Depression And Sleep – How Does Sleep Affect Your Mental Health?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Poor sleep is often associated with depression and other mental disorders. Most people are aware that it’s healthy to get a good night’s sleep. Yet, try as you might, you may have trouble accomplishing that goal. Sometimes, the problem is simply the noisy, busy world around you. Other times, it may be something within you, such as your physical or mental health, that keeps you from sleeping well. Whatever the cause, without the right duration and quality of sleep, your mental health suffers.

Prevalence Of Sleep Disorders And Depression

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Depression and sleep problems often go together. Many researchers have studied the connection between poor sleep and depression. In one study, 21% of patients with sleep apnea met the ICD-10 criteria for major depression. In another study, 3.5% of people with chronic sleep problems had moderate to severe depression. But even more startling, a full half of those with inadequate sleep hygiene, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome suffered from some form of depression.

Researchers still have a long way to go to study every aspect of the connection between poor sleep and depression. However, one thing is clear. There does seem to be a connection. So, it stands to reason that improving your sleep might help you avoid depression or lessen its symptoms. And at the same time, dealing with your depression may improve your sleep.

Sleep Problems – Symptom Or Cause?

Both the ISD-10 and the DSM-5, the two primary diagnostic manuals psychologists use for identifying and assessing mental health disorders, list sleep problems like insomnia and sleeping too much as signs of depression. If your doctor or therapist is determining whether you have depression, they’ll likely ask about and consider the quality and duration of your sleep. In a scholarly article on sleep and depression, David Nutt, M.D., and his associates reported that 75% of depressed people have insomnia symptoms, while 40% of depressed young adults have hypersomnia symptoms.

Sleep might be more than a symptom, though. It may be a factor in the cause of depression. A study featured a series of surveys taken by 9,683 young women. Those who reported problems with their sleep in the initial surveys had a significantly increased risk of developing depression in later surveys. So, which comes first? Sleep problems or depression? The research to date is mixed on this issue, but it appears that sleep problems might be both a risk factor and a result of depression.

How Disrupted Sleep Impacts Mental Health

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If you’re sleeping well, you go through two types of sleep: quiet sleep and rapid eye movement sleep. During the quiet sleep phase, you go through four stages of sleep, beginning with light sleep and progressing to deeper and deeper sleep. When you’re in the deepest phase of sleep, your body repairs itself, and your immune system gets a boost.

During REM sleep, on the other hand, your breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure increase to waking levels. This part of sleep is the time when you dream. Getting enough REM sleep improves your learning and memory, and it contributes to good mental health in many ways.

Now, consider how disrupted sleep can cause problems with your mental health. If you don’t get enough sleep in the quiet phases, your body can’t repair itself. You become more susceptible to infections. Both problems make sleep even harder. Poor sleep in this phase can increase the negative thinking that often leads to depression. You don’t feel well, so it’s hard to be positive. Missing out on REM sleep can also have severe consequences. Your thinking and memory deteriorate, and your emotional health suffers.

Sleep disruptions have a profound impact on the way the neurotransmitters in your brain function. Your stress hormones increase as you become more and more sleep-deprived. Your thinking becomes impaired, and you begin to have trouble regulating your emotions.

Types Of Sleep Disorders That Disrupt Sleep

You may be wondering about these sleep problems that could influence your mental health. Scientists have identified over 70 sleep disorders. The following list describes some of the most common ones.

Insomnia-The insomnia definition includes four components. First, you have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or getting restful sleep. Second, you have these problems even though you have plenty of opportunities to sleep. Third, these problems cause impairment or distress during the daytime. And fourth, you have these problems at least three times a week for at least a month. When you have insomnia, you can become sleep-deprived very quickly.

Sleep Apnea-In sleep apnea, your breathing repeatedly stops and starts through the night. This condition disrupts your sleep as you wake up over and over. Even if you get a full night’s sleep, you feel tired during the day and may have other symptoms, like morning headaches and irritability. Many people with obstructive sleep apnea also suffer from depression.

Movement Disorders-Some of the sleep-related movement disorders includes restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement, sleep bruxism (grinding your teeth), and rhythmic movement disorders. Because these conditions can disrupt your sleep, they could impact your mental health.

