Sleep and Depression: More Links

In 1995, hoping to improve my sleep, I decided to watch TV early in the morning, for reasons explained here. One Monday morning I watched tapes of Jay Leno and David Letterman that I’d made. Nothing happened. On Tuesday, however, I woke up and felt great: cheerful, eager and yet somehow calm. I had never felt so good so early in the morning. Monday had been a normal day, I had slept a normal length of time. The good feeling was puzzling. Then I remembered the TV I had watched. It had seemed so innocuous. The notion that 20 minutes of ordinary TV Monday morning could make me feel better Tuesday but not Monday seemed preposterous. Absurd. Couldn’t possibly be true.

Except for one thing. I had done something to improve my sleep. Plenty of research connected sleep and depression. That research made it more plausible that something done to improve sleep would improve mood. I went on to confirm the morning faces/mood linkage in many ways. The research connecting sleep and depression had been the first signs of a hidden mechanism (we need to see morning faces for our mood regulatory system to work properly) I consider very important.

Two new studies further connect sleep and depression. One of them found that people who sleep normal amounts of time are less influenced by genes associated with depression than those who sleep longer or shorter lengths of time. The other found that teenagers who sleep less than usual are at greater risk of depression.

The theories that psychiatrists have used to justify anti-depressants (e.g., “chemical imbalance”) do not explain the many connections between sleep and depression. Depression is associated with lots of bad things, unsurprisingly, but the association with bad sleep is especially strong. It is not easily explained away. You might think that if you are depressed you are more tired than usual and therefore sleep more/better than usual. The opposite is true.  All this might have generated, among psychiatric researchers, a search for a better theory — an explanation of depression that can explain the sleep/depression connections — but it hasn’t.


14 Replies to “Sleep and Depression: More Links”

  1. Why does it matter that we have a theory to explain depression? We need a cure for depression. If sleep works, great (although I doubt its important). I’ve actually heard that sleep deprivation is helpful for depression, but whatever. I am resistant to any theory that posits the human organism to be incredibly delicate and only capable of thriving in a narrow set of conditions. I think that’s clearly wrong. If you tell me we’re obese or unhealthy because ooops, vegetable oils! I’m gonna laugh. We’re not that delicate. If depression is caused by imbalances in sleep, when we evolved in an environment rife with nighttime hunters and menaces and raids, I’m gonna say, no, its unlikely we’re such delicate creatures that not getting our 8 hours is gonna hurt us so much.

    Seth: My theory says we have a circadian oscillator that controls both mood and sleep. That oscillator needs certain input to function correctly. Just like we need Vitamin C for other things to work correctly. My theory suggests new treatments for depression.

  2. Seth:

    In your quest for the perfect night’s sleep, have you tried nonalcoholic beer? It raises GABA. I’ve been drinking one an hour before bed and it seems to help. I recently quit drinking (again), and morning faces, avoidance of blue light at night and fruit and NA beer before bed have resolved the sleep issues that have been my undoing in this endeavor before much more quickly.

    Link to study:


    It’s hard to know where to look for a cure for an ailment if one does not know the cause of it. I’ve also read that one night of sleep deprivation can help depression, but that is very different from chronic sleep deprivation.

  3. Seth, are you still getting good results with the orange glasses before bed? Mine arrived yesterday, and I think they helped me fall asleep faster, but it’ll be a while longer before I’ve had time to do a/b testing & be more confident about that.

  4. Gina, not true at all. Many of the most important breakthroughs in medicine occurred not through directed research but completely by chance or as a byproduct of searching for something else entirely. Antibiotics, probably the biggest saver of lives ever, was a complete chance discovery. In fact, since the switch to large scale directed research, breakthroughs have become far fewer. Theories in fact come after you observe something works. In this case, oh I noticed sleep cures depression now let me invent a theory for that. The theory never would have existed without the prior observation, and plays no important role.

    There is a whole tradition of empirical medicine that doesn’t rely on theory but relies on tinkering and serendipity. Directed research has some successes but overall a worse track record. This is surprising but true. We overvalue theory.

    Seth – maybe your theory is right, but it seems unlikely that we didn’t evolve to handle regular disruptions in sleep and to go without sleep periodically. In any event if sleep does in fact cure depression then your theory may or may not be right who knows.

    1. “In this case, oh I noticed sleep cures depression now let me invent a theory for that.” That doesn’t describe what happened to me. I noticed that morning faces improved my mood. I wasn’t depressed. In fact, morning faces did NOT especially improve my sleep.

  5. Even the mainstream media has gotten the word about the fallacy of “chemical imbalances”. Here is David Brooks in 2011 in the Times:

    “Many of us have been taught that depression arises, in part, from chemical imbalances in the brain. Apparently, there is no evidence to support that. ”

    Seth: good to know.

  6. The convenient thing to drug companies about the “chemical imbalance” meme is that it suggests that one will need to purchase chemicals to restore balance.

  7. “Antibiotics, probably the biggest saver of lives ever, was a complete chance discovery.”

    Not true. The discovery that antibiotics were useful against disease owed a great deal to the germ theory of disease. This supports what Gina said.

  8. Seth, noticing that some substances make you better or worse does not require any germ theory. Man has been doing that since the dawn of time. Had Fleming had all sorts of theories about what a bacteria is and how one might go about killing it he would not have had as much success in a hundred years as one chance event.

    “….Antibiotics transformed medicine. The discovery of antibiotics began by accident. On the morning of September 3rd, 1928, Professor Alexander Fleming was having a clear up of his cluttered laboratory. Fleming was sorting through a number of glass plates which had previously been coated with staphyloccus bacteria as part of research Fleming was doing. One of the plates had mould on it. The mould was in the shape of a ring and the area around the ring seemed to be free of the bacteria staphyloccus. The mould was penicillium notatum. Fleming had a life long interest in ways of killing off bacteria and he concluded that the bacteria on the plate around the ring had been killed off by some substance that had come from the mould.”

    1. George, there’s a lot of truth to the saying “chance favors the prepared mind”. Chance favors the prepared mind (often full of theories) in two ways:

      1. the “prepared” person is more likely to do the thing that leads to the chance observation. As Zach says, the germ theory of disease is the reason Fleming was studying bacteria in vitro.

      2. the “prepared” person is more likely to see how the chance observation can be used. In Paris, I suddenly lost my appetite. A chance observation. This had nothing to with any preparation or theory. But what happened after that did: based on my theory of weight control, I came up with an explanation of my loss of appetite. Then I tested my explanation. The results led to the Shangri-La Diet. Surely lots of people have had a sudden loss of appetite for reasons similar to mine. But, because of my “preparation” (my theory of weight control), I seem to be the only person to have learned from it.

  9. George – You need the germ theory of disease in order to recognize that staphylococcus has anything to do with getting sick. Otherwise no one would have been interested in learning how to kill bacteria. There’s a big difference between directed research in general and the sort of studies in particular that you are complaining about. Tinkering doesn’t exist without some over-arching principle leading up to it (correct or not).

  10. I had a biopsychology textbook in the mid-2000s that stated that intermittent total sleep deprivation–I think the best “dose” was staying awake all night once every three or four days–completely alleviated symptoms of depression. I never read the source articles but I wondered since then if we would find out that depression, or some subset of depressed states, was a sleep disorder.

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