How to get better sleep if you have depression


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Depression can easily creep into your day, whether it’s a meeting where you can’t focus or trying to work up the motivation to go for a run instead of staying on the couch. But it tends to permeate into nights as well, throwing off sleep in a variety of ways.

Ahead, you’ll learn more about depression, how it affects sleep, and what you can do to prevent depression from ruining your sleep quality.

What is depression?

Depression is a type of mood disorder that’s defined as a psychiatric condition by the medical community. It affects 3.8% of the worldwide population.

“Individuals with depression are often unmotivated or unable to take care of many of their basic life activities due to an overwhelming feeling of sadness, distorted thinking, and sometimes even suicidal thoughts,” explains Haley Neidich, licensed clinical social worker. “Depression is not just a bad mood and it’s not something that an individual can push through with willpower. It’s a psychiatric condition that requires serious treatment.”

What causes depression?

Depression can be brought on by a wide array of factors. It’s a “complex mental illness that rarely has only cause,” says Neidich. 

“Depression is not just a bad mood and it’s not something that an individual can push through with willpower. It’s a psychiatric condition that requires serious treatment.”

Some of the causes that come into play can include family history, chemical imbalance, trauma, grief, a major life change, substance abuse, physical illness, and medications.

What are the symptoms of depression?

According to Neidich, some of the common signs and symptoms of depression include:  

  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Irritability or anger
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
  • Anxiety/nervousness
  • Exhaustion and lack of motivation
  • Sleep disturbances like insomnia or hypersomnia (oversleeping)
  • Feelings of worthlessness and shame
  • Trouble with decision-making and concentration
  • Frequent thoughts about death, suicidal thinking, or suicide attempts
  • Inability to care for basic life activities or hygiene
  • Reduced or increased appetite
  • Other behavioral changes
  • Social isolation

What’s the connection between depression and sleep?

Depression and sleeping have a bidirectional relationship. “Worsening sleep often increases depression and depression often causes poorer sleep habits,” says Neidich. 

She often reminds her clients that there’s a link between sleep deprivation and depression, noting that “without proper sleep, it’s very unlikely to see an improvement in mental health symptoms.”

While there’s a well-known connection between depression and sleeping too much, you may not realize that depression can cause insomnia as well.

“Sleep issues with depression can vary,” Neidich says. “Some individuals tend to oversleep while others struggle with insomnia. Other folks will vacillate between the two.”

Neidich adds that insomnia is one of the most common symptoms of many depressive disorders, and depression is more commonly seen in individuals with poor sleep habits.

“The same brain chemicals that contribute to depression also have a tendency to cause difficulty with sleep,” she says. “Additionally, folks with depression are less likely to be able to stick to a good sleep routine and care for themselves in general.” 

What’s more, there’s also a link between sleep apnea and depression. In fact, one 2017 study found that depression and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are “major associated comorbidities” and can be attributed to the fact that sleep apnea disrupts sleep, leading to mood problems, anxiety, and poor concentration.

How is depression diagnosed?

Depression can be diagnosed during a session with a psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional who will ask several questions about your symptoms while they listen to and observe you, explains Neidich. 

They may ask you to fill out a questionnaire to help them better understand the severity of your symptoms as well as a tool to help guide the conversation.

“If you believe you may be depressed, be sure to tell your doctor about your symptoms so that they can properly assess you,” says Neidich.

How is depression treated?

While depression may feel like a fairly hopeless state of mind, know that there are several treatment options available today. Since each person is different, you may need to combine a few therapies—and it may take time to find what works best for you.

“Depression is most commonly treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication,” Neidich says. However, keep in mind that many medical professionals who prescribe medication for depression won’t provide a referral to a psychotherapist—so you may need to find one on your own. 

“Therapy is essential because depression is typically caused by a number of factors,” says Neidich, “and in order to heal and prevent future episodes, folks with depression must also learn coping skills and process any potential causes or triggers which can contribute to their symptoms.”

Neidich adds that this combination of therapy is especially important when insomnia or hypersomnia is present. She encourages individuals to explore a possible treatment plan with a doctor and therapist to find the right one.

If you need additional support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Tips for sleeping better with depression

While oversleeping can certainly negatively impact your circadian rhythm, a lack of sleep and depression can also create worsened symptoms.

If you’re wondering how to sleep with anxiety and depression, Neidich shares her best tips:

  • Give your phone a graduated bedtime—no news or social media after dinner and no phone at all besides meditation or relaxation apps beginning at least 90 minutes before bed. Set reminder alarms on your phone and be committed to making this change.
  • Give yourself a simple and comforting bedtime routine and stick to it. Soft music, bathing, journaling, meditating, safely lighting a candle, and reading are all lovely things to include in your new routine. Your routine should begin at least 45 minutes before you hope to climb into bed.
  • Get out of bed in the morning and make your bed. One of the behaviors that can contribute to sleep issues and depression is staying in bed all day—or, in this day and age, even working from bed. Getting out of bed and making your bed is a great way to avoid climbing back in before bedtime.

