Sleep, Health and Depression

Medical Reviewer

The association between sleep disturbances and depression is quite well known but research is revealing a number of other implications. Insomnia used to be thought of as a symptom of depression but growing evidence suggests it may actually precede depression and increases our risk of other health problems including obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Most sleep disturbances fall into one of three categories. Sleep continuity problems involve difficulties in falling to sleep or staying awake and waking up early. This is the most common form of sleep disturbance and will be familiar to approximately 80 percent of people with depression.  The second form of sleep disturbance relates to decreased slow-wave sleep, sometime called delta sleep and the third type relates to altered patterns in the nature and timing of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Antidepressant drugs nearly always suppress REM sleep and this has resulted in some claims that suppressing REM is itself a critical factor in reducing depression.

In children and adolescents REM sleep does not match that of adults, but this may be due to the fact that the younger brain is still developing. However, studies of insomnia in children do seem to show an increased likelihood of depression as they become young adults (Angst, 2008). Sleep problems in children have also been linked with increased risk of anxiety and aggression in later life (Gregory, 2008).

So, sleep pattern problems indicate risks for the future but sleep disorders can also be brought on by other conditions. Children with migraine are much more likely to experience sleep disorders and sleep apnea (sleep disordered breathing) than children without migraine. According to Martina Vendrame, MD, the study author, 50 percent of children with tension headache grind their teeth at night. Moreover, sleep disordered breathing is frequently found in children with non-specific headaches or who are overweight.

Insomnia is a common problem for older people. Wilfred R Pigeon, Ph.D, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York, found that patients with persistent insomnia were up to 3.5 times more likely to remain depressed compared with patients with no insomnia.

Lack of sleep is common with roughly 30 percent of adults. Skipping sleep for short periods may be fine but if you are aware of sleep disturbances in children, or yourself, it's time to seek out help.


American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Insomnia Linked To Depression In Young Adults." ScienceDaily 3 April 2008. 22 April 2008 < ­ /releases/2008/04/080401081937.htm>.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "Insomnia May Perpetuate Depression In Some Elderly Patients." ScienceDaily 4 April 2008. 22 April 2008 < ­ /releases/2008/04/080401081930.htm>.

JAMA and Archives Journals. "Child Sleep Problems Linked To Later Behavioral Difficulties, Study Shows." ScienceDaily 10 April 2008. 22 April 2008 < ­ /releases/2008/04/080407160745.htm>.