If you schedule an appointment with a mental health professional, in addition to discussing symptoms that are specific to your condition, they will also ask you about the quality of your sleep: if you have difficulty falling asleep, if you wake up during the night, if you have nightmares, and if you wake up earlier than usual. If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then they will recommend you to maintain a consistent sleeping schedule, avoid certain activities before bedtime, or even prescribe medication that can help you fall asleep faster. The connection between poor sleep and mental health conditions such as depression has been on scientists’ radars for a while, and now, new research suggests that sleep problems are both symptoms and risk factors for mental health conditions.
According to a new study conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, people diagnosed with mental health conditions have worse sleep quality, but the relationship between the two is bidirectional, and poor quality sleep also increases the risk for mental illness. Researchers don’t know yet which one causes which, but it seems that the findings apply to all mental health conditions, regardless of the diagnosis. The clearest connection appears to be between poor sleep and suicide.
The study was the largest of its kind and involved UK 89,204 participants, who wore accelerometers on their wrists to track body movements. According to sleep disorder specialists, up to 80% of participants who had been diagnosed with mental health conditions also had sleep problems. This happens because insomnia causes inflammation in the body, and inflammation is one of the leading causes of stress.
The study findings are all the more important considering that the effects of poor sleep have been historically underrated. For example, new parents have come to expect sleepless nights, and many employees work night shifts, which interfere with natural sleep rhythms and cause an increased risk of depression. Not getting enough sleep isn’t just a nuisance. People who suffer from insomnia have lower performance at school and at work, slower reaction times (which causes an increased risk of accidents), and are at a higher risk of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Insomnia is linked to a lower level of emotional wellness, which is why it should be treated with the same attention as other health conditions.
According to the researchers behind the study, practising good sleep hygiene is essential for everyone; for people who have already been diagnosed with mental health conditions, improving sleep quality can help with symptoms, and, for the general population, getting enough sleep can reduce the risk of illness. One of the best ways to increase your sleep hygiene is to maintain a consistent routine by going to bed and waking up at around the same time. Avoiding screens before bed and reading a book instead can also help you unwind and fall asleep faster. In some cases, supplements containing zinc, magnesium, and melatonin can also help, but you should always take them in accordance with your doctor’s recommendations.