The Dangers of Too Little Sleep

Try not to lose sleep over the results of the latest sleep studies. Those lost hours of rest could lead to a variety of health issues, according to recent research – the common cold, depression, even heart disease or Parkinson’s.

Insomnia may cause alarming changes in the brain.

The findings of a recent study published in Radiology link chronic sleeplessness to alarming changes in the brain. Researchers in China used an advanced MRI technique to compare the brains of 23 people suffering from insomnia with the brains of 30 people with normal sleep patterns.

The images allowed them to analyze the brain’s white matter tracts. “White matter tracts are bundles of axons–or long fibers of nerve cells–that connect one part of the brain to another,” study author Shumei Li said in a news release. “If white matter tracts are impaired, communication between brain regions is disrupted.”

The scientists found that the insomnia patients had reduced white matter integrity in several right-brain regions and the thalamus. The affected areas control sleep, wakefulness, alertness, cognitive function, and sensorimotor function. The cause of these changes in the white matter may be the loss of myelin, the protective sheath that coats nerve fibers.

Sleep loss may lead to heart disease.

A team of researchers at the University of Helsinki recently discovered that lack of sleep affects the way the human body metabolizes cholesterol. By analyzing small blood samples, they observed that the genes responsible for controlling cholesterol transport were less active in people experiencing sleep loss than in those who got adequate sleep. They also found that people who slept less had fewer high-density HDL lipoproteins (the “good cholesterol” transport proteins) than those who slept sufficiently.

These risk factors may contribute to the higher risk of atherosclerosis (hardening or narrowing of the arteries) and cardiovascular disease in people suffering from sleep deprivation.

Chronic lack of sleep may increase your risk of Parkinson’s disease.

A study published earlier this month in Molecular Psychiatry reveals that chronic sleep loss and irregular sleep-wake cycles may be risk factors of Parkinson’s disease. Researchers from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) examined how disturbances in circadian rhythms affected the development of Parkinson’s in a mouse model of the disease.

The mice were divided into two groups. The first, the control group, was exposed to a normal circadian schedule – 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark each day. The second group was exposed to 20 hours of light and 4 hours of dark. All the mice developed Parkinson’s, but those exposed to the altered circadian schedule experienced significant learning impairments and drastic reductions in motor coordination and motor learning skills – much worse than those observed in the control group.

The findings lend support to the research team’s theory that sleep disorders and disrupted circadian cycles may contribute to the development of Parkinson’s.

Sleeping fewer than 5 hours may increase your risk of cold and other infections.

People who sleep no more than five hours each night may be at higher risk of suffering from a cold or other infection than those sleeping more, according to a study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Surveys of 22,000 Americans showed that 19 percent of those sleeping five hours or fewer each night suffered from a head or chest cold in the last 30 days, compared with 16 percent of those who slept for six hours and 15 percent of those who slept more than seven hours.

Lack of sleep may affect cardiovascular, endocrine and immune functioning, which in turn heightens your risk of disease or infection. In addition, “poor sleep may lead to health behaviors that raise one’s risk for poor heath,” study author Aric Prather told Reuters Health. “Short sleepers are less likely to exercise and more likely to engage in less than ideal nutrition that, again over time, can affect health.”

Insomnia may lead to depression.

Insomnia may increase your risk of depression by impairing your ability to regulate emotions. Published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the study surveyed 880 current and retired United States firefighters between the ages of 18 and 82 years. 52.7 percent of participants reported insomnia symptoms, while 39.6 reported suffering from depression.

Analysis of the firefighters’ survey responses revealed that emotional regulation difficulties had a significant impact on the relationship between insomnia and depression. These difficulties included a lack of problem-solving skills and the inability to control negative emotions.

“Our study findings suggest that firefighters with sleep difficulties are likely to experience greater struggles accessing strategies to regulate their emotions, especially when feeling upset. This, in turn, may lead to or worsen feelings of depression and low mood,” said lead author Melanie Hom said in a news release. “These results are important because they provide a plausible explanation for why and how sleep problems may contribute to depression, which are critical questions for prevention and intervention.”

Article sources:

Aho, Vilma. “Prolonged sleep restriction induces changes in pathways involved in cholesterol metabolism and inflammatory responses.” Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 24828 (2016), doi:10.1038/srep24828.

Doyle, Kathryn. “Short Sleep May Be Tied to Cold or Infection Risk.” Reuters.com.

Hom, Melanie A. “The association between sleep disturbances and depression among firefighters: emotion dysregulation as an explanatory factor.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, http://dx.doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.5492.

