The link between depression and lack of sleep is undoubtedly real, but if you're someone who's dealt with these issues, you've probably noticed it feels a bit like a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: Does depression cause sleep issues, or do the sleep issues cause you to feel depressed? The answer may not matter all that much, as it's pretty clear the two are definitely associated with one another, but a new study may have gotten one step closer to figuring out which of these two things comes before the other, and how that might influence how these two health issues are treated.
Unsurprisingly, it all starts in the brain. A new study, led by a group of researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK and Fudan University in China, has further identified and analyzed the neural link between depression and sleep problems. The researchers found what they call "functional connectivity" between areas of the brain associated with short-term memory, sense of self, and negative emotions, according to a press release on the study.
In other words, this research suggests that what causes people with depression to dwell or ruminate on negative thoughts, also results in a poor quality of sleep.
The study, which has been published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, looked at data from about 10,000 people, some of whom had symptoms of depression, and some of whom did not. According to the press release, in the brains of people with depression, the researchers found "a strong connection between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with short-term memory), the precuneus (associated with the self) and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (associated with negative emotion)." Ultimately, the connections made in the brain between these different areas "underlie the relation between depressive problems and sleep quality," per the study's press release.
Not only does this research shed light on the relationship between depression and sleep, but the researchers point out in the study's press release that their findings might also teach the medical community about which parts of the brain to focus on when developing treatments for depression. Professor Jianfeng Feng, Ph.D., a researcher on the study from the University of Warwick, said in the press release,
In today’s world, poor sleep and sleep deprivation have become common problem affecting more than a third of the world’s population due to the longer work hours and commuting times, later night activity, and increased dependency on electronics. The disorder of insomnia has become the second most prevalent mental disorder.
And major depressive disorder is also ranked by the World Health Organization as the leading cause of years-of-life lived with disability. According to a recent statistic, it affects approximately 216 million people (3% of the world's population).
Feng's point here is that many people these days are affected by poor sleep, depression, or a combination of the two.
So if you or someone you love struggles with this, Dr. Ariella Silver, Psy.D., of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, says the first step is to understand the connection between sleep and depression. From there, she explains, the best thing you can do is try to work on developing a healthy sleep routine.
"The connection between sleep disruption and mood disorders is strong and complex," Silver tells Elite Daily over email. "We know that lack of sleep can cause depression, and we know that a key symptom of depression is sleep disruption — either too little or too much." If the sleep issues are left untreated, she adds, they can actually go on to exacerbate the symptoms of depression that the person is already experiencing. "It’s really important to employ good sleep hygiene," she says.
Her tips? Create a specific schedule for when you go to bed and when you wake up (definitely aim for those eight hours of rest, Silver says), and stick to it. She also suggests creating a sleep routine, which could include “wind-down” self-care activities like reading, diffusing calming essential oils in your bedroom, or even sitting silently as you focus on relaxing breathing techniques.
And if there's something you can't seem to stop worrying about as you go to bed, Silver says, see if there are actual, concrete steps you can take or activities you can do to prepare for the thing that has you feeling so anxious. For example, if you’re worrying about a presentation at work, try to set your clothes out the night before, pack your lunch ahead of time, or take a few moments before going to sleep to review the presentation one last time.
Additionally, Silver tells Elite Daily, if rumination is keeping you up at night, "write those worries down. Put them on paper and make that notebook the holder of that worry so you don’t have to be."