Why Sleep Is Vital To Mental Health

Does insomnia cause depression, or does depression cause insomnia? Chronic insomnia is strongly associated with mood disorders, but which is the cause and which is the effect is not at all clear. It’s likely that causality can work in either direction.

Surprisingly, there is little experimental research on the connection between sleep and emotions.  Most of it involves sleep deprivation: human subjects are observed in laboratories over days or weeks when they are allowed to sleep up to 50 percent less than normal. Sleep restriction generally makes healthy people less optimistic and less sociable and more sensitive to physical pain. One study at the University of Pennsylvania found that subjects limited to four to five hours of sleep per night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. Their moods improved dramatically when they resumed normal sleep.

Mood disorders are also strongly linked to abnormal patterns of dreaming. Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., a leading sleep and dream researcher at Chicago’s Rush Medical Center and author of The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives, has shown that individuals who dream and remember their dreams heal more quickly from depressive moods associated with divorce. Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a sleep and dream expert on the clinical faculty of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine believes that “REM/dream loss is the most critical overlooked socio-cultural force” in the development of depression.

Most medications used to help people sleep also suppress their dreaming. They are some of the most widely used drugs in our society.  Many antidepressant drugs suppress dreaming as well.

Research on dreams suggests that the emotional content of many is negative.  If this is your experience and you find it disturbing, consider Dr. Naiman’s view that dreaming is “a kind of psychological yoga,” that contributes to emotional wellness.  He says that dreams “in the first part of the night appear to process and diffuse residual negative emotion from the waking day; dreams later in the night then integrate this material into one’s sense of self.”

I’m happy to report that my dreams are overwhelmingly pleasant. Often, I’m traveling in exotic lands, having great adventures with friends and interesting strangers. My parents, both deceased, are frequently in my dreams, always appearing young, healthy, and in good spirits.  Recalling my dreams when I wake can put me in a good mood at the start of a day. I think I owe some of my active and entertaining dream life to melatonin. I take it most nights both for its effect on sleep and dreaming and for its useful influence on immunity. Fortunately, one does not develop tolerance to melatonin as with other sleep aids, and it rarely has negative side effects.

The bottom line: you must assess your sleep if you want to experience better moods.  If you have difficulty sleeping or are not getting enough sleep or sleep of good quality, consult a sleep expert.


Rubin Naiman, PhD, is a psychologist, clinical assistant professor of medicine and the sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, directed by Dr. Andrew Weil. He is also director of Circadian Health Associates, an organization that offers sleep related services, training, product development and consultation internationally. For more than a decade, he served as the sleep and dream specialist at Canyon Ranch and Miraval Resorts. Dr. Naiman is a leader in the development of integrative medicine approaches to sleep and dream disorders, integrating conventional sleep science with depth psychological and spiritual approaches. He is the author of a number of groundbreaking works on sleep, including Healing Night, Healthy Sleep (with Dr. Weil), To Sleep Tonight, The Yoga of Sleep, Ask the Sleep Doctor, The Nature of Sleep as well as professional book chapters. Visit www.DrNaiman.com for more information.

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