10/17/2012 08:28 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

How Does Sleep Affect Mental Wellness?

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Imagine yourself in a bubble without alarm clocks and schedules, and being able to let your body determine how much sleep you were getting. Most of us would find ourselves sleeping longer than we currently do, most likely leveling out somewhere around eight hours. That's the amount most people need.

If you find yourself "sleep-binging" on the weekend or your days off, that's a sign that you are probably not getting enough sleep during the week. We often sacrifice sleep because of long workdays that spill over into our "leisure time," watching late-night TV, and sometimes because that is the only time that we have to ourselves after we put the kids to bed.

It's a serious sacrifice.

Several studies have shown that healthy sleep habits are linked to better cognition, alertness, and emotional well-being.

And it's not just about the amount of time, but also about the timing of our sleep schedules, our biological clocks, that we need to be aware of. This is especially important in teenagers, who at the onset of puberty, undergo changes in their circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep. This is linked to the brain's release of melatonin, the chemical that helps us sleep. Teenage brains tell the body to go to sleep at 11 p.m. At the same time, their bodies still require at least nine hours of sleep per night.

No surprise, then, that studies comparing students with earlier and later school start times find that students with later start times get better grades, and are less depressed and irritable. Students also rated themselves as more motivated to do schoolwork and extracurricular activities. This extends well into college, as those college students who sleep longer also tend to have better grades.

Why is this? During sleep, our brains actually continue to process information from the day and form new connections that stabilize and enhance our memories. We can even find new solutions or insights into problems, all while we are "sleeping."

And it is not just the sleep after learning that is so crucial: If you are sleep-deprived and tired, the brain has a much harder time absorbing new information.

Besides, you just aren't "yourself" anymore if you don't get enough sleep. Any parent with a new baby will be able to sympathize with Anne Lamott's humorously gritty description of evil Lady-Macbeth-like thoughts that go through her sleep-deprived mind as she is walking her sobbing baby.

There is a reciprocal relationship between sleep and mental health, and it comes as no surprise that sleep problems are common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While studies have taught us that sleep problems may contribute to the development of some psychiatric disorders, treating a sleep disorder, on the other hand, may help alleviate symptoms of a mental health problem.

So, while we are still far from knowing why we sleep, we know that without a good night's sleep we are sacrificing a lot of our emotional and mental well-being.

For more by Ina E. Djonlagic, M.D., click here.

For more on sleep, click here.