If you came across Aladdin's magic lamp, what would your 3 wishes be?
Personally, I would have a hard time coming up with just 3 things but I can tell you one wish that’s always going to be on the list – a good night’s sleep under all circumstances.
You’re probably side-eyeing me hard right now. “Really, Sarah? That’s what you would wish for? How about world peace?” (Or maybe you just might be side-eyeing this weird intro, lol).
Perhaps I am being a little facetious.
That being said, I’m just so darn sleep-deprived that I would do anything, anything, for a solid, 8 hour, uninterrupted night of sleep. Which includes dreaming up scenarios of me discovering a thousand-year-old lamp in the middle of the city.
Jokes aside, I’m sure you can relate. It would be an understatement to say that sleep is extremely important.
In this post, I want to talk about the relationship between sleep and depression. Sleep problems are exceedingly common in depressive disorders and with all the changes we've experienced with our own sleep cycles these past few months, what better time to get into it.
Sleep Problems In Depression
Let's start with a quick definition: depression is a mental illness that affects your mood, leading to changes in the way you feel, think and act. Depression causes feelings of deep sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities that you normally would enjoy.
Some additional common symptoms of depression include:
Changes in appetite (increased or decreased hunger levels)
Lack of motivation
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Difficulty thinking or concentrating
There is very strong relationship between sleep problems and depression. The relationship is so significant, that sleep disturbance is one of the fundamental symptoms in a diagnosis of major depression, as listed above.
In fact, people with depression tend to seek help when they realize that their sleep problems are interfering with their daily life. Additionally, if issues with sleep remain after other depressive symptoms have been alleviated, there is a increased risk of a recurrence of a major depressive episode.
Sleep problems can include both too much sleep, known as hypersomnia, and too little sleep, known as insomnia. We’ll go into the symptoms of each of the conditions a little bit later.
Besides depression, sleep problems can lead to a host of other mental and physical health issues, including anxiety, memory problems, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and issues with concentration and attention.
That doesn't really answer the question about how exactly depression causes sleep problems - so let's take a closer look into the processes behind our sleep cycles.
Nerding out on Sleep
The sleep-wake cycle, as the name suggests, is what balances the time we spend awake and the time we sleep. It is regulated by two interactive processes: the circadian C-process and the homeostatic recovery S-process.
The C-process regulates the daily 24-hour patterns of the body and brain, including the release of various hormones, liver function and our sleep-wake cycle.
It accumulates throughout the day, promoting wakefulness (so we don’t fall asleep at our desks while working from home). It is relatively independent of how tired we are or how much sleep we’re getting, and is mainly affected by light levels and temperature. Bright light in the morning synchronizes the clock, while bright light in the evening delays the clock.
Similarly, the body needs to be within an optimal range of temperature in order to keep the C-process in sync. Too much heat or too much cold can mess up this balance. This is especially important when we also take into account that the body’s temperature is lower when you’re asleep than when you’re awake.
The S-Process is just as important – it balances our need for sleep. Like the C-process, the S-process accumulates throughout the day. So while you don’t immediately get tired in the middle of day (with a healthy sleep cycle, that is), the S-process helps ensure that as the day progresses, you start to feel more and more sleepy, peaking just before bedtime. As you get a good night’s sleep, the S-process slowly dissipates, causing you to wake-up, kickstarting the C-process and the cycle restarts.
The S-process is dependent on a variety of factors that help you get a good night’s sleep. Mainly, these factors have to do with the brain’s ability to wind down its arousal systems – or the things that are keeping it awake, including your heart rate, breathing rate, your hunger levels and your emotions.
When it comes to depression, it is hypothesized that this sleep-dependent S-process may play a key role. It seems that there is a deficiency with this process, which causes issues with sleep in people who are depressed.
Sleep latency is prolonged, which means it takes a longer time to fall asleep once you're in bed. Your quality of sleep isn’t that great either because it's easily interrupted by internal or external stimuli.
Because both processes are interdependent and work together to balance the sleep-wake cycle, it makes sense that the C-process would also be affected if there are problems with the S-process.
Now that we have the background, let's talk more about what sleep problems can look like in every day life.
What Do Sleep Problems Look Like?
Sleep problems can vary and are exceedingly common. In fact, almost one-third of Canadians experience some kind of problems with their sleep.
While hypersomnia isn't as common as insomnia, at least 40% of young adults with depression experience this kind of sleep disturbance.