The bottom line: “If you notice a major change in your sleep habits, this is not something that should be ignored,” says Neidich. “If it persists, speaking to your medical doctor or a therapist is a great first step.”

What is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia and can it help ease some of your depression-related sleep issues? Read our guide to CBT-I to learn more.

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Can alcohol actually help you sleep?

Can alcohol actually help you sleep?

I’ve never been a huge drinker, but I’ve definitely imbibed more than usual over the last year and a half. With all the added stress from the pandemic, I’ve found myself reaching for a large glass—or two, let’s be real—of wine almost every night.

Not only does drinking alcohol leave me with a serious case of acid reflux, though, but it also makes getting a good night’s sleep pretty difficult. That’s not surprising, given studies show alcohol negatively impacts sleep.

“While some people notice that an alcoholic drink or two causes drowsiness and aids them in falling asleep, there is evidence to suggest that alcohol, particularly in high doses, can interrupt and negatively affect the quality of one’s sleep,” says Emma M. Laing, PhD, RDN, clinical associate professor and director of the didactic program in dietetics at the University of Georgia.

To get my sleep (and health) back on track, I’ve decided to temporarily quit drinking and do a dry month challenge. Here, learn more about how alcohol affects sleep and the many benefits you can expect from a dry month. 

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In general, alcohol quickens how fast you’ll fall asleep — and it also makes it harder for noise and commotion to wake you up. 

Research shows alcohol increases the amount of time spent in slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage of sleep, although recent data suggests this only happens in people who are already deficient in deep sleep. (This could be the case if you have a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea.) 

These effects only occur in the first part of sleep, usually within the first four hours of the night as your body metabolizes the alcohol. Once your body has broken down all of the booze, you’ll start to experience worse sleep. Now you’re awakened and can be aroused from sleep more easily.

Why is that? According to studies on alcohol and sleep, you tend to spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep and REM sleep (the period when you dream) during the later part of the night, after you’ve thrown back a few cocktails. 

In general, most people can metabolize one drink every one to two hours. But when it comes to how alcohol will affect your individual body and sleep, a lot of factors come into play. These include:

  • What you drink: Some types of booze have a higher alcohol content than others and will therefore hit you harder. A standard serving of beer (12 ounces) usually has around 5% alcohol; a standard serving of wine (5 ounces) usually has around 12% alcohol; and a standard serving of distilled 80-proof liquor (1.5 ounces) usually has around 40% alcohol. 
  • How much you drink: The more alcohol you drink, the higher your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will be. 
  • How quickly you drink: The faster you down drinks, the higher your BAC will be. 
  • Your gender: Alcohol affects men and women differently. Women tend to weigh less than men and ultimately tend to get intoxicated more quickly. Women also have less dehydrogenase, the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. This can lead to higher BACs for women even if they drink the same amount of alcohol as men. 
  • Your body size: People with smaller body sizes will feel the effects of alcohol faster. 
  • What you eat: Food also plays a role in how alcohol will affect you. Having something in your stomach, whether it’s carbs, fat or protein, will help slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. The larger the meal and the closer you time it to your drinking, the lower your peak BAC is likely to be. 

That said, research shows as little as one drink could worsen your sleep, regardless of your gender or your weight. A 2018 study found that one drink reduces the restorative quality of sleep by 9.3%. Moderate alcohol consumption (three drinks), meanwhile, was shown to lower sleep quality by 24%. High alcohol consumption (seven drinks) was shown to decrease sleep quality by as much as 39.2%. 

Results were similar for women and men, as well as for people of smaller and larger body sizes and people who were physically active versus those who were more sedentary. 

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Research shows alcohol can increase the amount of deep sleep people with insomnia get. But this increase in deep sleep is only temporary. After about six nights, people with insomnia will start to develop a tolerance to alcohol and need to drink more to get the same effect, according to one study. 

While the research isn’t conclusive, it does suggest using alcohol as a sleep aid for insomnia could increase the risk of alcohol abuse.

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There’s a link between alcohol consumption and sleep apnea. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing down the part of the brain that controls breathing, along with the firing of the muscles that keep your airway open. When you have sleep apnea, this part of the airway gets repeatedly blocked during sleep. This causes brief arousals throughout the night.

Moderate to heavy drinking can lead to episodes of sleep apnea, even if you don’t have the condition. And for people who do have sleep apnea, studies show drinking can exacerbate this problem.

Yes, alcohol can disrupt sleep. While it has sedative effects that can cause feelings of sleepiness, studies show alcohol, particularly when consumed in excess, can reduce sleep quality and sleep duration.  

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Drinking alcohol isn’t going to do your sleep any favors. But if you’re smart about when, what and how much you imbibe, a glass (or two) of Pinot noir won’t necessarily ruin your night, either. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Stop drinking a few hours before bed. Exactly how long you should leave between your last drink and hitting the pillow depends on how much you drink and how quickly your body metabolizes alcohol. Most of us metabolize about one drink every one to two hours.
  • Don’t overdo it. The more drinks you consume, the longer it takes your body to metabolize the alcohol. Regardless of whether your body metabolizes alcohol quickly or slowly, the less alcohol in your system, the less potential for your sleep to get disrupted.
  • Watch out for heavy pours. Stick to standard-size drinks, not doubles, extra-large wine glasses or mixed drinks with multiple shots of different liquors. Bonus: You’ll certainly save money the next time you hit the bar. 

