The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Mental Health

December 19, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Have you ever gone a day or two without much or any sleep? If you have, you probably noticed you didn’t feel like yourself. You may have felt more irritable, sad, stressed, or empty. If you went for an extended period being sleep deprived, you may have even experienced more severe mental health symptoms like psychosis.

The link between sleep deprivation and mental health problems has been well-documented. Here, we’ll walk you through this complex relationship and give you expert tips on how to get a good night’s rest to protect your mental health.

The link between sleep and health

Sleep is one of the human body’s most essential functions and is critical to our overall health and well-being. We need sleep just like food; it’s vital to survival.

Although you probably can’t resist sleeping for very long – most of us find our bodies eventually will force us into sleep, even if we don’t want to – sleep deprivation can be fatal if prolonged.

Sleep plays a part in so many systems in the body, including[1]:

  • Hormones: Your body makes different hormones at different times in your sleep-wake cycle; some hormones are only released while you sleep.
  • Metabolism: Sleep affects how your body handles fat, and sleep deprivation can lead to decreased insulin response and metabolic syndrome.
  • Immune system: Certain immune cells work harder while you sleep.
  • Cardiovascular system: During non-REM sleep, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, and your blood pressure drops. This gives your heart a break from working so hard and allows it to repair itself.
  • Cognition: Your brain is hard at work sorting information and memories while you sleep.

This is why sleep is so essential to your health – without adequate sleep, all of these systems in your body can’t work like they’re supposed to. Specific processes can only happen while you sleep.

The relationship between sleep and mental health

There are processes in your brain that only work while you sleep.

During sleep, the brain goes through essential processes that contribute to the healthy functioning of cognitive skills, mood regulation, and emotional well-being.

Some of these processes include:

  • Memory consolidation: the brain organizes and stores information learned throughout the day. Without enough sleep, your brain can’t learn, impacting memory, focus, decision-making, and other cognitive functions.
  • Regulate neurotransmitters; restful sleep regulates neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that influence mood, such as serotonin and dopamine.
  • Removal of brain waste: sleep allows our brains to get rid of toxins and other substances, which enables the brain to function optimally.

The effects of sleep deprivation on mental health

The link between sleep deprivation and mental health is bidirectional – in other words, each affects the other.

Sleep problems are a notable symptom of several mental health conditions. For example, insomnia (which is also a mental health condition on its own) and other sleep disturbances are common symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more.

We used to believe this was the only connection between sleep deprivation and mental health. But we now know being sleep-deprived also makes mental health worse. In many cases, sleep deprivation precedes the development of worsening mental health conditions.

Not only can being sleep deprived make existing mental health problems worse, but it’s now understood that sleep deprivation can contribute to the development of mental health problems (like depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation) in otherwise healthy people.

Because of this complex bidirectional relationship, many people get stuck in a vicious, never-ending cycle of sleep deprivation and mental health problems. They feel anxious, so they can’t sleep. But they feel increasingly stressed and anxious because they aren’t getting enough restful sleep. Breaking this cycle and getting enough sleep is essential to maintaining good mental health.

Sleep deprivation is a factor in several specific mental health disorders. Here are some examples.

Sleep deprivation and depression

Sleep disturbance is the most common complaint reported by people with depression[2]. Up to 65% of people who have depression report having difficulty sleeping at night[3], and depressed people with sleep difficulty tend to have more severe symptoms.

The relationship goes both ways; people with insomnia are ten times more likely to develop depression, and researchers say, in many cases, insomnia can come before depression.

To make matters worse, depression is often treated with antidepressant medication, which sometimes has the unintended side effect of making it difficult to sleep.

Experts have several theories about how depression and sleep deprivation are connected. One hypothesis is that sleep deprivation causes inflammation in the cells; inflammation is also commonly associated with depression. Another theory suggests the dysregulation of the same neurotransmitters leads to both depression and sleep deprivation. But we still don’t know how these two things are connected.

Sleep deprivation and anxiety

Sleep deprivation and anxiety are also very much intertwined. It’s easy to see how people with anxiety disorders would have a hard time sleeping; one of the core symptoms of anxiety is having excessive and relentless worries. These worries and ruminating thoughts could easily keep you up at night or even lead to nightmares.

