Though a lack of sleep often is manifested in lighthearted episodes such as yawning through a meeting or trudging zombie-like through the aisles of the grocery store, the effects of sleep deprivation can be far more serious.
“Sleep deprivation can cause people to feel depressed,” says Dr. Maneka Kaul, a specialist in sleep medicine at Franciscan Health. “Patients experiencing a lack of appropriate sleep are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three adults in the United States doesn't get enough sleep, a trend that has been on the rise for several decades.
Many of these individuals are seniors or teens. Sleep deprivation also seems to be more prevalent in certain professions, such as health care, law enforcement and long-haul transportation. The CDC further reports that people who get less than seven hours of sleep a night are more likely to report 10 common chronic health conditions — including depression — than people who sleep seven hours or more.
“A lack of sleep can increase one’s risk for mood changes, anxiety and lack of motivation — all symptoms of depression,” says Dr. Joseph Fanelli, a psychiatrist in the Behavioral Health Services department of Community Healthcare System.
One of the difficulties for medical professionals in determining whether sleep deprivation has moved into the realm of clinical depression, however, is that the two conditions share many common signs and symptoms, including constant yawning, fatigue, daytime sleepiness, lack of focus and concentration, forgetfulness, low mood, irritability, reduced sex drive and increased appetite. So doctors must take a deeper look at sleep-deprived individuals to see whether the underlying problem is depression.
“Most symptoms of sleep deprivation overlap with symptoms of depression,” explains Kaul. “But while a person who is depressed may experience low moods, he or she may also feel a lack of pleasure in nearly all activities, and may have suicidal thoughts. This is not something that would commonly be seen in someone who is just sleep deprived.”
“Since symptoms of depression often include insomnia and sleep deprivation triggers depressed mood, it can be difficult to differentiate the two,” adds Fanelli. “An essential feature of depression, however, includes a period of at least two weeks of depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities.”
While professional help is advised for those seeing signs of potential clinical depression, individuals dealing with sleep deprivation can take a number of steps to correct the problem.
Of course, getting more restful and regular sleep at night (seven or eight hours is ideal) is an obvious fix, but getting more exercise in the morning and early afternoon, abstaining from daytime naps, turning off electronic devices at bedtime and avoiding caffeine, alcohol and smoking, especially close to bedtime, also can combat sleep deprivation.
Still, sleep deprivation, like depression, sometimes requires the help of a medical professional. If insomnia or sleep concerns last more than a week and begin to affect one’s quality of life, it may be a good idea to talk to a doctor. Likewise, if the lack of sleep seems to stem from an underlying condition, this can be another sign it may be time to seek professional help.
Because while there may be humor to be found in the co-worker who shows up looking like he just rolled out of bed (and maybe should still be there), a case of sleep deprivation that morphs into actual depression is no laughing matter.