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Shedding light on how sleep leads to good mental health

Sleep and mental health share an intimate, bidirectional relationship. Most people living with depression have experienced sleep issues.

What immediately comes to mind when you think of the day after a poor night of sleep? Drifting off at your laptop screen, counting down the hours until the end of the workday, and perhaps feeling more anxious and on edge than normal.

Sleep and mental health share an intimate, bidirectional relationship. For example, up to 90% of people living with depression have experienced sleep difficulties of some kind. In fact, sleep disturbances are present alongside most mental health conditions, yet the exact nature of this relationship has long been debated amongst scientists and clinicians.

Can we sleep our way to good mental health?

In the past, the bidirectional link between sleep and mental health has been contentious. Although sleep has long been understood to help ease our daily worries, doctors instead argued that sleep disturbances were either a symptom of mental illness, or a side effect of its treatment. For example, sleep difficulties are part of the diagnostic criteria for depression and anxiety.

“The link between our sleep and mental health goes both ways.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, insomnia has been shown to be more prevalent in people experiencing many types of mental health symptoms including anxiety, depression and psychosis (e.g., hallucinations and paranoia). As a result, interventions for sleep have been considered secondary — something that would improve when the real cause (i.e., mental health difficulties) was treated. We now know it is not that simple. The link between our sleep and mental health goes both ways.

Understanding sleep’s direct impact on our mental health

Our own daily ‘experiments’ with sleep loss help us see the effect of several, or even a single night of poor sleep. Our mood suffers, we struggle to concentrate, and our tolerance for dealing with daily stress plummets. Switch to rigorously controlled scientific experiments and we find similar results. People that do not sleep for a full night experience increases in anxiety, depressive symptoms, poorer ability to pick-up on social cues, and are less able to regulate unpleasant emotions. This effect is cumulative — the more our body is deprived of sleep the greater these effects are.

Improved sleep can bolster our defenses against poor mental health

While treating sleep difficulties was not a priority in mental health care historically, more recent scientific evidence highlights that this approach was misguided. Treating sleep disturbances has been found to improve mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. More specifically, cognitive behavioral techniques, the first-line intervention for sleep disturbances, has also been shown to improve mental health alongside sleep.

“Treating sleep disturbances has been found to improve mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.”

The dawn of digital solutions

Sleepio, a digital format for delivering cognitive and behavioral techniques, has been shown to improve symptoms of low mood by almost 60% and increase resilience against COVID-19-related stresses. This same study showed that the effects on mental health and resilience could be felt years after improving sleep.

With up to 50% of US adults getting less than the recommended 7 hours of shuteye a night, improving sleep represents an important health care target for employers worldwide. Sleepio provides an evidence-driven and cost-effective approach to help address this by improving employees’ sleep and, in turn, support their mental health. While we have long understood that sleep and mental health are related, the bidirectional nature of this relationship is now increasingly clear. By improving sleep, we improve our mental health.

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During the COVID-19 public health emergency, Sleepio and Daylight are being made available as treatments for insomnia disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), respectively, without a prescription. Sleepio and Daylight have not been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of insomnia disorder and GAD, respectively.

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