Meditation Video



  1. Waters F, Chiu V, Atkinson A, Blom JD. Severe Sleep Deprivation Causes Hallucinations and a Gradual Progression Toward Psychosis With Increasing Time Awake. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:303. Published 2018 Jul 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00303
  2. Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep. Penguin Books, 2018.
  3. Vandekerckhove M, Wang YL. Emotion, emotion regulation and sleep: An intimate relationship. AIMS Neurosci. 2017;5(1):1-17. Published 2017 Dec 1. doi:10.3934/Neuroscience.2018.1.1
  4. Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012;463(1):121-137. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
  5. Jaiswal SJ, Owens RL, Malhotra A. Raising awareness about sleep disorders. Lung India. 2017;34(3):262-268. doi:10.4103/0970-2113.205331
  6. Chattu VK, Sakhamuri SM, Kumar R, Spence DW, BaHammam AS, Pandi-Perumal SR. Insufficient Sleep Syndrome: Is it time to classify it as a major noncommunicable disease?. Sleep Sci. 2018;11(2):56-64. doi:10.5935/1984-0063.20180013
  7. Banks S, Dinges DF. Behavioral and physiological consequences of sleep restriction. J Clin Sleep Med. 2007;3(5):519-528.
  8. Schuch JB, Genro JP, Bastos CR, Ghisleni G, Tovo-Rodrigues L. The role of CLOCK gene in psychiatric disorders: Evidence from human and animal research. Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2018;177(2):181-198. doi:10.1002/ajmg.b.32599
  9. Andreazza AC, Andersen ML, Alvarenga TA, et al. Impairment of the mitochondrial electron transport chain due to sleep deprivation in mice. J Psychiatr Res. 2010;44(12):775-780. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.01.015
  10. Fang HF, Miao NF, Chen CD, Sithole T, Chung MH. Risk of Cancer in Patients with Insomnia, Parasomnia, and Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Nationwide Nested Case-Control Study. J Cancer. 2015;6(11):1140-1147. Published 2015 Sep 15. doi:10.7150/jca.12490
  11. Figueiro MG, Steverson B, Heerwagen J, et al. The impact of daytime light exposures on sleep and mood in office workers. Sleep Health. 2017;3(3):204-215. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2017.03.005
  12. Black DS, O’Reilly GA, Olmstead R, Breen EC, Irwin MR. Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):494-501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081
  13. Laborde S, Hosang T, Mosley E, Dosseville F. Influence of a 30-Day Slow-Paced Breathing Intervention Compared to Social Media Use on Subjective Sleep Quality and Cardiac Vagal Activity. J Clin Med. 2019;8(2):193. Published 2019 Feb 6. doi:10.3390/jcm8020193
  14. Rajagopalan A, Krishna A, Mukkadan JK. Effect of Om chanting and Yoga Nidra on depression anxiety stress, sleep quality and autonomic functions of hypertensive subjects – a randomized controlled trial. J Basic Clin Physiol Pharmacol. 2022;34(1):69-75. Published 2022 Jun 13. doi:10.1515/jbcpp-2022-0122

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