Lauretti, E. “Circadian rhythm dysfunction: a novel environmental risk factor for Parkinson’s disease.” Molecular Psychiatry, 5 April 2016, doi:10.1038/mp.2016.47

Li, Shumei. “Reduced Integrity of Right Lateralized White Matter in Patients with Primary Insomnia: A Diffusion-Tensor Imaging Study.” Radiology, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1148/radiol.2016152038.

Prather, Aric A. “Association of insufficient sleep with respiratory infection among adults in the United States.” JAMA Intern Med. Published online 11 April 2016, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.0787.

News release, American Academy of Sleep Medicine

News release, Radiological Society of North America

News release, Temple University Health System

News release, University of Helsinki

 

 

 

 

Treating Depression with Light Therapy

Research reveals bright light treatment is more than just a way to beat the winter blues.

Depression is a disease that touches many lives. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.4 percent of Americans suffer from some type of depression. It’s the leading cause of disability in the United States. Antidepressant medications are widely prescribed to help patients deal with the symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, they’re effective in only 55-60 percent of cases, leaving many depression sufferers searching for a viable alternative.

Light therapy has long been used to combat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s linked to the changing of the seasons. But what about depression that has nothing to do with the seasons? According to Dr. Barbara Parry, MD, a professor of psychiatry at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, exposure to bright light is an effective treatment for other types of depressive disorders too.

“Light therapy initially was used to treat seasonal affective disorder (or winter depression), but more recently has been found to be even more efficacious than antidepressants for non-seasonal depression,” says Parry.

New Evidence in Favor of Light Therapy

Recent research confirms the efficacy of treating non-seasonal depression with bright light. Scientists from the University of British Columbia (UBC) studied the effects of light therapy on the disease, both as a standalone treatment and in combination with the antidepressant fluoxetine. The study, led by UBC professor and psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Lam, MD, involved 122 patients who were exposed to a fluorescent light box for 30 minutes upon waking every day for eight weeks.

The results of the study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, showed that many patients benefited from light therapy and experienced positive effects on their mood. Light therapy helped both the patients taking fluoxetine and those who took none.

Another recent study examined the effects of light therapy on depressed cancer survivors. Patients who were exposed to a bright white light box 30 minutes each morning for four weeks experienced an improvement in their depressive symptoms. Other patients who followed the same routine with a dim red light box reported no change in symptoms.

The results of these studies should provide hope to people suffering from depression who find no relief from the current crop of treatments. “More and more people are seeking help because there is less stigma about having depression,” Lam said in a news release from UBC. “It’s important to find new treatments because our current therapies don’t work for everyone. Our findings should help to improve the lives of people with depression.”

The Advantages of Light Therapy

Light therapy for non-seasonal depressive disorder isn’t necessarily faster-acting than antidepressants. According to Parry, patients using light therapy for SAD tend to see results quickly, in as little as three to four days. However, for those suffering from non-seasonal depression, the effects of light exposure take longer to kick in – about five to six weeks.

That’s approximately the same amount of time it takes to experience relief with antidepressant medications (four to six weeks). However, the positive effects of antidepressants come at a cost. Users report a variety of side effects, including insomnia, lethargy, migraines, weight gain, decreased sex drive, and even suicide.

Light therapy generally results in fewer side effects, making it an excellent alternative for people who wish to avoid the unpleasant and possibly harmful effects of antidepressants. “It is a viable alternative treatment for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding who are concerned about the small, but potentially adverse, effects of antidepressant medication on their child,” says Parry.

Those who avoid medication due to cost or lack of availability are also good candidates for light therapy. The initial investment in a fluorescent light box ranges from $40 to $300. The treatment itself is as simple as plugging in the box at home and basking in its glow for 30 minutes each morning. There’s no need to disrupt the morning routine either – reading, eating, drinking coffee, checking email, shaving, and putting on makeup are all acceptable activities during a light therapy session.

Combining Treatments for Maximum Effect

 While light therapy alone is an effective treatment for depression, its impact improves when combined with other treatments, such as psychotherapy, medication, or sleep therapy. The UBC researchers found that the patients who reported the most improvement in depressive symptoms were those who also took an antidepressant. Parry is currently researching the impact of combining light therapy with shifts in sleeping schedules. According to her, “Light treatment can work faster and its effects can be enhanced by combining it with sleep therapy.”

 

Article sources:

Barbara Parry, MD, professor of psychiatry at University of California San Diego School of Medicine

Lam, Raymond W., MD. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016; 73(1): pp 56-63.

National Institute of Mental Health: “Antidepressants: A Complicated Picture”

News release, Mount Sinai Hospital/Mount Sinai School of Medicine

News release, University of British Columbia