An increasing body of scientific evidence is now suggesting that to diagnose and treat mental illness we should turn our attention to one of our most basic functions: sleep.
Studies suggest that insomnia and other sleep issues could help us predict episodes of mental illness and that fixing sleep problems may help treat them.
How is sleep and mental health linked?
Circadian rhythms are hard-wired into the genes of almost every living thing on the planet. Us humans organise ourselves around the daily cycle of activity and sleep. During sleep, when we use less energy and our digestive processes decrease, many of the essential activities like cell repair, clearing toxins, memory consolidation and information processing by the brain is occurring. Therefore disruption to sleep can have a major impact on emotion, cognition and physical health.
Disrupting the pattern, as happens with jet-lag, shiftwork, and mental illness breaks down our internal synchronisation.
Sleep disruption in mental illness
Research shows that sleep disruption is common across the mental illness spectrum, or that disruption of sleep might worsen mental health symptoms. These new insights uncovered in this research help make important predictions. For example, genes linked to mental illness play a role in sleep regulation and genes that regulate sleep play a role in mental health and illness.
To date a surprisingly large number of genes have been identified that play an important role in both sleep disruption and mental illness. And if the mental illness is not causing disruption in sleep and circadian rhythm, then sleep disruption may actually occur just before an episode of mental illness under some circumstances.
The findings raise the possibility that treating disturbed sleep will have a positive impact on mental illness. A recent study managed to reduce sleep disruptions using cognitive behavioural therapy in patients with schizophrenia who showed that a better night’s sleep decreased paranoid thinking along with a reduced anxiety and depression.
So where do we go from here?
It is time to take the importance of sleep, particularly in mental illness more seriously. Treating sleep problems will not only improve health and quality of life, but will also have a massive impact on the economics of health care.