Research shows bad sleep may lead to this rampant mental health issue

It is only recently that we have begun to comprehend just how essential sleep is.

Quality rest enables our bodies to regulate appetite, conserve energy and mitigate symptoms of anxiety.

A new study by researchers at The University of Berkeley, California, finds that during deep sleep, or non-rapid eye movement slow-wave sleep, our heart rate, and blood pressure drop exponentially, effectively cooing various stressors of the day.

Those who fail to achieve quality sleep on a regular basis raise their anxiety levels by 30%.

“We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,”  the study’s senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology told Science Daily. “Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night.”

Non-rapid eye movement and psychological reactivity

Walker and his team set out to explore sleep’s potential as a non-pharmaceutical treatment for anxiety disorders. Understanding the regulatory mechanisms of NREM the researchers hypothesized that the state might also  serve as a remedy for overall stress.

They began by recruiting 18 young adults. Nine participants were shown emotional video footage after staying awake all night, while the remaining nine were shown the same footage after receiving a full night’s rest.

Quality sleep was measured with a functional MRI and polysomnography and distress levels were measured with the state-trait-anxiety-inventory (a survey created in 1963 to correctly diagnosis psychological conditions).

MRI scans revealed that the medial prefrontal cortex had shut down in participants that stayed awake all night, while regions of the brain related to emotional responses entered a state of hyperactivity. Conversely, the participants that received quality rest evidenced significantly less activity in their emotional centers.

The more sleep an individual received the less reactive they were to the emotionally moving video clips. This outcome was so profound that even slight differences in quantity either raised or lowered distress levels the following day.

“People with anxiety disorders routinely report having disturbed sleep, but rarely is sleep improvement considered as a clinical recommendation for lowering anxiety. Our study not only establishes a causal connection between sleep and anxiety, but it identifies the kind of deep NREM sleep we need to calm the overanxious brain,” said the study’s lead author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley said in a press statement. 

Anxiety and depression medication work by influencing neurotransmitters—chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with another. Because of this, side effects to clinical trials are wide-ranging. Some of the more intense side effects often pass with time but in some cases, symptoms are severe enough to subject the sufferer to a series of dosage adjustments. It’s virtually impossible to impact one aspect of brain function without altering the entire network. The tools are getting more and more precise but we’re not quite there.

Even in the best cast scenarios lifestyle adjustments are required to fully reap the benefits of psychiatric medication. This includes diet, exercise and quality sleep. There are too many stimuli trying to make contact with our brains when we’re awake.

When we sleep we give our mind a chance to catch up and cherry-pick the considerations that deserve our attention and evict the ones that negatively affect our well-being.

“Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake,” the authors conclude. “Deep sleep had restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety.”

The study, titled “Overanxious and under-slept”, was co-authored by Eti Ben Simon, Aubrey Rossi, Allison G. Harvey, and Matthew P. Walker and was published in the journal, Nature Human Behavior.