Night Terrors – If you often scream, feel extremely fearful, or thrash around in your sleep, you might be having night terrors. People who have night terrors often experience sleepwalking as well. Although most people aren’t affected too strongly by night terrors, they can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness and problems functioning during the day if they become more frequent. Sometimes, there’s an underlying medical condition causing the night terrors. Other times, it may be a result of excessive stress. No matter what the cause, if it disrupts your sleep, it can lead to mental health issues.

Oversleeping And Depression

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Hypersomnia, or excessive daytime sleepiness, means sleeping too much. Even though you might be asleep much longer than usual, you might still feel sleepy during the day if you have hypersomnia. This condition is one of the symptoms of atypical depression. It can disrupt your daytime schedule, cause problems in relationships and at work, and prevent you from dealing with depression and other mental health issues.

What To Do About Problems With Sleep And Depression

Are you experiencing sleep problems and depression? The combination can be challenging to manage without some type of strategy. So, it makes sense that you’re looking for solutions. There are many ways to address both sleep issues and depressive disorders, either separately or together. Here are some of the solutions that might work for you.

Exercise

Does exercise help you sleep? Charlene Garnaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, suggests that exercise does help you fall asleep faster and also improves the quality of your sleep. Aerobic exercise, in particular, is helpful, because it prompts your body to release endorphins that can help keep you awake during the daytime. Then, as the endorphins go back down, it’s easier to settle into sleep. Exercising also raises your internal temperature, and as the temperature goes back down, you may become sleepy. Arnaldo also suggests that regular exercise helps stabilize your mood.

Healthy Eating Patterns

All the foods you eat and the beverages you drink could have an impact on how well you sleep. Eating a healthy diet influences the way your brain works, which can not only help with sleep problems but also decrease symptoms of depression. These suggestions might help you get better sleep:

  • Eat nutrient-rich foods
  • Avoid spicy or fatty foods close to bedtime
  • Eat a substantial breakfast but a small supper
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol
  • Have a light snack before bedtime
  • Limit the amount of refined sugar in your diet
  • Drink enough water to stay well-hydrated

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene consists of the habits you practice to have a better night’s sleep. By improving your sleep hygiene, you may find that you sleep longer, at the right time, and more restfully. Here are some of the habits that contribute to improved sleep:

  • Avoid daytime naps that are longer than 30 minutes
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine too close to your usual bedtime
  • Get enough natural light during the day and sleep in a dark room at night
  • Avoid screen time on electronic devices in the hour before sleep
  • Take a warm bath before going to bed
  • Be consistent about when you sleep and wake
  • Make sure your bedroom is comfortable, relaxing, and quiet
  • Go to bed at a time that will allow you to get at least 7 hours of sleep
  • Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep and sex

OTC Solutions

Many people take over the counter medications and supplements to help them sleep. While these preparations are sometimes helpful, it’s essential to run the idea past your doctor before you try them. Even natural and herbal supplements can have side effects, and taking too much or too little might cause you more problems than they cure. Some sleep aids can leave you feeling groggy during the day, also.

Prescription Medications

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Your doctor may recommend a sleep medication if you’re having sleep problems. These medications can be beneficial for some people. Different prescription drugs affect sleep in various ways. They may help you fall asleep faster but won’t help you stay asleep. Others may have a more prolonged effect but leave you feeling sleepy in the morning. Yet, if your sleep is affecting your mental health, these sleeping aids may be necessary for a time to get you back on track.

Medications for depression may also improve your sleep duration and quality, as well as improve your depression symptoms. If your doctor prescribes medicines for sleep or depression, be sure to discuss with them any side effects you notice as well as how well, when, and how much you’re sleeping.

Psychotherapy For Sleep And Depression

Psychotherapy can ease your depression in many ways. Your therapist can teach you to recognize, assess, and change negative or unhelpful thought patterns. They can support you through challenging times and help you find solutions to everyday and unusual problems in your life. They can teach you techniques for dealing with the symptoms of depression, help you design a better daily schedule, and assist you as you work to overcome depression.

Also, your counselor can help you with your sleep problems in several ways. They can help you identify sleep hygiene issues and offer suggestions for improving your sleep-related habits. And, as your mental health improves, your sleep can improve along with it.

Talking to a counselor may be a turning point in your battle against sleep problems and depression. You can see a therapist in your community for this type of help. Or, you can discuss your sleep and mental health issues with a licensed therapist online through BetterHelp. With online therapy, you can have the same mental health help, and you can have it at a time and place that’s convenient for you. Either way, when you resolve your sleep problems and get past your depression, your life can improve dramatically.


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