Why Improved Sleep Can Reduce Depression : Explained
Published: 1 November, 2018
Sleep Awareness Week, held during the first week of October, gives us the chance to understand poor sleep as a symptom of mental health conditions like depression and why it is being targeted by researchers to prevent mental illnesses.
To mark Sleep Awareness Week run by the Sleep Health Foundation, we have enlisted the help of Black Dog Institute Research Fellow Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler and Research Assistant Lara Johnston, whose work focuses on the links between poor sleep and mental health.
Dr Werner-Seidler and Ms Johnston are currently developing and trialling Sleep Ninja – an app designed for young people who are having difficulty sleeping. We asked for her thoughts on how sleep affects mental health.
The relationship between sleep and mental health
“While most people with poor sleep do not go on to develop a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, poor sleep and insomnia pose an elevated risk of mental ill-health,” said Dr Werner-Seidler. “In fact, insomnia is both a symptom of depression and a risk factor for depression and anxiety - a recent meta-analysis found that insomnia was associated with a greater than 2-fold increase in depression risk.”
“Interestingly, for people with depression, disturbance to their sleep is often the first thing they noticed when their mental health deteriorated.”
This is a reason why some aspects of up-and-coming research focuses on symptoms such as poor sleep rather than the conditions themselves.
Dr Werner-Seidler adds, “We know that up to 30 percent of people experience symptoms of insomnia, but only 4 percent will get a diagnosis. So, we really want to target the whole 30 percent and prevent things from getting worse.”
Targeting sleep to reduce depression
The thought behind the app ‘Sleep Ninja’ is to reach as many young people who are showing signs of insomnia as possible in an attempt to reduce the risk of other depressive symptoms.
“Over 70 percent of those people with depression also have insomnia symptoms, so by focusing on people before they reach a clinical level, we are in a better position to prevent both the worsening of sleep symptoms, and the onset of depression.”
The app uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia, or CBT-I, and consists of six training sessions.
Following the success of the first pilot phase, Project Z - which established the feasibility and acceptability of the use of the app to change sleeping habits in young people - Dr Werner-Seidler’s team is now preparing for the second phase of the Sleep Ninja research program.
“In the first phase, we found that after participants had used the app for 6 weeks, sleep habits and mental health was better than before they started using the app,” said Ms Johnston.
The next step is Dream On study which will engage a larger sample of Australian school students to compare the effects of the Sleep Ninja app on sleep and mental health outcomes, as compared to a control group.
“In preparation for the second phase, we recently ran a small randomised controlled trial with 65 Year 9 students to test the method and identify any challenges that could occur in a school environment.”
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