Tackling Depression - Sleep On It

This was the HARDEST lesson for me to learn.


As a musician, late nights are a part of the job description. We're frequently called upon to give our A-game effort, focus and energy beginning at 8:00 pm in the evening. And that's fine, but we still need eight hours of sleep when we're done. Not seven. Not six. Eight full hours.


I've been deeply engulfed in reading the book "Why We Sleep" by Dr. Matthew Walker and it has completely changed my opinion about how much sleep I need and why. On average, Americans are sleeping one hour less every night than we did a generation ago. We also have higher risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression/anxiety, dementia, obesity and cancer and they have all been linked to this sleep deficit. 


A few points from the book I've been taking to heart: 

- Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.
- It is estimated that more than 50 percent of all children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have a sleeping disorder
- Getting too little sleep across the adult life span will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease
- Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day


I used to head to bed between 1 and 2:00am and force myself out of bed sometime around 8:30 to make it to music classes I taught at 10am. Or I would roll out of bed exhausted, extra early on the weekend for Saturday morning students or a Sunday morning church gig. Chronic sleep restriction is defined as routinely getting less than seven hours of sleep a night and this is the category I was falling into.


Unfortunately, when we routinely subject ourselves to this amount of sleep, our brain begins to revert back "to a primitive pattern of uncontrolled reactivity. We produce unmetered, inappropriate emotional reactions, and are unable to place events into a broader or considered context." (Why We Sleep, pg. 147) This means that without the rational control a full night of sleep gives us, we're not on a neurologically or emotionally even keel. That's because while we sleep our amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions) and our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for rational thought) couple together, forming synaptic relationships. Without this bonding, our emotions will waver back and forth, sometimes drastically.


So not getting enough sleep doesn't just put us in a bad mood, it can force our mood to swing back and forth unpredictably going from giddy giggles to irritability and depression inconsistently. 


Not only can it create mood swings but it can increase our likelihood to turn to addictive substances by creating a chain reaction addiction to mood-altering supplements we rely on over sleep. Not only does our brain crave something to make us "feel better" but the rational part of our mind that might intervene in the poor decisions that can lead us to substance abuse relapses, is so sleep deprived, it is unable to intercede with reason.



There is not a single psychiatric condition in which sleep is normal. While we know that mental illness causes sleep disruption, it has only recently been proven that "otherwise healthy people can experience a neurological pattern of brain activity similar to that observed in many of these psychiatric conditions simply by having their sleep disrupted or blocked." (Why We Sleep pg 149)


While not all mental illnesses are caused by sleep, it is worth noting that the same regions impacted by mood disorders are the same ones impacted by sleep loss. Interestingly enough, sleep deprivation in some cases of depression can actually improve upon symptoms! A study from the University of Pennsylvania concluded after 30 years of study that a single night of sleep deprivation can work as an effective antidepressant for 50% of people. However, symptoms recur anywhere between one day and one week later rendering it an ineffective form of long-term treatment and the remaining 50% will actually feel more depressed after a night of sleep deprivation.


The statistics vary because depression is not just an unhappy or negative feeling. Depression is actually the absence of of positive emotions, even when engaged in activities that would usually bring pleasure. Because we already know that sleep deprivation lessens the connection between our prefrontal cortex (rational thought) and our amygdala (emotions), there could be a connection between sleep deprivation and our inability to process an event as pleasurable. For me personally, ensuring I have eight hours of sleep every night has helped me keep a more rational hold on my rollercoaster of emotions.


Because we now know it is better to have a consistent wake up time then go-to-bed time. I risk the occasional late night gig in favor of my known early mornings. If I need to drink an extra cup of coffee to get me through a long rehearsal and drive home, I'll do it. But my alarm is going to go off every morning at the same time so that when I roll out of bed to teach on an early morning, my circadian rhythm is ready.


Sleep cycles and timelines vary for everyone based on body temperature, location, career and a host of other reasons. The one thing that never varies is our consistent need for eight full hours of sleep for our improved mood and mental health. Try it for a week and discover the results for yourself! And, of course, check out the book, "Why We Sleep" by Dr. Matthew Walker.


Less pain and more music!


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  • Apr 02, 2018
  • Category: Blog
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