The Connection Between Poor Sleep and Mental Health Issues Like Depression

Written by Tony HicksFact checked by Dana K. Cassell

  • Researchers say poor sleep quality and mental health issues are linked, with each one potentially causing the other.
  • Experts say the effects of poor sleep on mental health have historically been underrated.
  • They say this latest research emphasizes the need to form good sleep habits, including going to bed and waking up at approximately the same time every day.

People living with mental health conditions have a higher chance of not sleeping well, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

Researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) say people with diagnosed mental health conditions have worse sleep quality, including waking up more often and for longer periods of time than the general population.

The study was based on data from 89,205 participants in the United Kingdom who wore accelerometers on their wrists that tracked body movement 24 hours a day for a week.

It’s the biggest study of its kind ever conducted, according to PLOS Medicine.

Researchers said measuring the quality of sleep was just as important to their work as recording the total amount of sleep.

However, like the proverbial chicken-and-egg question, it wasn’t quite clear which causes which.

“The relationship between sleep and mental health is bidirectional,” Michael Wainberg, PhD, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Krembil Centre for Neuroinformatics, told PLOS Medicine.

“Poor sleep contributes to poor mental health and poor mental health contributes to poor sleep. Sleep pattern differences were a feature of all mental illnesses we studied, regardless of diagnosis,” he said.

The connection between sleep, mental health
Dr. James Greenblatt, the chief medical officer at the Walden Behavioral Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, told Healthline that sleep disorders are “highly correlated” with mental health conditions.

“The vast majority of psychiatric diagnoses result in insomnia and disordered sleep,” Greenblatt said. “Sleep disturbances are seen across all psychiatric disorders, although they are also found in situations of high stress without mental illness. As such, it has been becoming increasingly clear that the connection can run in both directions.”

Greenblatt said the significance of sleep can be a life-or-death matter.

“The latest research is clearly establishing the relationship between mental health and sleep, which is making clinicians increasingly aware of the importance of the connection between the two,” he said.

“The most extreme example of sleep disorders and psychiatric illness is the relationship between poor sleep and suicide. The recent American Psychiatric Association textbook on suicide prevention even added a new chapter with multiple references on the relationship between suicide risk and insomnia,” Greenblatt said.

Dr. Anandhi Narasimhan, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and writer, told Healthline that sleep has historically been underrated when it comes to humans’ well-being.

“One of the biggest life cycle changes where sleep is underrated is the experience of being a new parent,” Narasimhan said.

“Even with support, new parents are often sleep deprived, have altered sleep routines, and that contributes to mental health symptoms,” she said. “In certain areas, such as in medicine, there have been new rules to limit the hours of physician trainees with respect to call schedules so that sleep is factored in as important.”

Study researchers said up to 80 percent of people with mental health conditions can have sleep problems.

“We know that sleep disturbances cause a great burden to society, including an economic one,” Dr. Michael Mak, a CAMH sleep disorder specialist, told PLOS Medicine. “And we know that treatments that improve sleep quality, whether it is therapy or some types of medication, can improve mental health outcomes.”

Narasimhan said good sleep hygiene is important.

“This includes having a consistent routine, going to bed at the same time every night, and rising at the same time,” she said. “Turning off digital devices well before bedtime is also useful in promoting sleep and helping with winding down.”

Greenblatt said dealing with biological factors such as nutritional deficiencies and inflammation are also a big part of getting good sleep.

“Nutrients like zinc and magnesium are critical for making melatonin, the hormone secreted to support sleep at night,” he explained.

“Inflammation is our biological response to stress, infection, and other environmental challenges. Research has shown that insomnia also contributes to increased inflammation. This combination (of) inflammation and insomnia then acts in a combined fashion, contributing to or exacerbating psychiatric illness,” he said.

Greenblatt suggested using supplements such as lavender or valerian, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), magnesium, and melatonin.

“Resolving sleep disturbances is one of the most important factors for health and wellness, and one of the most significant factors in the treatment of anxiety and depression,” Greenblatt said.

Article originally published on Healthline.

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