The Effects of Sleep on Anxiety & Depression

Written by: Dina Updated: 12/12/2019

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The Importance of Good Sleep

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even a good clinical psychologist) to explain the value of good, restorative sleep. The experience of a good night’s sleep is experiential and undeniable. Even though this knowledge is commonplace, in our productivity-based culture, it’s estimated that between fifty and seventy million US adults are not getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. This deficiency results in compromised immune system function, decreased cardiovascular output, and suboptimal brain capacity.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

Sleep requirements supported by good, peer-reviewed studies have grown over the past two decades. While previously estimated to be between 8.5 hours to 9.5 hours for healthy adults, the current statistics show that 8 to 10 hours is optimal. Younger adults, defined as being between 18 and 25 years of age, need slightly less at 7 to 9 hours. Older adults typically require 7 to 8 hours, however, many seniors 65 years and above report getting much less. 

Relationship between Sleep Quality/Quantity and Depression & Anxiety

The complex relationship between sleep quality, quantity, and mood has been explored by researchers as far back as the 1960s. Individuals suffering from insomnia, defined as an inability to fall or stay asleep, statistically have higher incidences of depression and anxiety than those with normal sleep patterns. In addition, insomniacs are seventeen times more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder and ten times as likely to have received a Major Depressive Disorder diagnosis in their lifetime. 

Studies on Sleep

A meta-analysis of clinical research, using a wide-range of methods and population samples, concluded recently that somewhere between 65% to 90% of adults suffering from MDD experience some form of sleep disturbance. One long-range study of approximately 1,000 adults found that participants (between 21 and 30 years of age) who reported a history of difficulty falling asleep were four times as likely to develop major depression within three years. Furthermore, two long-range studies involving young people both concluded that sleep problems developed before their Major Depression Disorder diagnosis, not after. 

Sleep Deprivation and Sleep Disorders

Historically, psychologists thought that insomnia and other sleep ailments were symptoms of an underlying psychiatric disorder. However, modern research demonstrates that sleep problems contribute to, increase the likelihood of, and in some cases even constitute their own class of psychiatric illness. Generally, as the quality and quantity of patients’ sleep decrease, their symptoms increase proportionately.

Insomnia

While more than 70 types of sleep disorders exists, there are essentially five distinct types of insomnia:

  1. Acute insomnia is defined as a brief episode of difficulty sleeping. 
  2. Chronic insomnia is an established, long-term pattern. 
  3. Onset insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep, is often described as “having racing thoughts” that prevent falling asleep. 
  4. Maintenance insomnia sufferers are able to successfully fall asleep, but find it difficult to remain so. 
  5. Comorbid insomnia occurs with another diagnosis, but because symptoms often overlap, statistics are difficult to calculate specifically.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening sleep condition in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during the night. Snoring loudly and feeling extremely fatigued after “a good night’s sleep” are common indicators of this disorder. Left untreated, sleep apnea has a high mortality rate and about 38,000 people die from it annually. It is universally recommended that patients who believe they are suffering from this ailment should seek medical treatment immediately.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a condition characterized by a patient’s uncontrollable urge to move their legs. The disorder frequently occurs during the evening hours or during sleep. Lying down or even sitting tend to increase the uncomfortable sensations that prompt the patient to move their legs. There are extremely effective medications (such as pramipexole and ropinirole) and some simple lifestyle changes that can reduce the intensity of or completely eliminate this disorder.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Most people experience some form of sleep disturbance during their lifetime, but it’s time to talk to your doctor when:

  • You frequently find it difficult to fall or stay asleep
  • You feel tired during the day, despite having slept at least seven hours during the prior night
  • You experience a reduced ability to perform regular, everyday functions
  • You snore loudly or suspect you sometimes stop breathing while asleep

Tips for Getting Better Sleep

The human body has a natural hormone cycle called the circadian rhythm that uses sunlight to regulate alertness. When this cycle becomes disordered, it can become increasingly difficult to reacclimate to a normal sleep schedule. Some helpful tips for a good night’s rest include:

  • Increasing bright light exposure during the day or purchasing a light box
  • Reducing blue light during evening hours — think no smartphones and tablets at least 1 hour before sleep
  • Eliminating or reducing sleep during the day
  • Exercise
  • Mindfullness & meditation practice
  • Getting up and going to sleep at the same time every day

Need Help Sleeping? Try These Sleep Products

If you or a loved-one need help sleeping, there are many natural, holistic alternatives to consider. Melatonin, a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in response to lower levels of sunlight, can be supplemented without a prescription. One study recently concluded that melatonin improves the quality and quantity of daytime sleep. This can be of benefit for night-shift workers who find it difficult to sleep during their off times. This inexpensive and easily available remedy also decreases the total time required to fall asleep, in addition to its other benefits.

In a 2010 study, researchers concluded that sleep masks had the statistically relevant impact on ICU patient’s sleep. By preventing light from entering the pupil and stimulating the optic nerve, sleep masks naturally raise the levels of melatonin in the bloodstream, thereby coaxing the body into naturally falling asleep.

Sleep lotions, which usually contain either lavender, chamomile, or valerian root, have been known anecdotally for hundreds of years to help with restoring a natural sleep cycle. However, scientific research has now demonstrated what generations of human beings have previously known — these plant-based compounds can assist with getting a good night’s rest. However, there are a couple of “fine print” items to consider. As the cited study indicates, more research in this area is needed as the researchers were only able to demonstrate a “subjective improvement” in the quantity and quality of sleep. This means, essentially, the placebo effect may be partially-responsible for the participant’s perceived improvement. It’s also worth noting that this particular study only tested valerian root, and not some of the other herbal remedies available. And remember, always speak with your doctor before beginning, or resuming, a supplement regimen. 

Other popular alternatives to pharmaceutical interventions include weighted blankets and memory foam products. Sometimes, resolving sleep issues can be as simple as increasing one’s level of warmth and comfort. A quick look at the comments around the web make it abundantly clear the effectiveness of memory foam products. The reviews are, simply put, overflowing with kudos and “this changed my life” blurbs. However, in this particular case, even the doctors are in agreement: according to one study, memory foam products increase sleep quality and even reduce back pain. 

After checking out our comprehensive article on circadian rhythm disorder, consider trying these sleep products, all available from Amazon:

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