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Sleep deprivation and depression: Can sleep deprivation cause depression?

Feeling sleep deprived?

If you’ve read our articles on sleep deprivation and its effects before, you’ll know how serious the symptoms of lost sleep can be. 

When you don’t get enough rest each night, it’s not just your physical health that suffers, but your mental health too. 

Sometimes, you don’t have to go days without sleep to start feeling the change in your mental performance. Small levels of sleep deprivation can quickly chip away at your happiness. 

An hour lost to Netflix here, another hour spent on study there, and you’re suddenly a more irritable, less enthusiastic person. 

Over the years, the link between mood and sleep has been a common consideration for scientists and healthcare professionals around the world. We already know that people with insomnia have a greater risk of being depressed or anxious than those who sleep normally. 

People with sleep problems are 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety, and 10 times more likely to suffer with depression. 

So, what’s the real connection between sleep deprivation and depression?

Sleep Deprivation And Depression

Sleep deprivation, depression, and anxiety: Depressed or exhausted?

Usually, it’s pretty obvious when you’re sleep deprived. 

Your body feels like it weighs a tone and keeping your eyelids open is more of a challenge than you realised before. You might find it hard to concentrate, and at the same time, your emotions can feel a little overwhelming, with small problems feeling more significant than they used to. 

The symptoms of depression and sleep deprivation are often very similar. That’s why if you’re both sleep-deprived and depressed at the same time, your doctor will often recommend getting your sleep back on track before doing anything else. 

However, there are a few differences between sleep deprivation and depression that are worth noting.

When you’re sleep deprived, you’re exhausted. Your appetite will usually be higher than usual, while your libido and mood starts to drop. On the other hand, when you’re depressed, you’re likely to have trouble falling asleep, a lack of energy, and feelings of hopelessness. 

Because depression can often cause sleep deprivation (via insomnia), and sleep deprivation can cause low mood (via a hyperactive amygdala), the lines between both experiences often blur.

Sleep Deprivation And Depression

Can sleep deprivation cause depression?

For the most part, experts see insomnia as a secondary symptom of other disorders like depression and anxiety. The idea used to be that if you were depressed, your sleep would suffer as a consequence. 

That definitely makes sense, as low mood and the side-effects of depression can often cause insomnia. Additionally, many of the medications used to treat depression have sleep issues as a side effect. 

However, there’s a chance that the reverse relationship could be a consideration too. 

Over the past decade or so, it’s become increasingly clear that disturbed sleep often becomes before an episode of depression. If you have ever suffered with lost sleep before, you’ll know how difficult it can be to keep your mood on track. 

Research indicates that our ability to regulate our emotions is reduced significantly after we have a bad night’s sleep. 

Additionally, insomnia and other sleep disorders has been shown to predict depression in certain cases too. The more sleep deprived you are, the more likely it is that you’ll have a depressive experience. 

So can sleep deprivation cause depression? 

The answer isn’t 100% clear. Although many experts believe that lack of sleep won’t cause depression directly, they do think that sleep loss has an impact on the amygdala. That’s the part of your brain that plays an important role in emotions and anxiety

Studies have found that participants suffering from sleep deprivation for more than 35 hours showed a greater response in the amygdala when presented with emotionally stimulating pictures. 

Additionally, studies have also revealed that sleep deprived people can suffer from weaker links to other parts of the brain responsible for controlling the amygdala. This means that participants were less able to control the way that they responded to their emotions. 

Sleep Deprivation And Depression

Can sleep deprivation cure depression?

It seems pretty likely that sleep deprivation could significantly increase your chances of suffering from depression, anxiety, and other emotional issues. 

However, there’s also another school of thought emerging in this landscape too. In the story of sleep deprivation and depression, scientists are looking into whether one could actually help the other. 

When you consider the fact that depression is often linked to disrupted sleep cycles, and that sleep problems can raise your chances of depression, it’s hard to imagine how reducing your sleep would be a positive thing. 

However, researchers are beginning to see again and again that sleep restriction therapy may be beneficial for both insomnia and depression. 

According to a massive new meta-analysis, published through the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, it could be a good idea to suggest sleep deprivation as an acute treatment for depression. 

The study looked at 2,000 pieces of research on the topic and learned that the overall response to sleep deprivation was a 45% improvement in depression. 

For studies that used a reduction in depression as their way of defining an effective treatment, partial sleep loss created a 54% positive response rate. 

The treatment strategy even seemed to work for different forms of depression too. In bipolar disorder, sleep deprivation worked in 38% of cases. 

Obviously, there needs to be a lot more investigation into this kind of treatment to determine whether sleep deprivation could actually be a positive thing for people with depression. Although the studies seem to suggest that it may be a valuable avenue for some patients. 

The only problem? 

Many doctors and medical experts have no idea how they would apply sleep deprivation as a treatment for emotional issues. Researchers still don’t know why the strategy works. 

One theory could be that it helps to reset the circadian rhythm in the brain. Other people think that sleep deprivation might help to reset the parts of the brain responsible for managing depression. 

Additionally, it’s worth noting that the people treated with sleep deprivation started to feel depressed again after a good night’s sleep. It would be impossible for anyone to live a life without sleep to help them manage their depression in the long-term. 

Sleep Deprivation And Depression

What to do about depression and sleep deprivation

So, what can you do about sleep deprivation and depression?

Treating your depression with cognitive behavioural therapy and meditation could help you to overcome your issues with sleep loss. At the same time, improving your sleep hygiene and looking for ways to reduce your sleep deprivation issues could make you feel more positive too. 

One thing to keep in mind is that usually, first line treatment for depression in the form of antidepressants, might not be helpful for those suffering from sleep deprivation. Albeit some antidepressants do have drowsiness as a helpful adverse effect.

Speaking to your doctor could help you to come up with a strategy to control your sleep deprivation, depression and anxiety. That plan might include things like medications, natural supplements, receiving therapy and even just improving your sleep schedule. 

Your doctor will be able to help you get to the bottom of what’s causing your depression and sleep deprivation, so that you can find a suitable solution to the problem together. 

Don’t forget to check out the other articles here at Siestio.com for more assistance in improving your sleep routine too! 

Siestio. Sleep Matters.

Medical disclaimer
You must not rely on the information provided on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other healthcare professionals. For more information read our full disclaimer here.

Medical Expert

Siestio is an evidence-based resource dedicated to sleep and wellbeing. Whether you’re affected directly or indirectly by sleep issues, we’re here to help. Because we believe sleep matters.

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