Understanding the link between sleep and mental illness


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A good night’s sleep can do wonders for your well-being. People who report being well rested exhibit better cognitive functioning (ability to focus, learn new information, and recover knowledge from memory), self-control, lower anxiety, higher pain tolerance and healthier blood pressure levels than people who report disturbed sleep. Sleep disorders also simultaneously contribute to mental illnesses (ranging from generalized anxiety disorder and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) as well as being hallmarks.

However, most studies examining the relationship between sleep and mental illness ask participants to self-report how good or bad their nightly Zs are. Wanting to gain a more definitive look at the link between sleep quality and mental health, a team of researchers led by Michael Wainberg, of Toronto, Canadian Center for Addiction and Mental Health, tracked the sleep activity of 89,205 people. by equipping them with an accelerometer. who measured their movements during the day and evening and correlated this data with participants’ histories of psychiatric hospitalizations for depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, as well as their genetic risks for various mental health issues. Data on psychiatric admissions and genetic risk were extracted from UK Biobank, a database containing hundreds of thousands of genetic and behavioral information about individuals.

The study

Results by Wainberg et al., Published in a recent edition of PLOS MEDICINE, revealed that accelerometer-derived sleep metrics (which included bedtime and waking time, sleep duration, and number of awakenings after falling asleep) significantly predicted the history of inpatients in psychiatry as well as their genetic risks of mental illness. Specifically, Wainberg’s team found that it was not so much total sleep time that predicted participants’ risk of mental illness, but rather the quality how much sleep they got during the time they were in bed: Participants whose accelerometers found they woke up more often after falling asleep and stayed asleep for shorter periods between bedtime and wake-up time were more likely to meet lifelong mental illness criteria and to be genetically predisposed to mental illness.

Why do sleep disorders and mental illness go hand in hand?

There are several reasons why sleep disorders can be linked to poor mental health. When we sleep, we generate new neural connections, a process called neurogenesis– especially in a region of our brain associated with memory, mood and emotions called the hippocampus. Insufficient sleep impairs neurogenesis, and altered neurogenesis in the hippocampus has been shown to contribute to depression as well as schizophrenia and substance abuse.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Insomnia and mental illness may also share a common underlying genetic predisposition: the same sets of genes that increase your risk for anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder may also increase your risk for poor sleep. Mental illness and insomnia can also arise from a person’s history of trauma. It is well known that trauma, especially childhood trauma, predicts a multitude of poor mental (and physical) health outcomes, including insomnia. Trauma disrupts our arousal systems, leaving us more hyper-vigilant and therefore less able to sleep peacefully and soundly (and more likely to have nightmares). Trauma also increases system-wide inflammation, which has been linked to various mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression.

What this means for us

Not everyone who suffers from insomnia is meant to fight mental illness. But chronic sleep disorders can and do lead to impaired mental health, not to mention impaired interpersonal functioning and physical health. Even in people who do not meet criteria for mental illness, poor sleep quality is linked to increased psychological distress, and relentless sleepless nights almost double the risk of depression and dramatically increase the risk of future anxiety disorders. Getting enough rest is essential for a healthy mind and body.

As the researchers note, “sleep problems are both symptoms and modifiable risk factors for many psychiatric disorders.” It is estimated that up to 20 percent of all adults in Western countries struggle with insomnia. Strategies to improve sleep (think: psychopharmacological interventions, cognitive behavioral therapies, non-invasive brain stimulation, and general sleep hygiene interventions, such as reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption, keeping lights dim, and avoiding screens a hour before bed) should be used more consistently to help treat and prevent mental illness. In addition, mental illnesses can be detected more effectively at early stages by regular sleep quality screenings, for example during annual assessments of primary care physicians or even at every visit to an emergency room or center. emergency care.

Photo of SHVETS production via Pexels

Source: Photo of SHVETS production via Pexels

If you suffer from insomnia, talk to your doctor about treatment options or consider downloading the CBTi Coach app (developed by researchers at Stanford University in conjunction with the US Department of Veterans Affairs to help treat symptoms. PTSD, including insomnia) which uses cognitive-behavioral technical evidence to improve sleep quality and duration. And don’t forget to check out this website’s excellent directory of therapists for help with any psychological issues you may be facing that could be contributing to sleepless nights.

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