The Surprising Way Sleeping Less Could Be a Fast-Acting Antidepressant

When you're feeling down, it's tempting to want to sleep away the day. But snoozing too much could be the worst thing you do for your depression.

sleepKamil Macniak/ShutterstockWe’re all familiar with the health consequences of lack of sleep—forgetfulness, irritability, increased risk for high blood pressure, low libido, and weight gain, to name but a few. And lack of sleep is a key symptom of depression; some patients are extremely fatigued, while others experience insomnia.

So you might think that more sleep equals less depression, but according to a new study, the opposite is true: Getting less sleep, not more sleep, can help relieve symptoms of the illness. And fast.

According to a new study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, sleep deprivation under controlled, inpatient settings greatly reduces symptoms in around half of patients.

After a review of existing studies (the first on this subject in nearly 30 years) researchers found that partial sleep deprivation (sleeping for 3 to 4 hours followed by forced wakefulness for 20-21 hours) helped alleviate symptoms of depression quickly.

Antidepressants are the most common treatment for depression, but it can take patients several weeks to experience results (even though science may be on the road to making antidepressants work faster). By comparison, depriving patients of sleep can produce clinical improvement in symptoms within 24 hours, making this groundbreaking research into how to deal with depression.

Pulling data from 66 studies over a 36-year period, the researchers established that sleep deprivation is effective for many populations, regardless of how the response was quantified, how the subject was deprived of sleep, or the type of depression the subject had.

“More than 30 years since the discovery of the antidepressant effects of sleep deprivation, we still do not have an effective grasp on precisely how effective the treatment is and how to achieve the best clinical results,” says study senior author Philip Gehrman, PhD, as reported on ScienceDaily. “Our analysis precisely reports how effective sleep deprivation is and in which populations it should be administered.”

It’s not yet known exactly why depriving someone of sleep causes rapid and significant reductions in the severity of their depression, so further research is needed.

In the meantime, watch out for hidden signs you may be depressed, and speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about your mental health.

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