Depression And Sleep—How Can Sleep Affect Your Mental Health?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Poor sleep can be associated with depression and other mental health disorders. This leaves many wondering—where do sleep difficulties begin? Many might find that the reasons behind their lack of sleep are highly individualized. 

Sometimes, for example, the problem can simply be the noisy, busy world around you. Other times, it may be something within you that’s distracting, such as your physical or mental health, that keeps you from sleeping well. 

Understanding the possible connection between sleep, depression, and other conditions may encourage you to take steps toward getting the rest you deserve. Read on to learn more and find tips on how you can embrace healthier patterns for your specific needs.

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Are your sleeping habits affecting your mental health?

Exploring the prevalence of sleep disorders and depression: Where does the link begin?

Depression and sleep problems can often go together—prompting many researchers to study the connection between poor sleep and depression. In one study, 21% of patients living with sleep apnea met the ICD-10 criteria for major depression. In another study, 3.5% of people living with chronic sleep disorders also experienced moderate to severe depression.

Despite these findings, many agree that researchers still have a long way to go to study every aspect of the connection that might exist between poor sleep and depression.

Sleep problems – symptom or cause?

Both the ISD-10 and the DSM-5, generally regarded as the two primary diagnostic manuals psychologists can use for identifying and assessing mental health disorders, list sleep problems like insomnia and oversleeping as possible signs of depression. If your doctor or therapist is trying to determine whether you have depression, they may ask about and consider the quality and duration of your sleep. 

We see this concept outlined in a scholarly article on sleep and depression, where researchers reported that 75% of people living with depression can have insomnia-related symptoms.
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How can disrupted sleep affect mental health?

If you’re sleeping objectively well, you might find that go through two types of sleep: quiet sleep and rapid eye movement sleep. During the quiet sleep phase, you can go through four stages of sleep, generally beginning with light sleep and progressing to deeper and deeper sleep. When you’re in the deepest phase of sleep, your body can then repair itself, and your immune system might even get a boost.

During REM sleep, on the other hand, your breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure might increase to waking levels. This part of sleep is generally regarded as the time when you dream. Getting enough REM sleep can improve your learning and memory and can contribute to positive mental health in many unique ways.

Let’s take these concepts into the realm of one’s mental health. For example, If you don’t get enough sleep in the quiet phases, it can be hypothesized that your body may not be able to repair itself, and you might become more susceptible to infections. Each of these problems can make getting healthy rest even more difficult. 

Additionally, poor sleep in this phase can increase negative thinking, which can lead to depression. Missing out on REM sleep can also have severe consequences, such as deteriorating thinking and memory, and your emotional health may be impacted as well. 

Finally, sleep disruptions can have a profound impact on the way the neurotransmitters in your brain function. Your stress hormones may increase as you become more and more sleep-deprived, and you may also begin to have trouble controlling your emotions.

Exploring the types of recognized sleep disorders

You may be wondering about the sleep problems that could influence your mental health. While scientists have identified over 70 sleep disorders, the following list describes some of the most common ones that you may encounter:

InsomniaInsomnia is generally defined as prolonged trouble sleeping, a lack of restful sleep, or sleep effects that can carry over into your daily life. Your practitioner can help you create a tailored treatment plan that can help if you believe you may be living with the effects of insomnia. 

Sleep Apnea—When you live with sleep apnea, you may find that your breathing might repeatedly stop throughout the night. This can disrupt your ability to get quality rest as you wake up over and over. Even if you get a full night’s sleep, you may feel tired during the day and have other symptoms like morning headaches and irritability. A physician can support you in connecting with a specialist who can help you control your breathing, possibly improving your quality of sleep. 

Movement Disorders—Some sleep-based movement disorders can include restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement, sleep bruxism (grinding your teeth), and rhythmic movement disorders. Since these conditions can disrupt your sleep, they could impact your mental health. Your physician can help you diagnose and treat these concerns.

Night Terrors—If you often scream, feel extremely fearful, or thrash around in your sleep, you might be having night terrors. People who live with recurring night terrors can experience concurrent sleepwalking as well. 

Although most people may not be affected strongly by night terrors, they can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness and difficulties functioning during the day if they become more frequent. If you are experiencing night terrors or persistent bad dreams, you may consider speaking with your physician to determine what treatment options are available.

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Are your sleeping habits affecting your mental health?

What to do about problems with sleep and depression

There can be 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

Charlene Garnaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, suggests that exercise can help you fall asleep faster and can also improve the quality of your sleep. 

Aerobic exercise, in particular, can be helpful, as it can prompt your body to release endorphins that can help keep you awake during the daytime. Then, as the endorphins go back down, it can become easier to settle into sleep.

Healthy eating patterns

Eating a healthy diet can influence how your brain works, which can help with sleep problems and can also decrease symptoms of depression. 

Not sure where to start? Here are a few dietary suggestions to try that 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

Before making any changes, it’s generally best to speak with your physician. They can help you create a tailored dietary plan to address your needs. 

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene generally consists of the healthy habits you practice in order to get a good night’s sleep. By improving your sleep hygiene, you may find that you sleep longer, at the right time, and are more restful.

  • Here are some of the habits that can contribute to improved sleep per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): 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 allows you to get at least 7 hours of sleep
  • Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep and sex

Over-the-counter solutions

Many people may take over-the-counter medications and supplements to help them sleep. While these preparations are sometimes helpful, consulting with your doctor before you try them is generally best to safeguard your physical and mental health. 

Even natural and herbal supplements can have side effects—and taking too many or too few of them might cause more problems than they cure. Your physician can work with you to limit these risks while increasing your possible scope of benefit.

How can online counseling support those experiencing sleep difficulties?

Talking to a counselor can be a helpful turning point for many in the battle against sleep problems and depression. You can see a therapist in your community for this type of help or discuss your concerns with a licensed therapist online through BetterHelp

With online therapy, you can get care at a time and place that’s convenient for you. Many appreciate this opportunity and flexibility, as the concept of leaving home when one’s sleep-deprived can feel overwhelming.

Online counseling: Is it effective?

Online therapy can be useful for addressing a number of mental health concerns. For example: One study published in Sleep assessed the effectiveness of an internet-based intervention for insomnia and depression in patients who were living with both diagnoses. 

Researchers found that guided online cognitive behavioral therapy successfully reduced symptoms of depression and insomnia. Additionally, they found details that suggested that the insomnia treatment had more pronounced positive results than that of depression—prompting many to note the importance of treating each condition separately for a more comprehensive resolution. 

Takeaway

The amount of sleep you get each night can affect your overall well-being. While insomnia can lead to conditions like depression, it can also be a symptom that results from depression or other physical or mental health disorders. Living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent these issues from arising in many. 

Discussing your symptoms with a professional can be a productive step toward changing your habits and routine to support more happiness and health. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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