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What Does Sleep Have to Do With Mental Health?

Many people seem willing to do almost anything to cope with sleep-deprivation and emotional stress, but when push comes to shove, they are turning to quick fixes in lieu of obvious solutions. Are you among the many who are ignoring fundamental steps to improve quality sleep and mood? It is well-known that sleep problems can be a key sign of depression. What people may not realize is that the reverse is also true: sleep disorders can actually trigger mood disorders and depression.

The US National Mental Health Association and a group called the Better Sleep Council (a non-profit organisation backed by the bed manufacturing industry) are working together to promote May as both Mental Health Month and Better Sleep Month. The following comes from material which they’ve asked us to share. (Note that the sleep survey results reported below describe correlations, not necessarily causal relationships between sleep and mood.)

Also see our separate Tips on Getting a Good Night’s Sleep.

Sleep Survey Results

According to the 2006 Better Sleep Month survey, better sleep did result in better mood among respondents. When asked to rate their sleep quality, quantity, and overall mood over the course of one week, people who obtained seven or more hours per night were more likely to rate their general mood as excellent (57 percent), as opposed to those receiving an average of six hours of sleep or less (45 percent). Only 25 percent of respondents rated the quality and quantity of their sleep as excellent. That means that 75 percent need to take action to improve their sleep.

If experiencing trouble sleeping over a period of time, Americans report that they are most likely to change their sleeping schedule (51 percent) and build in time for more sleep (56 percent) to improve their sleep. However, this may not be a viable first-step solution, according to many experts.

More sleep doesn’t necessarily mean better, especially if underlying factors that contribute to poor sleep, such as an inadequate sleep environment or sleep-depriving behaviours, are not properly addressed. It may just mean that you end up tossing and turning in your bed for a longer time.

Questions and Answers With Sleep Expert Dr. Amy Wolfson

Q: Is it a myth that we can “catch up” on sleep? Does “sleep debt” really exist?

A: We can’t really catch up on sleep as we continue to accumulate a sleep debt over our lifetime. However, just as the effects of sleeping longer for several nights can improve alertness, the negative effects of getting too little sleep accumulate over time. Getting an inadequate amount of sleep each night for a week can make you vulnerable to a number of problems: excessive sleepiness, irritability, reduced motivation, impaired performance, limited ability to think creatively, and so forth.

Q: What happens when your body doesn’t get the amount of sleep it needs? What are the implications?

A: The timing and quantity of sleep and the onset of illness may be associated. New research suggests that if you are coming down with some sort of bug, sleep will probably have a preventive effect. Lack of sleep can impair an individual’s physical health and emotional well-being. Inadequate and irregular sleep/wake schedules influence the body’s defenses by weakening the immune system, straining the organs, and, therefore, making people more susceptible to illness.

Q: Do women need more sleep than men, and if so, why?

A: No, both adult men and women need about 7.5 to 8.5 hours/sleep each night.

Q: Are women more like to be affected emotionally from sleep deprivation than men?

A: Women certainly are more likely to report that they feel depressed when they are unable to obtain an adequate or quality night of sleep. It is unclear; however, if this is a reporting bias or that a woman’s mood is more affected by insufficient sleep. Overall, about 2 times more women report depression than men.

Q: What times in life are most important for a good night’s sleep?

A: A good, sufficient night of sleep is always important. Sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise. It is most important to pay attention to getting a sufficient night of sleep, however, when one is responsible for driving, operating machinery and/or responsible for taking care children.

Q: Is it true that sleep can have an effect on our emotional “performance” during the day? Is it just psychosomatic because you know you didn’t get enough sleep or is there really a neurological impact and explanation?

A: Sleep definitely has an effect on our emotional well-being. It is not merely psychosomatic; sleep results from changes in the balance of major neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, melatonin and others. Many of these neurotransmitter systems are also responsible for multiple brain functions, including those related to mood and other cognitive/emotional behaviors. It is not surprising that significant interactions occur between sleep and depression and/or depressed mood.

Q: If sleep deprivation is impacting your mood one day, can you fix it immediately by just getting a good night’s sleep or are there residual or more long-term effects?

A: One will find that as they begin to obtain a consistent sleep schedule and get an adequate amount of sleep, close to 8 hours per night, they will experience a better daily mood. However, individuals diagnosed with clinical depression may require other interventions in addition to getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Q: Does your sleep surface really make a difference in how well you sleep?

A: Absolutely. It is important to evaluate your sleep surface on a regular basis. If you walk every day or every other day for exercise, you probably check to make sure that your walking shoes are in good shape and are not worn out. Similarly, if you are having difficulty getting a quality night of sleep, it is important to evaluate your bed and sleep environment.

Q: When considering sleep disorders and depression, are sleep problems a result of depression, or is the depression a result of the sleep problems?

A: Sleep problems and depression are associated with each other. It can be difficult to tease the two apart. Individuals who regularly get an insufficient amount of sleep for a variety of reasons may be more susceptible to feeling depressed. On the other hand, individuals who are diagnosed with depression may have coexisting sleeping problems such as insomnia and/or chronic sleepiness. Undoubtedly, if you are depressed and/or concerned about a sleeping problem, it is important that you seek attention from a health care provider who has expertise in both depression and sleep disorders.

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