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The Mood Benefits of Sticking to a Regular Sleep Schedule

Here's how sticking to a regular sleep can help with your mood.

Key points

  • Irregular sleep routines are as big a risk factor for developing symptoms of depression as being sleep deprived.
  • Irregular sleep routines disrupt circadian rhythms.
  • Some chronotypes may be more vulnerable to a range of mood disorders including depression and anxiety.
Source: Joshuarawson/unsplash

Sleeping on a consistent schedule is one of the healthiest and most important sleep habits you can have. Regular bedtimes and wake times are the foundation of a strong sleep routine. Consistency in sleep routines is the key to getting the right amount of high-quality rest to meet your individual needs—and ensuring those needs are met routinely. Consistency helps us avoid piling up a sleep debt, and can offer protection against a range of health conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar.

Consistent sleep routines also offer protection for mood and emotional health. We’ve all lived through a lot of turmoil in this past year, and it’s taken a big toll on emotional well being. We don’t talk enough about how much the consistency of sleep affects mood and emotional regulation. Sticking to a consistent sleep routine is an under-utilized tool in elevating and stabilizing mood in the short-term and protecting against mood disorders, including depression and anxiety, over the long term.

There’s some interesting new research out on this important topic, which shows how important the consistency of sleep routines is to maintaining emotional balance and regulating mood.

Inconsistent sleep patterns raise risks for depression

Scientists at the University of Michigan investigated the impact of sleep routines on day-to-day mood and on risk of depression over time, and their newly published results show that irregular sleep routines are as big a risk factor for developing symptoms of depression as being sleep deprived, and also have as much of an impact on daily mood as short sleep does.

The scientists spent a year gathering data on sleep and mood from a group of more that 2,000 first year medical residents. This is an excellent population to use to study the relationship of sleep and mood, especially in relation to consistency of sleep. This is a group who, in addition to working long and demanding shifts and often having to go without sleep, also work irregular schedules and face real challenges in sleeping and waking on a regular schedule.

The medical interns (aka first year residents) wore wristband trackers that captured data about their sleep and activity patterns, and they filed daily reports (via a smartphone app) about their moods. They also took tests every three months over the course of the year, to assess for symptoms of depression.

The researchers found that interns who had irregular sleep schedules had lower daily mood ratings. The irregular sleepers also showed more symptoms of depression at the quarterly check ins.

The scientists also looked at how the amount of sleep interns got affected mood and found that those who got the least amount of sleep and those who routinely stayed up late also had lower daily mood ratings and tested higher for depression symptoms.

When they compared the impact of irregular sleep routines and insufficient sleep on mood, they found that the effects were about the same, both for daily mood and for the development of depression symptoms over time.

There’s a large and often-talked-about body of research that links sleep deprivation to low mood and higher risk for depression. But the impact of consistency of sleep on daily mood and psychological health over time tends to get overlooked. This study shows us that consistency in sleep patterns may matter as much to emotional health as sleep amounts, in the short and long term.

Irregular sleep routines disrupt circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythms affect mood in numerous and complex ways. Genes that control circadian rhythms (the so-called “clock genes”) have been shown to regulate mood and mood-related behavior, including behaviors associated with depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder. The brain’s emotion-regulating activity itself follows daily, 24-hour rhythms. And many hormones and neurochemicals that control and influence mood, and the body’s stress response, have their own circadian rhythms, including serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

In addition, circadian rhythms regulate metabolic chemicals that affect the anxiety and reward centers of the brain, including the hormones ghrelin and leptin, and a neuropeptide called cholecystokinin, or CCK, which has a strong influence over anxiety and stress.

Inflammation is increasingly thought to play a significant role in mood disorders, both by directly affecting mood and by contributing to the development of other health conditions that raise risks for depression and anxiety. (Inflammation also has a major impact on sleep itself.)

When circadian rhythms are disrupted, these critical mood and stress-regulating processes go awry. A large body of research shows that depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, bi-polar disorder, and other mood disorders are strongly linked to disrupted circadian timing.

Our individual differences in circadian timing create our chronotypes. And our chronotype has a major influence on mood and emotional balance. Some chronotypes are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and mood disruptions than others. Research tells us that people with late chronotypes—the Wolves of the world—are significantly more vulnerable to a range of mood disorders including depression and anxiety, and have greater difficulty regulating emotions, compared to early chronotypes (Lions). Night-wired Dolphins are also highly prone to anxiety—nighttime anxiety and mental tension (and naturally high nighttime cortisol levels) are part of what contribute to Dolphins’ difficulty falling asleep and getting refreshing sleep. And middle-of the road Bears are prone to irregular sleep routines and an accrual of sleep debt, which can raise risks for mood disorders.

The bottom line?

Any chronotype that lives out of sync with daily rhythms is vulnerable to the impact of circadian dysregulation on mood and emotional balance.

More from Michael J. Breus Ph.D.
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