Sleep deprivation has many negative short-term effects. It often makes us irritable and less productive the next day. It undermines concentration and slows our reaction time. We usually feel it when we didn't get enough sleep and need to catch up the following night. But chronic sleep deprivation has long-term effects that could be even more significant. Routinely failing to get adequate sleep, whether due to a condition like insomnia or just life circumstances, has a cumulative impact on brain functioning and elevates risks for mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
Sleep Deprivation: Cause or Effect of Mental Health Problems?
The medical community has long wrestled with the chicken-or-the-egg relationship between sleep loss and mental health. After all, there's a vicious cycle at work. When we're anxious, for instance, it's harder to get quality sleep, which then only increases our level of anxiety. And the overlap between poor sleep habits and psychological distress is so prevalent, it can be difficult to unpack which leads to which.
Chronic sleep problems are said to affect 50% to 80% of psychiatric patients, compared with just 10% to 18% of adults in the general U.S. population. The relationship between insomnia and mental illness is frequently described as "bidirectional." Sleep issues and mental health problems also exacerbate each other, creating situations where it's increasingly difficult to treat both.
Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health Risks
While causation is often tricky to decipher with mental health problems, a growing body of research indicates that sleep deprivation is a strong predictor of mood disorders. In one study, people with chronic insomnia were five times more likely to develop depression and 20 times more likely to develop a panic disorder. Experts have found that in sleep-deprived patients, the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotion, becomes "rewired" in a way that reduces our rational response to external events. These individuals have big emotional swings, going from upset to giddy in moments. Sleep deprivation can even create symptoms similar to those of schizophrenia.
The strongest link, however, is between insomnia and depression. In a number of studies, insomnia represented a "substantial risk" for the development of depressive disorders. Encouragingly, investigators have discovered that individuals with depression who improve their sleep experience a faster response from antidepressants. Experts have found that cognitive behavior therapy designed to treat insomnia has the effect of reducing depression symptoms.
How to Fight Sleep Deprivation
For severe cases of lasting and intractable insomnia, individuals should consult with a physician. But for many people, countering sleep deprivation is simply a matter of committing to improved sleep hygiene. Taking sleep seriously and making a few adjustments to your nightly routine is often enough to get back on track. And returning to adequate sleep is a preventive tool against depression and other mental health issues. Proper sleep hygiene has many components, but among the most important steps you can take:
Sleep deprivation doesn't just make you grumpy. Over time, it can lead to mental health issues and other medical problems. Addressing chronic sleeplessness before it starts to affect your daily life is a major piece of good preventive self-care.