Have you ever considered that your relationships may be having a significant impact on the quality of your sleep? Almost every aspect of our lives is affected by our interactions with other humans around us. The positive correlation between rewarding, beneficial connections with people we care about – as well as those we inevitably meet in the workplace and in daily life – has been repeatedly demonstrated in numerous studies to affect both our wellness and our sleep.
Why is meaningful connection so important for sleep?
Sharing intimate, strong relationships with friends, family members and lovers is crucial for our physical and mental health, as well as our ability to sleep well in particular. A sense of deep connection with others contributes to our emotional security, and encourages us to relax. This state of ease releases the feel-good hormone serotonin, which is converted to the sleep hormone melatonin in the evening.
The bonding hormone oxytocin also helps to improve sleep. We produce oxytocin when we connect with others, and in particular through skin-to-skin touch. Research has repeatedly shown that oxytocin reduces the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone, which in turn helps promote sleep. So the more we bond with others, and the more affectionate we are, the better it is for our slumber.
Interacting with members of a community in which we feel ‘at home’ or ‘one of the tribe’ stimulates parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation. This is the branch of the autonomic nervous system which is switched on when we feel safe and relaxed. So people we feel relaxed to be with, encourage our nervous system to shift into ‘safe mode’.
Our PNS governs our ability to sleep well. The stronger our PNS, the more easily and deeply we sleep. Conversely, in a confrontational situation with others, when we’re in fight-or-flight mode, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system (SNS) is running the show. It is very difficult to sleep if we are in SNS mode.
When we connect with others, our physiology changes in a way that is conducive to sleep health. The (often unconscious) feeling of safety causes our heart rate to slow and our heart rate variability – which is the change in time interval between one heartbeat and the next – to improve. Even more than simply a person’s average heart rate, it is the complexities of heart rate variability that can provide detailed clues about a person’s state of health and the way they respond to stress.
This is why close, meaningful connections with people we care about are so important for us to feel safe, connected and relaxed. The bonds we share with others are among the most crucial factors that allow us to get quality deep sleep.