Sleep Deprivation and Mental Illness

Amaan Akhtar discusses the importance of sleep to our general physical and mental health. He goes into the science of how sleep works, why it's important, and the negative side effects of missing too much of it. These are the top tips you need on how to improve the quality of your sleep. 


Sleep is one of the most underrated methods for improving our wellbeing; yet, we have all still taken it for granted at some point. We constantly discard a goodnight’s sleep in favour of late night professional/academic commitments, social outings with friends or binge-watching tv shows.  

However, sometimes it isn’t our fault: there are times when our minds run rampant during the night with thoughts and ideas – crippling us with fear and distress about a thousand potential scenarios, which ultimately prevent us from having a healthy dose of sleep.

While sleep deprivation has shockingly become the norm in today’s modern age, with society constantly striving for efficiency and productive growth within most of the 24-hour day, we need to carefully consider what the consequences of this may be.

By neglecting a restful slumber of 7 - 9 hours (on average for an adult), we unknowingly deny ourselves one of the most powerful healing tools for our mind and body. To understand why this is the case, I need to explain the mechanisms of sleep and their importance to our overall health.

Put simply, sleep is controlled by two separate regulatory processes in our brain (homeostatic mechanisms and the circadian rhythm), which work together to govern the opposing states of wakefulness and sleep onset during a normal 24-hour day.  A cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones work in conjunction throughout several brain regions to regulate not only our sleep cycle, but also our sleeping patterns. This tightly-knit coordination is vital for our everyday function as human beings, because the brain requires a tremendous amount of work to recharge and reorganise itself, while our bodies are resting.

A multitude of operations occur while we sleep: all the metabolic waste that built up in and around the brain during the day is cleared; memory processes are strengthened to improve memory recall; the immune system is boosted to aid recovery within the body; and the timing and levels of hormone secretion are regulated effectively. All of these “background processes” occur during a minimum of 7 hours of sleep – where they collectively reduce mental fatigue as well as maintain normal cognitive and behavioural functioning.

Yet, when we deprive ourselves of this prescribed dosage – especially over a long period of time – our health suffers for it. Although most of us are aware of the physical effects of sleep deprivation, how many of us are truly of aware of its effects on our mental health?

Sleep deprivation plays a much bigger role than we realise – for years, it has been recognised as a crucial factor in several mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Studies have found associations between sleep and mood that demonstrate that sleep deprivation leads to an inability to regulate emotions. Additionally, a recent study showed that sleep disruption can cause people to have impaired cognitive function which affects their ability to shift their attention quicker from distressing thoughts. This inevitably means that these negative thoughts and ideas will remain in their heads for longer and more strongly, compared to someone who is well-rested.

Despite this extensive research on the effects of sleep, some things remain ambiguous. For example, there is a need to distinguish whether sleep quality or sleep quantity is more important for improving mental health.

 Interestingly, one recent study actually found that sleep deprivation may be an antidote for depression: it concluded that sleep deprivation can temporarily improve the symptoms of depression in 50% of people, within 24 hours. While this is a stark contrast to previous findings, it is believed that this phenomenon is due to improved sleep quality. It was speculated that the brain adapts by resetting the circadian rhythm the following night and temporarily induces a deeper sleep than usual.

Although, it is important to note that there still isn’t enough evidence to determine whether this type of treatment is safe and effective for long-term use. Especially since chronic sleep deprivation is detrimental to health, where it can damage the immune system and increase the risk for other health issues. Nonetheless, this study does highlight that it may be the lack of quality sleep which contributes to mental illness.

For those who suffer from a mental illness, this news can be very ironic: people who have depression or anxiety already experience severe sleep deprivation, which inevitably worsens their condition further. It is a vicious cycle. A lack of sleep seems to perpetuate throughout each stage of these disorders, and therefore acts as a cause as well as a consequence of mental illnesses.

This is due to lower overall sleep quality in individuals suffering from mental illnesses; they experience a lighter phase of sleep than a typical individual, which unfortunately means that their sleep is also less physically therapeutic.

While this is disheartening news, there are measures that we can take for ourselves to improve our quality of sleep – and therefore our own mental health.

·       Firstly, it is crucial to establish a rigid sleep routine where you go to bed and get up around the same time every day.

·       Avoid looking at any glaring light from laptop and phone screens, eliminating their usage after a certain time in the evenings.

·       Try not to drink fluids closer to your bed time, as it will save you from bathroom trips during the night.

·       Develop your own night time ritual, an hour before you are scheduled to jump into bed. That way, you’re signalling to your body and mind that it needs to prepare for sleep.

·       Develop a calmer environment for yourself – read a fiction book, use a diffuser to spray relaxing fragrances throughout the room, listen to soothing music, or even write down the accomplishments you achieved today and the tasks you must do for tomorrow.     

·       Use an alarm clock or app that gradually wakes you up in the mornings peacefully – they will prevent any quick disruptions to your sleep cycle, and you’ll wake up in a better mood.

Only by adjusting our evening schedule can we gradually get back into a better sleeping routine. By prioritising sleep quality over quantity, we could potentially alleviate any symptoms of mental illness or at least, prepare ourselves for a brighter new day. With all of these in mind, hopefully we will appreciate those 7 hours of rest more and we will sleep better than we have done in a very long time.