Sleep is very often overlooked as the cause of our health problems.
If we’re suffering from more colds than usual, feel run down, or have more serious issues, poor sleep is the last thing we usually blame – even though it can be an important factor.
Sleep is also traditionally thought of as a symptom of certain mental health issues such as depression.
However, according to a new study, sleep could also be a reason people develop such disorders in the first place.
The research, by the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, known as OASIS, was published in The Lancet Psychiatry, a scientific journal.
The researchers aimed to improve the sleep of 3,755 university students across the UK, all of whom tested posted for insomnia.
They were randomised into two groups. One received an online cognitive behaviour therapy program (CBT) for insomnia called Sleepio, while the others continued with whatever treatments they were taking already. The aim was to see whether there was any impact on then developing mental health problems such as paranoia, anxiety, and depression.
According to Daniel Freeman, the principal investigator from the study, and a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford, it is always assumed that sleep problems are a consequence of the other difficulties.
“For a long time in my clinical work I have always found that helping people sleep has knock-on effects to these other problems,” he told Business Insider. “So the OASIS trial was a way of following up on my own clinical experience: to demonstrate the benefits of treating sleep on paranoia and hallucinations.”
Those who received the CBT treatment showed large reductions in insomnia, and small reductions in paranoia and hallucinatory experiences, and improvements in depression, anxiety, nightmares, psychological well-being, and home functioning.
“The results are not surprising to our team. But they do turn on its head the standard view that sleep difficulties are either a symptom or secondary consequence of other mental health problems,” said Freeman.
“Sleep problems look to be a part of the complex package of causes of mental health difficulties. Poor sleep causes double trouble for your mind: there is an impact both on what you think and how you think it.”
Freeman explained that sleeping badly can mean your thoughts become skewed towards downbeat, fearful things, while brain processing tends towards loops of repetitive negative thinking.
“In essence, the psychological consequence of disrupted sleep is that we have negative thoughts and we get stuck in them,” he said.
“This then causes multiple ripple effects. Chiefly there is a dip in mood. Anxiety, feeling blue, and irritability result. How we think about the people around us may alter. Suspiciousness and mistrustfulness increase. Distractibility and inattention abound. And the more our minds our troubled then the worse our sleep will get.”
He added that the longer sleep problems persist, the greater the psychological consequences. However, this affects everyone differently, and some people will be able to counteract poor sleep better than others.
“The psychological consequences magnify our pre-existing vulnerabilities,” Freeman said. “Poor sleep aggravates our insecurities. So if we have, for example, a general tendency to get anxious or miserable, disrupted sleep will bring these feelings out.”
The researchers next want to better understand the mechanisms linking insomnia and mental health problems, and to test their findings in studies with people attending mental health services.
“We also think there needs to be work done on reshaping clinical services to give sleep a much higher priority,” Freeman said.