Chemical May Link Mood, Sleep Problems

Research Under Way to Find Drugs to Conquer Both

Sept. 11, 2003 (Philadelphia) -- New research suggests both sleep and mood problems may result from a lack of the same brain chemical, and research is under way to develop drugs to knock out both problems.

The brain chemical -- gamma-aminobutryric acid, or GABA -- is involved in regulating brain activity.

"It's the brakes of your brain," says Karl Doghramji, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. "It stops activity."

And with this knowledge, a new generation of GABA-stimulating drugs is being developed to allow both your mind and body to get the rest it needs.

Both sleep problems and anxiety disorders may result from problems with GABA, which helps neutralize the effects of glutamate, a brain chemical that causes excitement. When there is too little GABA, it causes those racing thoughts that characterize anxiety -- and keep you up at night.

Specifically, GABA deficiencies interfere with the most important stage of sleep -- the "deep" delta sleep that usually begins within 45 minutes after bedtime. Studies show that people with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders are usually deficient in delta sleep, says Doghramji, speaking at the American Medical Association's annual Science Reporters Conference.

And the longer GABA-caused sleep problems continue, the greater the risk to your emotional health. One in three people with recurrent insomnia has some type of psychiatric disorder, and 25% have anxiety -- nearly three times the rate of those whose insomnia is fleeting or has successfully been treated.

Even more serious psychiatric conditions are affected by sleep problems triggered by GABA problems. "When bipolar patients who are depressed are sleep deprived, there is a 50-50 chance they will go into a mania the next morning," he tells WebMD.

While there are over-the-counter GABA supplements available at most health foods -- sold as an insomnia remedy -- Doghramji advises against them.

"We just don't have any data on them. We do not know how much GABA is really in the supplement or the product's purity. There are no studies backing up the claims made by the supplement manufacturers."

Similarly, he says there's no evidence to date that antidepressants also used to treat anxiety offer any relief from frequent insomnia. But a new generation of GABA-stimulating drugs is being developed with hopes of treating both conditions.

But until these drugs come to market -- they are only in the testing stage in various trials -- what can you do to improve your overall sleep health?

"Whatever you do behaviorally to improve sleep hygiene will help," Doghramji tells WebMD. That means keeping a regular sleeping schedule, avoiding naps, limiting caffeine to before lunch, and not having alcohol with dinner.

And the best way to improve the quality of delta sleep, which reaches its peak when you're age 10 "and goes downhill after that":

"Exercise -- ideally, in the afternoon or early evening at least four hours before bedtime."

Show Sources

SOURCES: American Medical Association's 22nd annual Science Reporters Conference, Philadelphia, Sept. 11-12, 2003. Karl Doghramji, MD, director, Sleep Disorders Center, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital; professor of psychiatry, Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia.
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