7 Shocking Links Between Sleep and Depression

Shortly after you were born, your mother had a shocking conversation with her doctor about your unusual sleep habits.

Sleep and Depression
Are you getting appropriate sleep?

Doctor: We’ve completed all the preliminary tests and everything looks good.

Mom: Thank you, doctor.

Doctor: Just one thing. A few minutes from now, and for the rest of your child’s life, they will repeatedly and routinely lapse into a state of apparent coma. It might even resemble death at times. And while their body lies still their mind will often be filled with stunning, bizarre hallucinations. This state will consume one-third of their life, and I have absolutely no idea why they do it. Good luck!

A version of that imaginary conversation comes from the most frightening and encouraging book I’ve read in a long time, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD.

It’s frightening because if you’re not getting the recommended amount of sleep (about eight hours a night), this single untreated condition can lead to every other depression symptom.

Perhaps the most frightening part is that two-thirds of adults (including me) in developed nations fail to obtain the recommended amount.

So how exactly does this condition affect depression?

Links Between Sleep and Depression
I’ve been in a funk all day.

1. “Sleep recalibrates our emotional brain circuits, allowing us to navigate next-day social and psychological challenges with cool-headed composure.”

I’ve had this weird lifelong habit of waking up around 3:00 a.m. and being unable to fall back asleep.

When I engaged in morning conversations with co-workers, I often prefaced them with, “I haven’t had my coffee yet.”

I now realize that this was code for I’m grumpy and likely to remain so.

The things I usually do for fun just aren’t fun anymore.

2. Chicago had a world class orchestra when I lived there, and, since I purchased season tickets, I would sometimes get excited about hearing a particular program months in advance.

If I didn’t sleep well the night before the performance, or if a sleep deficit built up over several days, getting to the hall would be a slog. My enthusiasm was compromised by the sheer force of will it took to keep my eyes open.

I can’t seem to stop gaining weight.

3. “Too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you feel hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction. Despite being full, you still want to eat more. It’s a proven recipe for weight gain in sleep-deficient adults and children alike. Worse, should you attempt to diet but don’t get enough sleep while doing so, it is futile, since most of the weight you lose will come from lean body mass, not fat.”


I can’t seem to stop losing weight.

4. Walker doesn’t provide a case for improper sleep affecting unexplained weight loss, but he does mention how it screws up our immune system. This leaves us vulnerable to more frequent illness.

Lack of sleep coupled with an office job guaranteed me an annual bout with the flu. It often messed with my appetite for days or weeks.    

Lack of sleep also doubles cancer risk.    

I’m the meanest, most insensitive person who’s ever walked this planet.

5. “Dreaming provides…a consoling neurochemical bath that mollifies painful memories and a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity.”

It’s painful to admit that even though I know better, I sometimes beat myself up over social or work mistakes. Now that I know about the effect that non-rapid-eye-movement and rapid-eye-movement sleep (aka dreaming) have on my memory, I may try sleeping it off instead.

Apparently, the dynamic duo helps us decide which of our experiences to retain and integrate with our self image and which we should let go. Ruminating about how awful we are when we’re awake may be a symptom of failing to effectively process our emotions while we’re asleep.

I’m a worthless piece of crap.
My attention span is zero seconds, and I can’t decide what to eat for lunch, let alone what to do with my life.

6. “Within the brain, sleep enriches a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices.”

It used to be conventional wisdom that pulling all nighters was a prerequisite for doing well during finals week at school. Working sixteen or eighteen-hour days will result in promotions at many jobs. Both are a terrible idea.

Whether I feel worthless because I lack the judgment and motor skills to catch that crucial fly ball, or make the same mistake for the umpteenth time at work, or just can’t seem to get the hang of that new piece of software, poor sleeping habits may well be the culprit.

Culturally, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s common to say, I’d like to sleep on it when considering an important decision.

Another challenge is that many antidepressants, while adjusting our brain chemistry to regulate our mood, can disrupt our dreams. So, they won’t necessarily improve our ability to retain or integrate information to help us make better decisions.

I’m always thinking of death.

7. “Tragically, one person dies in a traffic accident every hour in the United States due to a fatigue-related error. It is disquieting to learn that vehicular accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and drugs combined.”

It isn’t falling asleep at the wheel that kills us either. Blinking out of consciousness for a second or two comes with a momentary paralysis (which keeps us from moving around and injuring ourselves when asleep). Even if we snap out of it, the blow to our reaction time can cause serious or fatal accidents.

Add to that the growing body of evidence linking sleep loss to Alzheimer’s, stroke, chronic pain, diabetes, and heart attack, and it’s rational to always be thinking about death.

The last frightening thing I’ll share about the book is that the current crop of sleeping pills provides no benefit. They produce sedation instead of sleep. They actually do more harm than good.

Links Between Sleep and Well-Being

The encouraging part of the book is that getting the appropriate amount of sleep can have just as striking benefits for well-being.

I can cope with the ordinary stresses of life.

Getting the right amount of sleep helps regulate the adrenal gland so that you don’t over produce the stress hormone cortisol.

I can work productively to benefit myself and others.

Beyond being well-rested, you’ll have improved ability to learn, sort out what’s important, make better decisions, and even improve motor skills.

I contribute to my community.

You’ll find it easier to navigate social situations. Just remember not to stay up too late.

Ten Minute Exercise

If you’re not getting the recommended eight hours of shut-eye per night on a regular basis, review these tips from Why We Sleep.

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Don’t sleep late on weekends. Set an alarm for bedtime.
  • Exercise at least thirty minutes a day but not later than two-to-three hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Caffeine can take up to eight hours to wear off.
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed.
  • Avoid large meals and beverages late at night.
  • If possible, avoid medicines that delay or disrupt sleep.
  • Don’t take naps after 3:00 p.m.
  • Relax before bed. Reading a paper book or listening to music is good.
  • Take a hot bath before bed.
  • Dark, cool, gadget-free bedroom.
  • Have bright sunlight exposure at least thirty minutes each day. If possible wake up with the sun or use bright lights in the morning.
  • Don’t lie in bed awake. If you wake up in the middle of the night, get up and do something relaxing (reading a paper book or listening to a podcast or music) instead.

Bonus: You can watch both “What Happens to Your Body and Brain if You Don’t Get Sleep” and “Six Scientific Tips for Falling Asleep” on YouTube in less than ten minutes.

If these tips don’t produce the desired results, don’t be discouraged. You can always work with a qualified cognitive behavioral therapist for insomnia (CBT-I) to come up with a customized program that does.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.