Most of us are familiar with the idea that the lack of sleep can lead to physical illness. It has, for instance, been linked to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. But are there risks from chronic lack of sleep to our mental health as well?
The findings around poor sleep and its effect on physical health are fairly stark. It increases the risk of heart disease, and by altering the way the body deals with glucose can increase the risk of contracting type 2 diabetes. Studies have also shown links between a chronic lack of sleep, and increased obesity, high blood pressure, and even weakened immune response to infection. What are also starting to become clearer though are the links between poor sleep and mental health.
The link between the two doesn’t just work in one direction. As those with experience of mental illness will know, mental illness can badly affect, and sometimes even devastate, people’s sleep. Up to eight out of ten people with schizophrenia will experience sleep disturbance and insomnia, and lack of sleep is recognised as an indicator of depression.
In depression the sleep problems normally precede the onset of depression. Because our internal ‘sleep clocks’ draw on across the whole of our brains, then any aspect that can provoke a mental illness can disrupt our sleep as well. In this way the sleep disturbance could actually be an early indicator of a potential mental health problem. This isn’t confined to depression, and research is currently underway to see if it can be used to flag up high risk of developing bipolar disorder.
The link between mental health and sleep also has the potential to be used to treat mental illness. Nursing homes have used bright lights during the day, and complete darkness at night, to help people with dementia reset their sleep clocks. In doing so they have found that there has also been a significant drop in the cognitive problems that those people with mild dementia encounter.
Research continues into drugs that increase the pineal gland’s sensitivity to light, or that can even replace light as a trigger. This offers the very real possibility of a new wave of treatment for sleep disorders, that doesn’t rely on hypnotic drugs, and can improve the quality of life, as well as sleep, for those with mental illness.
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