This weird tactic serves as an antidepressant

Korin Miller
A new study shows that sleep deprivation temporarily eases depression. (Photo: Getty Images)
A new study shows that sleep deprivation temporarily eases depression. (Photo: Getty Images)

Depression impacts millions of people in the U.S. each year, and there isn’t a one-size fits all approach to treatment. Some people respond well to therapy, others benefit from antidepressants, and many benefit from both.

Now, new research is pointing out another tool to be considered in the fight against depression: sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation (i.e. not allowing someone to sleep for a set period of time) can quickly reduce symptoms of depression in about half of people who suffer from the mental health disorder, according to a meta-analysis of 66 independent studies published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. The study’s researchers found that partial sleep deprivation (sleeping for three to four hours followed by keeping someone awake for 20 to 21 hours) was just as effective as total sleep deprivation (when someone is kept from sleeping for 36 hours). Medication also didn’t seem to have a big impact on the results.

Depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for adults between the ages of 15 to 44, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And, in 2015, more than 16 million American adults suffered from at least one major depressive episode.

“We don’t 100 percent know” why sleep deprivation might impact symptoms of depression, lead study author Elaine M. Boland, PhD, a clinical associate at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a research psychologist at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We know it’s an effective treatment but the action mechanism is still being researched,” she says.

However, Boland adds, sleep deprivation seems to target the same mechanisms as antidepressants, which balance chemicals in your brain that affect mood and emotions.

When you’re sleep-deprived, your brain also has to focus on immediate stimuli in order to cope with the lack of sleep, clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “While the body is struggling to cope, the mind has to ally with our biological needs and this diverts the mind from the emotional turmoil in that person’s life,” he says.

Sleep deprivation can cause an increase in neurotransmitters in your brain like dopamine and norepinephrine that can make you feel good for a short period of time, sleep medicine doctor and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, MD, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of the book, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “People tend to feel buzzy and elated for a bit when they pull an all-nighter — you feel pretty up,” he says. “But eventually the drive to sleep overwhelms you.”

Unfortunately, the positive results are short-lived: Once someone gets proper sleep again, their depressive symptoms return, Boland notes.

Of course, people who are suffering from depression can’t and shouldn’t be chronically sleep deprived. “Sleep quality is definitely important for people suffering from depression but sleep deprivation when it’s applied therapeutically is different,” Boland explains. With therapeutic sleep deprivation, someone is sleep deprived under the care of medical experts, rather than going home and just trying to stay awake, she explains.

Still, Mayer says that he’s concerned about this approach. “This technique is a short-lived or temporary fix,” he says. “Sure, it works, but those same long-term conditions that fuel your depression are going to be there when you return to normal sleep patterns.”

Alisa Ruby Bash, PsyD, LMFT a psychologist in Malibu, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty that this method might be helpful for someone who is struggling with treatment for depression to “reset” their brain. “But, since the depression does return after a person gets a good night’s sleep it’s impractical for the long-term,” she says. Bash says there may be potential in a new form of antidepressant using these findings. “The products that are out there today all take about four to six weeks to kick in,” she says. “These neurotransmitters can immediately reduce depression.”

Boland stresses that research is still ongoing for this method of treatment for depression, but she envisions it as potentially being one method that people use, along with others, to help fight depression. And, she cautions, people shouldn’t try this on their own at home. “This should be done with a trained clinician — it’s not a self-help tool,” she says.

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