Can Sleep Deprivation Actually Treat Depression?

Many people who are diagnosed with clinical depression find it difficult to fall asleep or staying asleep. There is a definite reason behind this as research has shown that there is a close link between the lack of sleep and depression. In fact, insomnia or the inability to fall and remain asleep is one of the most common signs of depression. Recent research, though, shows that sleep deprivation can actually help alleviate the symptoms of depression. As counter-intuitive as this sounds, sleep deprivation can be a quick and efficient way to treat depression. But how is this possible? You must be thinking that this goes against all logic. Let’s take a look and see if sleep deprivation can actually treat depression or not.

What is Clinical Depression and Why Is Sleep So Important?

Clinical depression is diagnosed as a mood disorder. Depression makes you feel sad, hopeless, helpless, and worthless. While it is normal for everyone to feel sad and hopeless from time to time, but when you suffer from depression, this feeling of sadness is more intense and more prolonged. It may feel like you are in a bad mood or feeling sad all the time. There will also be other associated physical symptoms of depression that will prevent you from living a normal life.

Normal sleep is important for all humans. Normal sleep is said to the restorative state of the body. That means that your body undertakes the process of fixing any wear and tear that happens during the day. Having poor sleep can cause fatigue. When you experience fatigue, you tend to skip exercising, leading to a decline in your level of fitness. After a while, you will find yourself in a vicious cycle of disturbed sleep pattern and inactivity, leading to both mood-related and other physical symptoms.(1)

Can Sleep Deprivation Actually Treat Depression?

The concept itself may sound counter-intuitive, but a new study from a research team at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that sleep deprivation can actually alleviate the symptoms of depression in patients.(2) The researching team undertook an examination of over 30 years of studies that have been done on this strange phenomenon and found that sleep deprivation can actually result in releasing antidepressant effects in the body, of up to 50 percent of depression patients.

The first experiment on sleep deprivation for treating ‘melancholia’ was done by a German psychiatrist by the name of Johann Christian August Heinroth. He successfully showed that sleep deprivation can reduce the symptoms of what was referred to as ‘melancholia’ at that time.(3)

In recent years, this phenomenon has been researched more by psychologists and the process has been termed as Wake Therapy. This therapy is said to quickly reduce the major depressive symptoms and also help jumpstart the treatment with antidepressant medications.

The team from the University of Pennsylvania looked at 66 studies to look at what variables are behind either increasing or decreasing the efficiency of a sleep deprivation treatment for depression. In finalizing its findings, the research team also considered the patients’ age, gender, what medications they are on, as well as the different types of sleep deprivation being focused on. The different types of sleep deprivation can include:

  • Total sleep deprivation
  • Partial sleep deprivation
  • Early sleep deprivation
  • Late sleep deprivation

The results of the meta-analysis showed that sleep deprivation was an effective treatment across the board, regardless of what the delivery technique was or what the demographics were. In further studies done with a randomized control group, the team identified positive responses 45 percent of the time, while during studies done without any control group, the positive responses were above 50 percent.

The study confirmed that regardless of how the sleep deprivation was delivered or the type of sleep deprivation followed, the type of depression the patient had, or how the response was quantified, the results showed that there was a nearly equal response rate in the reduction of depression symptoms.

The challenge facing medical experts now is how to translate this phenomenon into a practical treatment. However, at the same time, the biggest challenge facing doctors is the fact that the benefits of sleep deprivation on depression are not long-lasting and the symptoms tend to return within a day to a week after the treatment is stopped.
Furthermore, sleep deprivation is not a long-term solution to dealing with depression, as there are many studies that have shown that chronic insomnia, as well as disruption in the sleeping patterns, will only serve as a trigger for depression symptoms.(4)

To combat this, many clinicians are experimenting with the technique of chronotherapy as a way to prolong the short-lived antidepressant impact of sleep deprivation. This treatment combines a timed sleep schedule with sleep deprivation, followed by bright light therapy. Bright light therapy is a treatment process that involves a timed exposure to full-spectrum light during key times of the day.

While several studies do confirm and solidify a positive association between sleep deprivation and a decrease in the symptoms of depression, this is still not sufficient enough for patients to randomly start pulling all-nighters in hopes of reducing their depression symptoms. Sleep deprivation can, no doubt, assist in relieving the effects of depression, but on a long-term basis, sleep disruption in the form of sleep deprivation is not at all recommended.

As a result, more research is still needed in order to understand how sleep deprivation can actually bring about a positive result in depression symptoms while avoiding the long term negative effects of sleep disruption. Perhaps a deeper understanding of the association could lead to the development of new medications that can duplicate this effect without forcing the patient to sacrifice their night’s sleep.

Conclusion

Wake therapy is today being used as a treatment of depression. A type of sleep deprivation, the exact effects of wake therapy on the body need to be studied more, especially the long-term effects of sleep deprivation. Wake therapy is being combined with bright light therapy to make the beneficial effects on the depressive symptoms last longer than just one day. Some doctors are also prescribing partial sleep deprivation during the second half of the night in place of all-night sleep deprivation.

Many studies have shown that recovery from depression is directly associated with a normalization of the circadian cycle of the body. But, whether or not wake therapy works for everyone, especially in severe cases of depression, remains to be studied further.

References:  

  1. Nutt, D., Wilson, S. and Paterson, L., 2008. Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 10(3), p.329.
  2. Dallaspezia, S. and Benedetti, F., 2014. Sleep deprivation therapy for depression. In Sleep, Neuronal Plasticity and Brain Function (pp. 483-502). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. depression, S., Geddes, L., Geddes, L., Reddick, R., Freeman, T., Bell, P., Almash, F. and Bee, E. (2019). Staying awake: the surprisingly effective way to treat depression. [online] Staying awake: the surprisingly effective way to treat depression. Available at: https://mosaicscience.com/story/staying-awake-surprisingly-effective-way-treat-depression/ [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].
  3. Tuck Sleep. (2019). Understanding the Link Between Depression, Insomnia, and Sleep Problems. [online] Available at: https://www.tuck.com/depression-and-sleep/ [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].

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