Why Teenage Sleep Is So Important for Mental Health

It should come as no surprise that a serious lack of sleep, or seriously disturbed sleep, is one of the most common symptoms of depression among adolescents. After all, however tired you might feel, it’s hard to drop off if you’re wracked with doubts or worries. This is true for adults too, with 92% of people with depression complaining of sleep difficulties.

What is perhaps less intuitive is that, for some, problems with sleeping might start before the depression, raising the risk of mental health problems in the future. Does this mean that sleep in teenagers should be taken more seriously? And can it lower the risk of depression later?

In a study published in 2020, Faith Orchard, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, examined the data from a large group of teenagers followed from the age of 15 to 24. Those who reported sleeping badly at the age of 15, but didn’t have depression or anxiety at the time, were more likely than their peers to be experiencing anxiety or depression when they reached 17, 21 or 24 years of age.

With adults too, sleep problems can be a predictor of future depression. A meta-analysis of 34 studies, which between them followed 150,000 people over a period of between three months and 34 years, found that if people had sleep problems, their relative risk of suffering depression later in life doubled. Of course, it doesn’t follow that everyone with insomnia is going to develop depression later on. Most people won’t. The last thing that people with insomnia need of course, is the worry about what might happen to them in the future.

But you can see why in some cases poor sleep might contribute to poor mental health. A deficit of sleep has well-established negative effects on us, including a tendency to withdraw from friends and family, a lack of motivation and increased irritability, all of which can affect the quality of a person’s relationships, putting them at greater risk of depression. On top of that there are biological factors to consider. A lack of sleep can lead to increased inflammation in the body, which has been implicated in mental health difficulties.

Researchers are now examining the relationship between sleep disorders and other mental health conditions. The eminent Oxford University neuroscientist Russell Foster has found that this link doesn’t only occur in depression. Disruption to circadian rhythms – the natural sleep-wake cycle – is not uncommon among people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. In some cases, the body clock can become so out of sync that people find themselves awake all night and asleep during the day.

And, as we’ve already seen, it’s likely that insomnia and mental health issues exacerbate each other, making both issues worse. You’re distressed so you can’t sleep; you can’t sleep so you are more distressed – and so on, and so on, in an escalating cycle.

It’s also possible that a lack of sleep is not so much a cause of later depression, but more of an early warning signal. The worrying that stops you dropping off can in some cases be a first symptom of more serious mental health issues to come.

Excepted from “Why Teenage Sleep Is So Important for Mental Health” in Future. Read the full article online.

Source: Future | Why Teenage Sleep Is So Important for Mental Health, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210305-why-teenage-sleep-is-so-important-for-mental-health | Copyright © 2021 BBC

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