The Unidirectional Relationship Between Sleep and Depression

Did you always believe that sleep problems, low energy, and low activity levels were a result of depressed mood? Well, a new study suggests it might be the opposite that is true.

It’s always been challenging to figure out how our body works, especially when it involves many homeostatic systems of the body. Homeostatic systems are systems in your body that work to maintain a stable and steady internal condition.

Your internal body temperature is a great example. You sweat in order to cool down and blood vessels in the extremities like your hands and feet are constricted to prevent further heat loss. Our sleep is also a balancing act between our sleep and waking states.

As your body remains awake for longer hours, the demand for sleep rises. That is, until you finally sleep. ‘S’ is your sleep-wake homeostasis and ‘C’ is your circadian rhythm. 

However, when it came to mental disorders such as depression, it can be challenging to understand the interrelationships between multiple internal systems and their directional influences. This is especially evident with traditional clinical assessments that are based on retrospective recall (having participants recall how they were during experiments).

Fortunately, thanks to mobile devices and wrist-monitors, the investigation team were able to collect minute-by-minute physical activities, estimate sleep durations, and ask participants to assess their mood and energy levels in real-time. 

Lead investigator Kathleen Merikangas, Ph.D., Chief of the Genetic Epidemiology Research Branch in the Intramural Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, and colleagues discovered some new relationships between our complex biological systems., and how motor activity may play a central role in mood regulation.

The study involved participants with bipolar-I disorder, bipolar-II disorder, major depressive disorder, and a control group with none of these three disorders.

What they discovered was a unidirectional relationship between motor activity and mood, suggesting motor activities affect your mood, but not the other way around. 

They also found a bidirectional relationship between motor activity and subjective energy, and between motor activity and sleep duration.

This means that maybe pharmacological, physical, and behavioral approaches focused on increasing motor activity and energy may be more effective than treatments geared towards elevating and stabilizing mood. The same applies to therapies that focus more on “stable rhythms” across multiple systems may be more effective than simply focusing on one system alone.

What does this means for you?

When it comes to depressed mood, two of the best ways to fight the winning fight with mental disorders are to stay active and sleeping well. Treatment and therapy is still necessary, but understanding the relationship between our body’s systems might be the key to getting through your low times.


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