Sleep Deprivation Can Alleviate Symptoms Of Depression
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: April 3, 2019
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
Feeling depressed? Low mood? Just can’t seem to snap out of it? Try cutting back on sleep for one night.
Recent research by the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine has found that sleep deprivation can rapidly alleviate symptoms of depression. This research found that total sleep deprivation or partial sleep deprivation can produce clinical improvement in depression symptoms within 24 hours.
"More than 30 years since the discovery of the antidepressant effects of sleep deprivation, we still do not have an effective grasp on precisely how effective the treatment is and how to achieve the best clinical results," said study senior author Philip Gehrman, PhD, an associate professor of Psychiatry and member of the Penn Sleep Center, who also treats patients at the Cpl. Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center. "Our analysis precisely reports how effective sleep deprivation is and in which populations it should be administered."
Reviewing more than 2,000 studies, the team pulled data from a final group of 66 studies executed over a 36-year period to determine how response may be affected by the type and timing of sleep deprivation performed (total vs early or late partial sleep deprivation), the clinical sample (having depressive or manic episodes, or a combination of both), medication status, and age and gender of the sample. They also explored how response to sleep deprivation may differ across studies according to how "response" is defined in each study.
"These studies in our analysis show that sleep deprivation is effective for many populations," said lead author Elaine Boland, PhD, a clinical associate and research psychologist at the Cpl. Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center. "Regardless of how the response was quantified, how the sleep deprivation was delivered, or the type of depression the subject was experiencing, we found a nearly equivalent response rate."
While the exact mechanisms for this improvement aren't clearly understood, some researchers have found that astrocytes, a star-shaped type of glial cell in the brain, regulate brain chemicals involved in sleepiness. It's thought that during our waking hours, astrocytes continuously release the neurotransmitter adenosine, which builds up in the brain and causes "sleep pressure," the feeling of being tired and sleepy. Adenosine causes this pressure by binding to adenosine receptor sites on the outside of the neurons. As adenosine increases, more receptors are triggered and the urge to sleep increases.
Again, while the exact mechanisms aren't fully understood, research over the last 10 years has confirmed that sleep deprivation can alleviate symptoms of depression quickly, and more effectively than popular antidepressants, which often take weeks to produce some symptom reduction. For example, research done in 2002, found a similar therapeutic benefit in using sleep deprivation to treat symptoms of depression.
How effective is sleep deprivation in the treatment of depression symptoms?
On average, researchers found that it is effective in 40% - 60% of people, with the benefits lasting weeks in most cases.
While it's not recommended to cut sleep short night after night, since there is research that also links persistent sleep deprivation to depression, one or two nights of deliberately reducing your sleep can be an effective treatment for symptoms of depression. This research also found that sleep deprivation administered in a clinic setting and individually applied in an unsupervised home setting produce about the same results.
This research also noted that partial sleep deprivation (sleep for three to four hours followed by forced wakefulness for 20-21 hours) was equally as effective as total sleep deprivation (being deprived of sleep for 36 hours), and medication did not appear to significantly influence these results. The results of this research were published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
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1. Boland, Elaine M., et al. “meta-Analysis of the Antidepressant Effects of Acute Sleep Deprivation.” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Physicians Postgraduate Press, Inc., 19 Sept. 2017, www.psychiatrist.com/JCP/article/Pages/2017/v78n08/16r11332.aspx.
2. “Adenosine.” Adenosine - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/adenosine.
3. Giedke, H, and F Schwärzler. “Therapeutic Use of Sleep Deprivation in Depression.” Sleep Medicine Reviews., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2002, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12531127.
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