Sleep disturbance, described as insomnia or hypersomnia, is one of the primary symptoms of major depressive disorder.1 People struggling with depression are likely to have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. The tricky thing is that sleep deprivation (insufficient sleep) can also lead to depressed mood, moodiness, and irritability. It can be difficult to decipher which came first, the depression or the sleep disturbance.

Symptoms of sleep deprivation

The main symptom of ongoing sleep deprivation is daytime sleepiness, but other symptoms can include:

  • Excessive yawning
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Mood changes
  • Depressed mood
  • Forgetfulness
  • Clumsiness
  • Difficulty learning new things
  • Feeling “fuzzy”
  • Lack of motivation
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Increased appetite.
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Sleep deprivation weakens the prefrontal cortex’s (reasoning) ability to control the amygdala (emotions), making it difficult to process and cope with emotions. When the brain is deprived of adequate sleep, it also struggles to concentrate and regulate growth and appetite.

Sleep deprivation can have a profound effect on both the emotional and cognitive functioning of the brain. This results in bad moods, negative thinking, decreased empathy, and poor impulse control.

The good news is that sleep deprivation can be treated, and getting on a regular sleep cycle can alleviate the above symptoms.

Treatment of sleep deprivation

Good sleep hygiene is the antidote to sleep deprivation. People accumulate sleep debt when they lose a specified amount of sleep each night, and the only way to repay that debt is to get more sleep.

Try these strategies to improve your sleep hygiene:

  • Set a specific schedule for sleep and wake times, including weekends and vacations
  • Go to bed when tired
  • Avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed
  • Engage in daily exercise
  • If unable to sleep after twenty minutes, go to another room to read until sleepy
  • Avoid using any electronics in the bedroom
  • Turn off electronics one hour before bed
  • Keep the bedroom quiet, dark, and cool

Symptoms of depression

Given that depression often includes insomnia, and sleep deprivation triggers depressed mood, you can see why it’s difficult to differentiate the two. The essential feature of depression, however, includes a period of time in which there is at least two weeks of depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities. 2

Other symptoms of depression include:

  • Significant weight loss when not dieting or significant weight gain
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
  • Psychomotor changes (agitation or retardation)
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Diminished ability to think, concentrate, or make decision nearly every day
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or recurrent suicidal ideation (with or without a plan)
  • Symptoms cause significant distress in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning

The emotional symptoms that accompany depression are far more significant than moodiness or depressed mood. Thoughts of suicide, feelings of helplessness or worthlessness, and excessive feelings of guilt can make it difficult to get out of bed, get to work or school, and socialize with others.

Which one is it?

Mild emotional symptoms and difficulty concentrating when you know you are dealing with sleep debt can likely be attributed to sleep deprivation. While sleep debt can be dangerous (driving a car when sleep deprived, for example), it can be remedied with proper sleep hygiene and stress reduction techniques.

Major depressive disorder, on the other hand, can significantly impair functioning and requires further treatment than proper sleep and stress reduction. A depressed mood that lasts two weeks or longer is a red flag to seek help from a licensed mental health practitioner. If you or a loved one experiences suicidal thoughts, dial 911 or go the nearest emergency room for an evaluation.

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Last Updated: Jul 18, 2017