Sleep and Depression: Understanding the Link
Experiencing poor sleep hygiene and depression can leave you feeling like you’re caught a neverending cycle. Feelings of persistent hopelessness, sadness, and a loss of interest in activities, can be difficult to manage for the best of us.
Both insomnia (inability to fall asleep) and hypersomnia (oversleeping) are common symptoms of depression. In fact, doctors will usually discuss sleep patterns as a part of their diagnosis of the disorder. But although experiencing depression can be tiresome — that doesn’t make it impossible to treat. The first step is to understand the intrinsic link between poor sleep and depression in order to discover the best way to improve your sleep hygiene and emotional wellbeing.
What are some symptoms of depression?
The symptoms and severity of depression vary from person to person, but the most common include:i
Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or despair
Frequent or occasional thoughts of death or suicide
Weight gain or loss
Loss of interest in activities you formerly enjoyed
Excessive daytime sleepiness
What’s the link between depression and sleep?
While illness diagnosis, stress, family history, trauma and loss are all risk factors for depression, it’s also been linked to poor sleep hygiene. One sleep study found that patients with depression experienced longer sleep latency, spend less time in slow-wave sleep, and suffer from frequent night-time arousals and awakenings.ii
The effects on REM sleep — the stage responsible for dreams and storing memories — are particularly fascinating. Depression causes brain activity patterns similar to those exhibited in REM sleep abnormalities. As a result, depressed individuals often have their first REM session earlier in the night than non-depressed individuals.iii In extreme cases, the sequence of sleep is disrupted entirely, with the REM sleep occurring before the first deep sleep period, instead of after. Since the first deep sleep phase is vital for the body’s maintenance and human growth hormone (HGH) — an essential chemical that allows your body to grow and heal — this irregular pattern can have far-reaching implications.ix
Insomnia: Can depression cause sleeplessness?
Depression is often a comorbidity of insomnia — that is, experiencing difficulties falling or staying asleep. It’s easy to think why this might be the case: not only is insomnia frustrating in its own right, but it can also leave you ruminating over unhappy thoughts in bed. Trying to continue with your normal routine after a night of sleeplessness is enough to have you feeling exhausted and low.
More specifically, scientists have also discovered neurochemical that links the two. A neuropeptide, corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF), has been found in high levels in both insomniacs and people with depression.v If you experience insomnia alongside depression, it’s worth trying some natural treatments to help manage your symptoms.
Hypersomnia: Is excessive sleep a sign of depression?
As well as getting too little sleep, depression can also have the opposite effect, leading to hypersomnia — or oversleeping. When you’re feeling low, mustering up the motivation and energy to get out of the house — let alone leave bed — can be hard. So for some, sleeping is a means of escapism.
This, however, can lead to another continuous cycle as the very act of lying in a dark room can disrupt your circadian rhythm — also known as your internal body clock. Light and darkness are two important signals for your body’s circadian rhythm. Daylight cues activity and the release of energising serotonin, while darkness signals rest and the secretion of your sleep hormone, melatonin. Oversleeping could therefore worsen feelings of low mood and sleepiness.
Depression, however, is not the sole cause of oversleeping, and other factors could be contributing to your hypersomnia. Discover more causes of oversleeping in our guide.
Treating depression and sleep problems
As with any vicious cycle, getting to the route-cause of one factor can often help to alleviate the other. One of the best ways to break this loop is by practising relaxation before bed. Why not try these 6 mindfulness techniques to help you sleep?
For more guidance on how to sleep soundly, explore the rest of our Sleep Health Hub.
nhs.uk. (2019). Clinical depression - Symptoms. Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/clinical-depression/symptoms
Palagini. L., Baglioni. C., Ciapparelli. A., Gemignani. A. & Riemann. D.. (2013). REM sleep dysregulation in depression: state of the art. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 17(5), 377-390.
Nutt. D. (2019). Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. PubMed Central (PMC). Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181883
Tuck Sleep. (2019). How Sleep Affects Your Human Growth Hormone (HGH) Levels - Tuck Sleep. Available online: https://www.tuck.com/sleep-hgh
Arborelius. L., Owens. M., Plotsky. P. & Nemeroff. C. (1999). The role of corticotropin-releasing factor in depression and anxiety disorders. Journal of Endocrinology. 160(1), 1-12.
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.