The link between sleep and mental health has been acknowledged for quite some time. However, recent research is shedding more light on this link and indicating sleep deprivation could contribute to depression and anxiety.
If this is the case, then diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea could also help alleviate these mental health issues.
How Poor Sleep Can Affect Our Mental Health
It is estimated between 65% to 90% of adults who experience major depression also suffer from problems with sleeping. Around one in two adults who have generalised anxiety disorder will also experience issues with their sleep. This means that 80% of people receiving treatment for depression will have significant sleeping difficulties.
Therefore, the statistics strongly point to the connection between problems sleeping and psychiatric conditions. How this link works is still not wholly understood, but there is potential that continued sleep deprivation increases the risk of emotional vulnerability.
Stages of Sleep
When we sleep, we experience different cycles of sleeping patterns, but there are technically two categories: Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). Together, these two types of sleep make up a single cycle where your brain progresses sequentially through each stage of sleep: wake, light sleep, deep sleep, REM, and repeat.
The first two stages involve relatively light sleep, building to a deeper state of rest and then REM. In the third stage, the body repairs muscle and tissue damage from the day as well as boosting the immune system.
About 90 minutes after falling asleep, you enter the Rapid Eye Movement stage of sleep when you are most likely to dream. The brain is more active now, and studies indicate this phase of sleep plays a crucial role in our learning and memory function, helping to consolidate information from the previous day.
It is also believed this stage may help with emotional health, and deprivation of this stage of sleep could increase the risk of mental health problems.
Mental Health Risks of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea
Sleep apnoea is a disorder which leads to sleep deprivation. The most common form of this disorder is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), where the narrowing of the upper airways while sleeping results in breathing difficulties.
The brain prompts the body to wake, sometimes gasping for air, and depending on the severity of the disorder; this can happen many times every night. The main symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea are fatigue, heavy snoring, irritability and poor concentration.
It is the continued interruption to sleeping as a result of these frequent apnoea’s which can impact on a person’s mood and emotional vulnerability. Therefore, when considering the effects of a lack of sleep on psychiatric disorders, the potential impact of sleep apnoea needs to be taken into consideration alongside other sleep disorders such as insomnia.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation resulting from disorders like sleep apnoea and insomnia is strongly linked with depression. Research shows how problems sleeping could increase the risk of the negative emotions associated with being depressed. While most people who are depressed also report experiencing insomnia, around 20% also suffer from OSA. Indeed, studies involving younger age groups have shown their sleeping problems arose before their depressive state.
More research is required to understand the cause of this link, but current research has given plenty of evidence of how problems sleeping increase the risk of becoming depressed.
A study as far back as 1989 showed participants with a history of insomnia were four times more at risk of being depressed than those without a history of the sleeping disorder. Plus, sufferers of a sleep disorder are also less likely to respond to treatment for depression.
Anxiety is also a common condition experienced alongside disorders like sleep apnoea and insomnia. Stress may be caused by sleep deprivation when the body cannot fully recover and repair itself from a day’s activity. If someone has a disorder like insomnia, the problems they are having with their sleep will most likely worsen any anxious feelings they are experiencing.
The Importance of Diagnosis and Treatment
If sleep disorders are increasingly seen as a potential risk factor for psychiatric disorders — and not just a symptom — then a diagnosis of these disorders is crucial. Once a sleeping disorder like OSA has been diagnosed, it can be treated, which in turn could help alleviate symptoms of psychiatric conditions which are being experienced at the same time. Unfortunately, in the case of OSA, the vast majority of people are not aware they have this sleep disorder.
The interruptions to sleep caused by OSA can be plentiful, but also very brief. Enough to harm, but not necessarily noticed by the sufferer.
It is often the sufferer’s partner who is disturbed by the excessive snoring and observes the paused in breathing. Testing and diagnosis will show the degree of severity of a person’s OSA, allowing for the appropriate treatment plan to be recommended. For moderate to severe OSA, the predominant treatment is continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP), which prevents the upper airways from narrowing by delivering a stream of pressurised air through a mask worn while asleep.
By persevering with their treatment plans, OSA sufferers can see an improvement in their sleep, which in turn could help with their mental state. For most sleep disorders, including OSA, a doctor will most likely recommend other changes too.
Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Sleep
To receive better sleep, a doctor will advise you to quit smoking as nicotine is a stimulant. They will also require you to not drink alcohol in the hours before sleeping.
Regular exercise will also be recommended. Although the exact mechanisms are unknown, there are many possible reasons for how exercise may reduce insomnia severity. One way may be by the body-heating effects of exercise, primarily when performed in the afternoon or later. Exercise triggers an increase in body temperature, and the post-exercise drop in temperature may promote falling asleep. Exercise may also reduce insomnia by decreasing arousal, anxiety and depressive symptoms.
You should also ensure your bedroom environment is optimised for sleep. This means ensuring your room is dark enough, removing the television or computer screens, and developing a night-time routine. Some people may find meditation or cognitive behavioural therapy useful too.
What is essential is ensuring consistent good nights of restorative sleep. If sleep deprivation from disorders like OSA contributes to and worsen psychiatric disorders, then finding ways to improve sleeping patterns could help our mental state.
Do You Have Sleep Problems?
Do you snore? Wake up gasping for air? Have daytime fatigue? These are symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, a medical condition that disturbs your sleep throughout the night. The good news is, this condition is very treatable. But first you must have a sleep study to help determine if you suffer from this condition.
An in-home sleep study is a great first step to determine if you might have OSA. Here’s a link to order the Intus In-Home Sleep Test: https://www.sleeptest.co.uk/product/in-home-sleep-test/