Most people who have experienced depression know that it is often accompanied by sleeping problems. People with depression may find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. They can also have excessive daytime sleepiness or even sleep too much.
At the same time, sleep problems can exacerbate depression, leading to a negative cycle between depression and sleep that can be challenging to break. Poor sleep may even provoke depression in some people.
Understanding the complex relationship between sleep and depression can be an important step in improving sleep quality and better managing depression.
Feelings of sadness, disappointment, or hopelessness can be a healthy reaction to life’s challenges. Normally, these feelings come in waves, are tied to thoughts or reminders of challenging situations, only last for a short period of time, and don’t interfere with school, work, or relationships.
In depression, these feelings follow a different pattern. When they persist for more than two weeks, are felt nearly every day, and remain for most of the day, they may be related to a group of mood disorders called depressive disorders. Also called clinical depression, depressive disorders include feelings of sadness, disappointment and hopelessness, as well as other emotional, mental, and physical changes that lead to difficulties with daily activities.
Depression is the leading cause of disability globally, affecting about 4.4% of the world’s population. After anxiety, depression is the second-most-common mental health issue in the United States. As many people with depression know, it can dramatically affect a person’s sleep and overall quality of life.
While researchers don’t know the exact cause of depression, there are a number of factors that can increase the risk of developing this condition. These include having a personal or family history of depression, experiencing major stressors or traumas, taking certain medications, and having specific illnesses.
Family history is a factor in about half of people with depression. A person’s genetics may affect the function of neurotransmitters (substances that help nerve cells communicate) that are linked to depression, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
The symptoms of depression can include physical changes as well as changes in moods and thoughts that interfere with normal daily activities. Symptoms may include:
Depression is more common in women and there may be differences in the symptoms of depression based on sex and age. Men often experience symptoms such as irritability and anger, whereas women more frequently experience sadness and guilt. Adolescents with depression may be irritable and have trouble in school, and younger children may pretend to be sick or worry that a parent may die.
Depression can only be diagnosed by a medical professional, so people experiencing symptoms of depression should talk with their doctor, counselor, or psychiatrist. They may ask about the severity of the symptoms and how long they’ve persisted. They may also suggest tests that can help them to better understand your situation and monitor changes or improvements over time.
A provider may also refer patients to a specialist in sleep disorders to help determine if there is an underlying sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, that may be causing depression or contributing to symptoms.
Significant feelings of sadness or a loss of interest in their normal daily activities are common in all depressive disorders. Specific forms of depression vary based on the severity of symptoms and the situation in which they develop.
The most well-known type is major depressive disorder, and it is marked by symptoms that affect a person virtually every day for an extended period of time. It commonly involves sleep disruptions.
Persistent depressive disorder, also called dysthymia or chronic depression, may involve fewer symptoms than major depression, but symptoms last for at least two years (one year in children and adolescents) and any symptom-free period lasts no longer than two months.
Other types of depression, such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder and seasonal affective disorder tend to come and go over shorter periods but can also involve significant sleeping problems.
Depression and sleep are closely connected. Almost all people with depression experience sleep issues. In fact, doctors may hesitate to diagnose depression in the absence of complaints about sleep.
Depression and sleep issues have a bidirectional relationship. This means that poor sleep can contribute to the development of depression and that having depression makes a person more likely to develop sleep issues. This complex relationship can make it challenging to know which came first, sleep issues or depression.
Sleep issues associated with depression include insomnia, hypersomnia, and obstructive sleep apnea. Insomnia is the most common and is estimated to occur in about 75% of adult patients with depression. It is believed that about 20% of people with depression have obstructive sleep apnea and about 15% have hypersomnia. Many people with depression may go back and forth between insomnia and hypersomnia during a single period of depression.
Sleep issues may contribute to the development of depression through changes in the function of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Sleep disruptions can affect the body’s stress system, disrupting circadian rhythms and increasing vulnerability for depression.
Fortunately, people who are treated for major depression often report improved quality of their sleep.
While depression can have dramatic effects on a person’s sleep and overall quality of life, it can be treated. After working with a doctor or mental health provider to understand the type and severity of depression, treatment may include:
Treatment often isn’t limited to just one of these approaches; in fact, combining medication and psychotherapy has shown higher rates of improvement than one approach alone.
Sleep problems increase the risk of initially developing depression, and persistent sleep issues can increase the risk of relapse in people who have successfully been treated for depression. As a result, taking steps to sleep better can have a beneficial effect on mood.
Focusing on improving sleep hygiene may improve sleep quality. It’s also a common component of CBT-I and can reinforce the benefits of talk therapy to change negative thinking about sleep. Improving sleep hygiene looks a little different for everyone, but often includes keeping a consistent sleep schedule, spending time away from electronics in the evening, and optimizing your bedroom for quality sleep.
In addition to talking to a provider about treatments for depression, there are several steps you can take on your own:
Having depression can increase thoughts of suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline