We all love a weekend lie‑in, but could a longer snooze on a Sunday morning be pushing you towards the blues?
That’s the suggestion from a new U.S. study that found when you sleep is just as important as how much shut-eye you get.
People who don’t stick to regular sleeping and waking times are more likely to become depressed than those who do, the findings, just published in the journal NPJ Digital Medicine, and conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, found.
Those who regularly stayed up late, or got the fewest hours of sleep, also scored higher on depression symptoms and lower on daily mood [File photo]
‘This is the first time that a study has shown clearly that disturbed sleep, not necessarily less sleep, can lower mood,’ Srijan Sen, a professor of depression and neurosciences and director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, tells Good Health.
The findings were based on the sleep pattern of 2,100 student doctors, who were tracked for a year using digital devices (a Fitbit or an Apple watch) that detected periods of sleep and wakefulness.
The students also recorded how they felt every day on a smartphone app, rating on a scale of one to ten their mood that day.
Before the start of the study and then every three months, the young doctors also filled in symptom questionnaires that are used clinically to diagnose depression.
The medical students whose sleeping schedule shifted the most — i.e. varied by one to two hours a night, and/or had later waking times on the weekends — were more likely to score higher on the questionnaires and to have lower daily mood ratings.
One theory is that the circadian rhythm (our body clock which regulates sleep and waking cycles) goes out of kilter, disrupting the production of chemical messengers that, in turn, alter brain function and the nervous system
Those who regularly stayed up late, or got the fewest hours of sleep, also scored higher on depression symptoms and lower on daily mood.
Commenting on the findings, Kevin Morgan, a professor of psychology and director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at Loughborough University, says that the research adds to what’s already known about the association between sleep, daily mood and long-term risk of depression.
‘If you are depressed, you almost certainly have sleep problems,’ he says. ‘If you are not depressed but have long-standing insomnia, you can be up to three times more likely to develop depression.’
And, for some people, a shift to their sleep patterns is all it takes to push them into depression, adds Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist with a special interest in sleep based at the Priory Hospital, Roehampton, south-west London.
‘I always encourage people to stick to the same sleeping schedule if they can, but life isn’t always like that,’ she says.
‘If you change your schedule between one to two hours outside normal times for sleeping and waking once or twice a week, it probably won’t have much of an effect. But sleeping in until noon on weekends, when you normally get up at 7am, could be enough to knock you off-kilter.
‘I have lots of clients who have coped with stressful lives, but this level of disruption to their sleep and wake cycles is enough to push them over the edge.’
So why should topsy-turvy sleep patterns lead to low mood or depression? One theory is that the circadian rhythm (our body clock which regulates sleep and waking cycles) goes out of kilter, disrupting the production of chemical messengers that, in turn, alter brain function and the nervous system.
‘You can end up with a jet lag phenomenon where your body doesn’t know when it should be asleep and when it should be awake,’ says Professor Morgan.
This confusion starts to affect levels of an important neuropeptide, a protein produced in the brain known as orexin.
The students in the U.S. study all experienced the long, intense work days and irregular work schedules that are typical of medical training [File photo]
There are only 10,000 to 20,000 orexin-producing cells in the human brain, which regulate sleep but also influence mood.
‘The jury is still out, but a likely link between depression and disturbed sleep could involve the orexinergic system,’ says Professor Morgan.
‘Orexin levels drop when you go to sleep and rise when you wake up. But this important neuropeptide also affects the way you feel, which could explain the link,’ he adds.
The students in the U.S. study all experienced the long, intense work days and irregular work schedules that are typical of medical training.
‘Nevertheless,’ says Professor Morgan, ‘the study does have merit and should be taken seriously.’
And Professor Sen says his results have an important message for all.
‘This study indicates that maintaining a consistent bedtime and sleep time [or duration] are under-recognised as important factors and critical to our wellbeing and mental health.
‘It’s a simple message that everyone can benefit from.’