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July 23, 2017

Penn Medicine: Mental dangers of sleep loss can be as harmful as the physical

If you wake up miserable every morning once your alarm goes off, it could have a lot more to do with sleep deprivation than dreading going to work.

A study lead by University of Pennsylvania postdoctoral fellow Ivan Vargas revealed that, in addition to the slew of other awful side effects derived from a lack of sleep -- including stroke, diabetes, and heart disease -- depression can also stem from not getting enough sleep.

The study, published in Cognitive Therapy and Research journal, asserts that those who are sleep deprived have a harder time being positive-minded. In the long run, this can be a significant symptom of depression that could have major consequences if not addressed.

“In general, we have a tendency to notice positive stimuli in our environment,” said Vargas to Penn Medicine News. “We tend to focus on positive things more than anything else, but now we’re seeing that sleep deprivation may reverse that bias.”

In the study, Vargas and his team randomized 40 healthy adults to either stay awake 28 straight hours or get eight full hours of sleep. Afterward, participants took a test measuring their responses to happy, sad, and netural faces. The result? Those with less sleep focused less on the positive faces.

“Depression is typically characterized as the tendency to think and feel more negatively or sad, but more than that, depression is associated with feeling less positive, less able to feel happy,” Vargas said. “Similarly, if you don’t get enough sleep, it reduces your ability to attend to positive things, which over time may confer risk for depression.”

For people in the study with a history of insomnia, however, less sleep doesn’t immediately lead to symptoms of depression. Authors of the study think this is because insomniacs are more accustomed to sleep-deprived conditions and have found their own ways to cope with sleep loss. In the bigger picture, however, Vargas and his team found that those suffering from insomnia are three times more likely to report thoughts of suicide and death.

To learn more about developments in sleep studies, read the full Penn Medicine News post for details on other sleep-related studies.

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