The Link between Depression and Sleep
This is the first in a series of blogs about depression. When our mood is low, we often find that our sleep patterns go out of the window, which of course can make us feel even worse. First of all, a quick look at what we know about sleep: Research has shown that there are two very distinct kinds of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement sleep when we dream) and slow wave sleep. People who are depressed often have an imbalance between the REM sleep and slow wave sleep – there is a strong link between depression and sleep patterns.
Slow Wave Sleep
Slow wave sleep is the dynamic, constructive time of physical healing and growth for animals and humans, a time when the mind/body system rebuilds itself after a hard day surviving in the world. Substances ingested during the awake period are synthesised into the complex proteins of living tissue; growth hormones are secreted to assist with the healing of muscles and repairing general wear and tear in tissues; the immune system is boosted.
By contrast, in REM sleep large amounts of the brain’s energy reserves are expending on dreaming. Dreaming is clearly performing a very important function. Brain wave patterns measured by an EEG during sleep are similar to waking brain wave patterns. REM sleep occupies about twenty-five percent of a healthy adult’s sleep time and dreaming in this state is the deepest trance state known.
Depression and Sleep
The link between depression and sleep was first established in the 1960s. It was discovered that depressed people dream more intensely and have longer periods of REM sleep, particularly in the early phases of sleep, than non-depressed people. Extended dreaming is exhausting, not just because it deprives us of restful and restorative slow-wave sleep (that should make up three-quarters of our sleep time), but also because it over stimulates the orientation response. This is the same expectation pathway in the brain that we need in the daytime to focus our attention on getting things done – it generates our motivation to do things and keeps us interested in life.
Why we wake up exhausted
The sleep imbalance depressed people suffer from is why, despite sleeping for a long time after a stressful day, we can wake up still feeling tired and unmotivated. Exhaustion on waking and lack of motivation are features common to all depressed people and the reason is this: Depressed people dream more intensely and for longer periods because their brain is having to deal with an overload of arousals caused by excessive worrying. Our normal sense that life is meaningful comes from the actions we take but when our motivation levels are lowered because of over-dreaming, life can quickly come to seem meaningless. The natural delight we take in being alive and actively involved doing things drains away.
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