Are You Depressed -- or Just Sleepy?
Sleep loss and depression are so closely linked, treating one condition will often improve the other.
You’ve been feeling listless and low, can’t concentrate, and don’t enjoy
doing anything that used to give you pleasure. You can barely keep your eyes
open during the day, yet the minute your head hits the pillow at night, you are
This is an all too common scenario because lack of sleep and depression tend
to travel together. The good news is that treating one condition may have
spillover benefits for the other.
Insomnia and Depression
Depression can stem from any sleep disorder that causes chronic fatigue and
mood problems. But insomnia, the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, is
the sleep disorder most often linked to depression.
“If you were to follow people with insomnia and no history of depression,
they would be four times more likely to develop depression than individuals
with no history of insomnia,” says R. Robert Auger, MD, a sleep specialist at
the Mayo Center for Sleep Medicine in Rochester, Minn. This increased risk
persists even decades later.
Which Comes First, Sleep Loss or Depression?
“In people who have bad insomnia and bad depression, it is often very
difficult to tell which came first,” says Mark Mahowald, MD, director of the
Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Hennepin County. “Sleep
deprivation can impair mood, and impaired mood can result in impaired quality
and quantity of sleep.”
According to Auger, the relationship between sleep and depression is not
entirely understood. “But there is a well-established connection between lack
of sleep and mental and physical health,” Auger says. “Sleep is as important an
aspect of health as exercise and nutrition. Sleep is non-negotiable.”
How Treating Insomnia Can Improve Depression
The first step to better sleep is to diagnose and treat the sleep disorder
and/or the underlying depression. “If you treat the insomnia in someone with
depression, you will improve their chances of achieving remission from the
depression,” Auger says.
Your primary care doctor may be able to educate you about sleep habits that
will help your insomnia. In some cases, your doctor may treat insomnia with
prescription sleeping aids. Some individuals will respond to them. Others may
not if they have another underlying sleep disorder such as sleep apnea that is
also robbing them of quality sleep.
Your primary care doctor may also refer you to a sleep specialist.