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Now you know all the ways alcohol can wreak havoc on your sleep. So naturally, you might be wondering whether taking a break from booze could improve your shut-eye. 

Here’s what you need to know about Dry January, the benefits of doing a dry month, and how to stick with it to experience the best results. 

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Dry January involves taking a month-long break from alcohol. Because it begins on January 1, some people participate in Dry January to kick-start a New Year’s resolution to cut back on alcohol. Other people use it as a way to reset after lots of holiday drinking.

The first Dry January took place in 2013. The campaign originated with Alcohol Concern, a U.K. organization, as a way to encourage mindfulness around alcohol consumption.

That first year, 4,000 Brits took the challenge, and it’s since expanded worldwide. Close to 25% of Americans reported interest in participating in Dry January in 2019.

Other popular months to stop drinking include September and October, which you’ll often see referred to as Sober September and Sober October. But really, you can do a dry challenge any month of the year.

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Even taking a short hiatus from drinking alcohol can result in better quality sleep. According to 2015 research out of the University of Sussex, 62% of Dry January participants reported better sleep.

“Appreciating the various ways in which alcohol can disrupt sleep, it makes sense that taking a break from drinking can result in more restful nights,” says Laing.

She does note, however, that heavy drinkers who decide to stop drinking abruptly may experience withdrawal symptoms before they start to see the sleep benefits. “Multiple factors, including how much and how often you drink, can contribute to the severity of these withdrawal symptoms,” she says.

Hilary Sheinbaum, journalist and author of The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month, first took the Dry January challenge in 2017 and noticed improvements in her sleep.

“When I gave up alcohol for one month, one of the most surprising epiphanies was my quality of sleep,” she says. Before taking the challenge, Sheinbaum says she used to sleep an average of five hours a night, often waking up in the middle of the night.

“I truly thought that was due to my crazy-busy New York City life, my around-the-clock job and my anxiety as a whole,” she says. “Nope! Not long into my first Dry January, I realized that even though my work and lifestyle were as busy as ever, I was sleeping seven to eight hours each night, which was a personal record.”

The only change Sheinbaum had made in her life? Giving up alcohol.

Laing says additional health benefits of cutting out alcohol, even for a short period, include an improved immune system and liver function, as well as a heightened ability to curb mindless snacking.

Per the University of Sussex research, 62% of Dry January participants reported more energy, while 82% felt a sense of achievement. Additionally, 49% of participants said they lost weight.

One of the more surprising benefits for Sheinbaum, meanwhile, had to do with her skin.

“My skin looked infinitely clearer and more glowy, even in the dead, dull, month of January,” she says. “As it turns out, alcohol dehydrates your body, including your skin.”

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A month without booze might sound daunting, but there are some things you can do to ensure the process goes smoothly, no matter if you plan it for January or any other month:

  • Be clear about your intentions. Make a list of the top reasons you’re giving up alcohol to remind yourself why you’re taking this break in the first place, suggests Laing. “Keep your list in a prominent place and refer to it when the urge to drink strikes,” she says. “If possible, talk about your intentions with your friends, family, and your healthcare provider, so they understand and are able to offer support when needed.”
  • Enlist a friend to do it with you. “For first-timers, I suggest recruiting a friend or friends to partake in the challenge with you,” says Sheinbaum. Her first Dry January stemmed from a spontaneous bet she made with a friend on New Year’s Eve in 2016. “The first year I did the dry challenge, and made a Dry January bet, it felt like a group effort,” she says. “It was so helpful to have a friend to keep me accountable—and also share tips and tricks along the way.”
  • Replace drinking with another activity. These last few months, I’d always reach for a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day. But there are healthier ways to relieve anxiety, and Dry January is the perfect time to incorporate some of these activities into your routine. Try taking a relaxing bath, going for a walk around the block with your pet or cooking a new recipe, says Laing.
  • Keep alcohol out of sight. “If you think you’ll be tempted by having alcohol in the house, put it away or give it to a friend to temporarily hold,” suggests Sheinbaum. As she notes, the point of a dry challenge isn’t to torture you. “It’s to make a dry month as simple, easy and as enjoyable as possible,” says Sheinbaum.
  • Sip tasty non-alcoholic beverages. “Replacing what is in your glass or cup doesn’t have to be fancy or require a lot of effort,”  Laing says. “Making a cup of soothing hot or iced tea, coffee or hot chocolate can be a helpful alternative, along with juices, smoothies, bubbly waters, and other beverages you have on hand that pique your interest.” Sheinbaum likes flavored seltzers, as well as Gruvi’s non-alcoholic prosecco and Athletic Brewing Company’s non-alcoholic beers. (For more inspiration, we’ve rounded up these delicious mocktail recipes.)


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