So let's take a second to understand what the symptoms of both insomnia and hypersomnia look like.
Symptoms of Insomnia
You might be experiencing insomnia if you often:
➻ Have difficulty falling asleep
➻ Wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back asleep
➻ Are restless during the night and/or have poor quality sleep
Plus experience at least one of the following symptoms:
➻ Feel tired and sleepy during the day
➻ Feel irritable, moody or anxious due to your lack of sleep
➻ Are unable to concentrate or focus on tasks
Symptoms of Hypersomnia
On the other hand, you may be experiencing hypersomnia if you often:
➻ Are excessively sleepy throughout the day, even though you're sleeping at least seven hours a night
➻ Take daytime naps during the same day
➻ Sleep for more than seven hours, but you don't feel rested or refreshed when you wake up
➻ Have difficulty waking from a long sleep
➻ Feel confused or disoriented when you wake up, which can last last minutes or hours
➻ Have an increase in your total sleep time (up to 14 to 18 hours per day)
➻ Experience significant distress or impairment in your daily functioning, caused by too much sleep (missing important appointments or not wanting to do certain activities because you're too drowsy)
5 Simple Tips To Sleep Better (Tonight!)
Ok, all this information is great and all but where's the good stuff? Ya know, the real tips and tricks?
Well, I may not be a genie, but your wish is my command! (I know ok, the joke's getting old and corny - blame it on my sleep deprivation).
Here are 5 easy ways to get a more restful night's sleep:
1. Get Some Sun
Remember when we talked about how the C-process of the sleep-wake cycle is affected by natural light?
Well, that's why you should try getting more sunlight during the day time in order to balance and calibrate your circadian rhythms.
Take some time to go for a relaxing walk in the morning or afternoon (or whenever there's enough sunlight). If that's not feasible, open up your curtains to let in the natural light. At night, try dimming your lights to signal to your body and brain that it's time to sleep.
2. Watch What You Eat/Drink
Again, going to back to when we talked the different factors that affect the S-process of sleep - hunger was one of them. Make sure that you're not going to bed hungry, but also ensure that you're not eating too close to bedtime.
Finish your dinner a couple of hours before bedtime and don't have too heavy of a meal. This will ensure that your body has enough time to digest everything and that you're not feeling the uncomfortable after-effects of all that pasta & garlic bread (plus a brownie or two).
While hydration is important, if you have trouble going to back to sleep when waking up in the middle of the night, try to avoid drinking a lot of water too close to bedtime so you're not waking up to go to the bathroom.
3. Take Some Time to Unwind
An hour before bed, get your body ready for sleep by establishing a wind-down routine.
Your routine can consist of anything relaxing - reading a book, meditating, taking a bath, or using some relaxing essential oils. Whatever it is, keep it simple, easy to do and actually relaxing.
And no, responding to work emails doesn't count as "relaxing".
After incorporating this routine and making it a habit, it should become progressively easier for your body to relax as you get closer to bedtime.
4. Be Cool
We talked about how during the day, your body temperature is higher than it is at night. Therefore, in order to make it easier for your body to feel tired and get ready for sleep, try keeping your bedroom cool.
This can be a little bit difficult in the hot summer, but try some cooling blankets, keeping the fan on and opening up your windows at night. All of this should help lower the ambient temperature of your bedroom, which in turn, can help lower your body temperature.
5. Seriously, Put Away Your Phone
FInally, the most obvious yet, most challenging tip of them all: get off your phone.
Look, I know it's hard. But blue light exposure, especially close to bedtime, can interfere with your sleep quality and your ability to fall asleep.
Additionally, the stuff we see on our phones, whether it's the news (stressful), social media (fun, but mildly stressful) or Netflix (entertaining, but the after-effects of bingeing are stressful), is often far from relaxing.
So an hour before bed, put down your phone and take the time to consciously unwind without the help of technology.
Wrapping It Up
I know I'm not a genie, but hopefully this post gave you some helpful tips on how to get a better night's sleep, along with a better understanding of the relationship between sleep and depression.
Also, in case you forgot for a split second (is that even possible?), we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. Sleep problems in a time like this are unfortunately more common that we may like to admit.
But here's the thing – a good night's sleep is truly one of the most important tools we have right now in order to maintain our mental health. I know we often take it for granted, but frankly, it's the least we can do for our minds and our bodies in such a precarious and stressful time.
So let me know - what tips will you be trying out tonight in order to get a better night's sleep?
Until next time!