Friday Factoid: Sleep is More Than a Symptom


Americans are notoriously sleep deprived, but those with psychiatric conditions are affected even more. Chronic sleep problems affect 50 percent to 80 percent of patients in a psychiatric setting, compared with 10 percent to 18 percent of adults in the general U.S. population. Sleep problems are particularly common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. An increasing body of literature is suggesting that clinicians should turn their attention to closely monitor and treat our most basic function.


While we sleep, we progress through five stages of increasingly deep sleep. During this time, body temperature drops, muscles relax, and heart rate and breathing slow. The deepest stage of sleep produces physiological changes that help boost immune system functioning. When a person transitions into REM (rapid eye movement), body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing increase to levels measured when people are awake. Studies report that REM sleep enhances learning and memory, and contributes to emotional health. When sleep is disrupted it can affect levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, impair thinking and emotional regulation. Poor sleep can lead to health issues such as Type II Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, reduced immunity, or altered endocrine functions. The effects of poor sleep may intensify the effects of psychiatric disorders.


Longitudinal studies suggest that sleep problems worsen before an episode of mania or bipolar depression, and lack of sleep can trigger mania. Sleep problems also adversely affect mood and contribute to relapse. Sleep disruptions in PTSD may contribute to retention of negative emotional memories and prevent patients from benefiting from fear-extinguishing therapies. Problems with sleep are a better predictor of severe depression than thoughts of or wishes for death, feeling of worthlessness and guilt, psychomotor retardation, weight problems or fatigue. Furthermore, individuals identified as “at risk” of developing bipolar disorder and childhood-onset schizophrenia typically show problems with sleep before any clinical diagnosis of illness. Such findings raise the possibility that sleep disruption may be an important factor in the early diagnosis of individuals with mental illness.


Traditionally, clinicians treating patients with psychiatric disorders have viewed sleep disorders as symptoms. But studies in both adults and children suggest that sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders. This research has clinical application, because treating a sleep disorder may also help alleviate symptoms of a co-occurring mental health problem. Neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.  One study managed to reduce sleep disruptions using cognitive behavioral therapy in patients with schizophrenia who showed persecutory delusions and found that a better night’s sleep was associated with a decrease in paranoid thinking along with a reduction in anxiety and depression. It is clear that sleep problems in mental illness is not simply the inconvenience of being unable to sleep at an appropriate time but is an agent that exacerbates or causes serious health problems.


For an interesting video on sleep, check out this TED Talk!




Germain, A. (2008). “Sleep-Specific Mechanisms Underlying Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Integrative Review and Neurobiological Hypotheses,” Sleep Medicine, 12, 185–95.


Gregory, A. (2009). “The Direction of Longitudinal Associations Between Sleep Problems and Depression Symptoms: A Study of Twins Aged 8 and 10 Years,” Sleep, 32, 189–99.


Krystal, A. (2006). “Sleep and Psychiatric Disorders: Future Directions,” Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 29, 1115–30.




Jonathan Torres
WKPIC Doctoral Intern


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