Sleep deprivation improves depression in nearly half of patients

Sleep deprivation could actually improve symptoms of depression in many patients. PamelaJoeMcFarlane/iStock

Short-term sleep deprivation can improve symptoms in 45% of patients with depression, a meta-analysis has found.

We often hear about the importance of getting a good night's sleep for your mental health. But, counter-intuitively, short-term sleep deprivation has actually been found to have antidepressant effects. There have been many small-scale studies on this phenomenon, but research into how this could be developed into a viable treatment is scarce.

The first meta-analysis of sleep deprivation for nearly 30 years has found that partial sleep deprivation could improve symptoms of depression within 24 hours.

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The analysis, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, considered a total of 66 studies from 1974 to 2016. It found that sleeping for just 3-4 hours and then being kept awake for 20-21 hours was just as effective as staying up for 36 hours straight.

"These studies in our analysis show that sleep deprivation is effective for many populations," said study author Elaine Boland, a clinical associate and research psychologist at the Cpl. Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center. "Regardless of how the response was quantified, how the sleep deprivation was delivered, or the type of depression the subject was experiencing, we found a nearly equivalent response rate."

Exactly how sleep deprivation appears to reduce depression symptoms is not known.

"More than 30 years since the discovery of the antidepressant effects of sleep deprivation, we still do not have an effective grasp on precisely how effective the treatment is and how to achieve the best clinical results," said Philip Gehrman, an associate professor of psychiatry and member of the Penn Sleep Center, also an author of the study.

"Our analysis precisely reports how effective sleep deprivation is and in which populations it should be administered."

The next steps towards developing a sleep-deprivation treatment for depression would involve honing in on which patients would be likely to respond to it and which wouldn't.

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