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Staying Up to Beat the Blues

Can sleep deprivation temporarily ease depression?

But Is It Practical?

Admittedly, such a regimen is tough to follow. Patients should probably try such sleep manipulation only under supervision and perhaps in a group to make the experience more enjoyable, says Edward DeMet, PhD, who studies sleep deprivation at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Long Beach. "Obviously, if you need to be driving the next day, you shouldn't do this," he says.

There are other ways to manipulate sleep to improve depressive symptoms. For instance, patients who go one night without sleep and who are exposed to bright light in the morning appear to prolong the emotional benefits of that sleepless night. People who try sleep deprivation while taking antidepressant medicine are also less likely to relapse, according to a study by Wirz-Justice and colleagues published in the August 1999 issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Because antidepressants such as Prozac or lithium often take weeks to work, sleep deprivation may be most useful as a temporary tool that gives people a lift before the drugs take effect.

"It's much easier to pop a pill in the morning than stay up all night," says Wirz-Justice, a professor at the Psychiatric University Clinic's Chronobiology and Sleep Laboratory in Basel, Switzerland. "But sleep deprivation is very cheap and it's very fast. For patients who are severely depressed, the experience for that one day lets them know it's possible to get better. They finally have hope."

Sarah Yang is a San Francisco reporter for WebMD.

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