In studies, the opposite has also been found true: when people are deprived of sleep, they report much higher levels of stress and anxiety[4].

Sleep and psychosis

Psychosis refers to a mental health symptom that causes people to lose touch with reality. The most well-known psychotic disorder is schizophrenia, which causes someone to have hallucinations and delusions.

Severe sleep deprivation can cause people to experience psychosis even if they don’t have schizophrenia. You usually need to be awake for an extended period of time (24 to 90 hours) to start having psychosis. Specific symptoms of psychosis you can experience when you’re sleep-deprived include visual distortions, illusions, depersonalization, and delusional thinking[5]. These symptoms tend to go away after you do get some sleep, but in some cases, sleep deprivation could lead to long-term psychotic symptoms.

How do you recognize signs of sleep deprivation? How much sleep is enough?

Sleep experts recommend that healthy adults get between 7 and 9 hours of restful sleep each night. The key word here is restful – if you’re tossing and turning all night, you may still be sleep-deprived even if you’re in bed for 9 hours.

Some signs that you may be sleep-deprived include:

  • Feeling sleepy during the day
  • Dozing off (or feeling like you could doze off) during activities like driving, watching a movie, reading, etc.
  • Feeling groggy upon waking
  • Constant yawning
  • Feeling irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating

The amount of sleep we need varies for each person, so if you’re experiencing these signs of sleep deprivation even after sleeping “enough” hours, then it might be a good idea to try to sleep more or to talk to a sleep specialist to make sure you’re getting good quality sleep.

How to get better sleep and protect your mental health

Getting restful sleep each night is essential to preserve your mental health. This is even more true if you live with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety; not sleeping can worsen symptoms and trap you in a never-ending cycle.

If you’re struggling with sleep, know that you’re not alone. Here are some simple ways to get the rest you need and deserve.

Set up your sleep sanctuary

It’s hard to rest when you aren’t comfortable. Turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary. Experts recommend that your sleeping area be dark, quiet, and cool. Try using blackout curtains, a fan, or earplugs to get this effect. You can also consider decorating your space in a way that feels calming to you. Removing clutter from your bedroom may help you feel more at peace.

Stop working in bed

Preserve your bed for sleep only if you can. When you lie in bed working, watching TV, or doing other non-sleep activities, your body stops associating your bed with sleep. Only go to bed when you’re ready to sleep; do other activities in different spaces if they’re available.

Create a bedtime routine

It’s important to start sending signals to your body that it’s time to wind down. Create a bedtime routine, just like you may have had when you were a child. For example, you might make yourself a warm, non-caffeinated beverage. You could change into comfortable pajamas and play some relaxing music. Repeat these rituals every night before you go to bed.

Use relaxation strategies

Sometimes, anxiety keeps you awake even when you’ve done everything right. If your anxious thoughts keep you up at night, reducing your stress levels and easing your mind is essential. You can use relaxation techniques to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and lower cortisol levels. For example, try a body scan or progressive muscle relaxation.

Get some exercise

Exercising during the day can help you feel tired and sleep better at night. However, if you exercise too close to bedtime, you may still feel pumped at night – so try to plan for morning or afternoon workouts if you can. Exercise has the added benefit of reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety as well.

Be careful with alcohol

Many people drink alcohol before bed to help them get to sleep. However, research shows alcohol can reduce the overall quality of your sleep over time. Alcohol can also make mental health symptoms worse. Try to stay away from alcohol, especially before bedtime.

Seek professional support

Many people who struggle with sleep have tried all of the above things and found they still can’t sleep. If this is true for you, you could benefit from professional mental health support. Holistic mental health treatment can take a look at how sleep deprivation is affecting your mental health and vice versa and help you make a plan to get out of the cycle.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we use a proven Whole Person Care approach to mental health treatment. We understand that improving your mental health requires looking at every area of your well-being. Not only will we help you heal from trauma, depression, and other mental health issues, but we will also make sure you’re taking care of the other parts of yourself by eating nutritious meals, strengthening your relationships, and getting a good night’s rest.

Are you ready to get started on the road to complete well-being? Get in touch with us for more information about admissions.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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