In 2015, more than 16 million American adults had at least one major depressive disorder within the previous year. Although depression is typically treated with medication, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that deliberate sleep deprivation can help alleviate depression symptoms.
This is an interesting area of research — not least because, according to research published by the American Medical Association, 12 percent of American adults filled a prescription for antidepressants in 2013.
In the 2017 study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania performed a meta-analysis of the antidepressant effects of sleep deprivation, analyzing 66 independent studies conducted between 1974 and 2016.
Researchers found that between 45 and 50 percent of participants felt less depressed after undergoing varying periods of sleep deprivation.
Interestingly, the level of sleep deprivation didn’t appear to have much impact. Partial sleep deprivation (being awake for between 20 and 21 hours over the course of 24 hours) and total sleep deprivation (being deprived of sleep for 36 hours straight) had equally effective anti-depressive effects — and these improvements occurred within 24 hours.
So if sleep deprivation appears to provide such rapid results and is able to improve depressive symptoms in roughly half of those with depression, why is medication still the preferred treatment option?
Unfortunately, the positive effects of sleep deprivation on depression symptoms appear to be short-lived. Researchers found that the majority of study participants lost the antidepressant effects within a week, and repeating periods of sleep deprivation over time had mixed results.
How does sleep deprivation improve depression symptoms?
We typically associate sleep disorders such as insomnia with depression and many individuals with depression tend to experience light and less restorative sleep, so deliberately depriving ourselves of sleep to improve symptoms of depression doesn’t sound logical. Yet it may be the subsequent night of deep, restorative “catch-up” sleep that is responsible for improved symptoms.
The circadian rhythm likely plays a focal role. Deliberate sleep deprivation may help to reset the body clock, and chronotherapy strategies such as light therapy and sleep scheduling have been found to improve depressive symptoms.
Another theory unveiled in research published in Neuron in 2015 suggests that sleep deprivation may influence the same parts of the brain that are targeted by ketamine and tricyclic antidepressants.
The fact of the matter is, we still don’t know for sure why sleep deprivation appears to improve depression symptoms in the short-term — and until more research is conducted, individuals with depression should continue to follow the treatment plan recommended by their doctors.
Deliberately depriving yourself of sleep is never recommended since this can lead to a host of issues such as an increased risk of injury, dangerous driving, and even a compromised immune system. Right now, we simply do not know how much temporary sleep deprivation is needed to improve symptoms of depression before the antidepressant benefits outweigh the risks.
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Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free insomnia sleep training. His online course uses CBT techniques to teach participants how to sleep better without relying on sleeping pills. More than 5,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.