For decades, medical experts and scientists have been trying to discern the link between sleep and psychological disorders. However, if you’re suffering from either insomnia or depression, you likely already know that sleep deprivation and depression go hand in hand. It won’t surprise you to know that one of the leading signs of depression is the inability to sleep. However, the connection between depression and sleep deprivation may be more complex than you thought. First, let’s define the two terms.
Clinical depression is defined by persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, and disinterest in activities once enjoyed. Depression is a serious mental disorder that effects a person’s quality of life, including the way they eat, sleep, feel, and think. It does not include the occasional feelings of sadness or stress that is part of the human experience.
Sleep deprivation is an all encompassing term for when the body fails to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can be caused by either hypersomnia or insomnia. Hypersomnia is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness. It usually is caused by voluntary (although perhaps unintentional) sleep deprivation done for social or economic reasons, like surfing the web or working late. On the other hand, insomnia is defined by trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. It results in the inability to get enough quality sleep to feel rested the next day.
With these definitions in mind, we can take a further look at the link between sleep deprivation and depression.
Does Sleep Deprivation Cause Depression?
For some people, the symptoms of sleep deprivation occur before the symptoms of depression, leading people to believe that sleep deprivation causes depression. Although there is no firm evidence that sleep deprivation can be the sole cause of clinical depression, it is clear that sleepless nights (even one!) are shown to increase a person’s anxiety and depression. For decades, researches have known that stable sleep habits are important for those battling depression. However, more recently, studies like the one done by researchers at the University of Arkansas present findings that “acute sleep deprivation affects negative mood status.” Therefore, over time, prolonged sleep deprivation may play a role in the development of depression. More research conducted by the University of North Texas determined that people with insomnia have a ten-fold risk of developing depression over those who sleep well.
So, can sleep deprivation cause depression? The short answer: yes, it certainly seems so.
Does Depression Cause Sleep Deprivation?
For others, depression seems to come first, with sleep deprivation following soon after. Untreated depression can result in feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness. Thoughts like this may definitely interrupt your sleep. Likewise, anxiety (often associated with depression) may send your mind racing over thoughts about things you have no control over. Anxiety may even lead to a fear of falling asleep or inability to fall asleep, which can make getting adequate sleep even more difficult!
Since normal sleep is a restorative state, you can probably see a cycle that is beginning to emerge: lack of sleep leads to depression and depression leads to lack of sleep.
Can Treating One Treat the Other?
In many cases, the symptoms of depression and sleep deprivation overlap. The treatment administered for depression depends on how severe the mood disorder is. Most likely, some form of psychotherapy will be suggested in concurrence with antidepressant medications. Certainly, treating your depression can lead to better quality sleep.
Many times, insomnia and depression are treated with similar medications. If your doctor knows you are suffering from both depression and sleep deprivation, you will probably be prescribed an SSRI, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. Your doctor may also prescribe a sedating antidepressant or a sleeping pill to help take care of your sleep problems.
Many antidepressants inherently help with sleep. Common SSRI’s like Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa, and Paxil help patients fall asleep and elevate their mood. You can also ask your doctor about tricyclic antidepressants and sedative antidepressants that can help put you to sleep at night.
The Paradox: Sleep Deprivation Treatment for Depression
Strangely, it has also been documented that complete sleep deprivation for a night can be used as a way to treat depression in severely depressed patients. The sleep deprivation depression treatment was discovered in the 1970’s, but it has not been thoroughly or conclusively studied. However, in a 1990 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, a study revealed that up to 60% of depressed people will show 30% improvement after just on full night awake.
Of course, the problems with sleep deprivation for depression treatment are numerous. Foremost, the depression recurs after the patient gives in to any amount of sleep, making it a highly impractical treatment. Sleep deprivation also leads to impaired decision making, reduced working memory, long term high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Today, researchers are experimenting with ways to tinker with the biological clock and use it to the patient’s advantage. The idea is that sleep can be timed to benefit from particular hormones that fluctuate throughout the day. Still, this regimen is difficult to follow, and researchers are working on ways to improve this treatment. For advocates of the treatment, sleep deprivation is cheap and its results are fast. These doctors and researchers believe it is beneficial to offer even one day of hope to the most severely depressed patients.