- Claudia Hammond
Teens can sometimes find it difficult to wake up in the morning, but ensuring they get enough sleep may be vital to their health later in life.
It’s late in the morning and teens at home are still falling asleep long after you wake up. Should you run upstairs to drag them out of the bed? That may be tempting, but the answer is probably no. Evidence is mounting that sleep in adolescence is important for both present and future mental health.
It should come as no surprise that a lack of sleep or seriously disturbed sleep is one of the most common symptoms of depression among teens. Despite all of this, no matter how sleepy you feel, it is difficult to fall asleep if doubts or worries haunt you. This applies to adults as well, with 92 percent of people suffering from depression complaining of difficulty sleeping.
Perhaps the least anticipated is that some problems with sleep may start before depression, increasing the risk of mental health problems in the future. Does this mean that teen sleep should be taken more seriously? And can it reduce the risk of depression at a later time?
In a study published in 2020, Faith Orchard, a psychologist at the age of 15, examined data from a large group of adolescents who were followed from the University of Sussex ages 15 to 24. It turns out that those who reported poor sleep at the age of 15, but did not suffer from depression or anxiety at the time, were more likely than their peers to suffer from anxiety or depression when they were 17, 21 or 24 years of age.
Sleeping problems with adults could also be a sign of depression in the future. An analysis based on the changing data of 34 studies, which included follow-up of about 150,000 people over a period ranging between three months and 34 years, found that if people had sleep problems, the risk of suffering depression later in life could be greater. Doubled.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone who has insomnia will develop depression at a later time. Most people do not have this. The last thing people with insomnia need, of course, is to worry about what might happen to them in the future.
But you can see why in some cases poor sleep contributes to poor mental health. Lack of sleep has deep-rooted negative effects on us, including the tendency to distance themselves from friends and family, the absence of motivation and over-excitement, all of which can affect the quality of a person’s relationships, increasing the risk of depression. Moreover, there are biological factors that need to be taken into consideration. Lack of sleep can lead to increased inflammation in the body, which has its share of mental health illnesses.
Researchers are now studying the relationship between sleep disorders and other mental health conditions.
And the eminent Oxford neuroscientist Russell Foster has found that this link doesn’t just occur in depression. Disruption of circadian rhythms – the normal sleep-wake cycle – is not uncommon among people who suffer from what is known as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. In some cases, the body clock can become so out of order that people find themselves awake throughout the night and falling asleep during the day.
Foster and his colleague, clinical psychologist Daniel Freeman, have called for sleep problems to be given a higher priority in mental health care. And because sleep problems are common across different diagnoses, there is no tendency to consider them a central factor in a particular case. He feels that sleep problems are sometimes neglected while they can be addressed.
Even when mental health problems precede the stage of sleep disturbance, lack of sleep may exacerbate a person’s difficulties. Ultimately, just one night of sleep deprivation has a persistent negative effect on mood and thinking.
The complex relationship between sleep and mental health is further reinforced by the conclusion that if you treat depression, sleep problems do not go away entirely. It is easy to see how psychological treatments that help people reduce negative rumination can also get them to sleep more easily.
But in 2020, Shirley Reynolds, a clinical psychologist at the University of Reading, and her team tried three different psychological treatments for depression. It was equally good at reducing depression, but only treated sleep problems for half of the participants. As for the other half, the insomnia persisted, indicating that it is independent of their depression and needs to be treated separately.
However, sleep problems and mental health difficulties can arise from the same causes, such as traumatic or negative events, for example. Or excessive contemplation and rumination of memories or various genetic factors. Genes involved in serotonin pathways and dopamine performance have been shown to be factors that cause both impaired sleep and depression, as are the genes that affect the human biological clock (day and night system).
And, as we’ve already seen, insomnia and mental health issues are likely to exacerbate each other, making both problems worse than before. You’re concerned so you can’t sleep, you can’t sleep, so you’re more worried and distressed, and so on, in an escalating cycle.
It is also possible that lack of sleep is an early warning sign rather than a cause of later depression. The anxiety that prevents you from falling asleep can in some cases be the first symptom of more serious mental health conditions that will plague you in the future.
Foster is convinced that from a biological perspective, the best way to decipher the network of correlation and causation is by studying the effect of disturbed circadian rhythms on the brain.
He says we need to look at the complex interactions between multiple genes, brain regions and neurotransmitters to understand what is happening.
Therefore, persistent problems with sleep may need to be taken more seriously in teens and adults. Interventions in sleep (ie giving the patient a medication that helps him fall asleep) is a straightforward, well-defined method, and in some cases, successful. What is already clear, from a comprehensive and diverse analysis of a total of 49 studies, is that treating poor sleep in those who suffer from insomnia, and who already have symptoms of depression, not only helps them sleep better but also reduces depression.
The Big Oasis experiment led by Daniel Freeman at 26 universities in the UK found that digital cognitive behavioral therapy for students with insomnia not only helped them fall asleep, but reduced the occurrence of hallucinations and paranoia, which are symptoms of a mental disorder.
The million-dollar question is whether treating poor sleep can even prevent mental health problems in the end. To answer this, large-scale and long-term trials will be required.
One of the advantages of early, good treatments to prevent poor sleep – both for the sleep problem itself and to reduce broader mental health problems – is that there is less embarrassment or stigma surrounding insomnia, so it may be easier to convince people to apply for treatment.
In the meantime, anyone with trouble sleeping can try techniques that have proven most effective: ensuring you get enough light during the day (in the morning for most people); No naps for more than 20 minutes; Not eating, exercising, or drinking caffeine late in the evening, avoiding reading emails or discussing stressful topics in bed; Keep the bedroom cool, quiet, and dark, and try to wake up and sleep at the same time every day.
Getting better sleep alone won’t solve a mental health crisis, of course. But could it make a difference in the long term? Even if not, as sleepy teens know, there is nothing better than a good night’s sleep, even if sleep is just for the sake of sleep.