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Poor sleep during adolescence can increase risk of depression

Study findings highlight how powerful sleep can be for young people

Photo (c) AleksandarNakic - Getty Images
Not getting enough sleep can be detrimental to consumers’ well-being, and now a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Ottawa has explored how sleeping habits can affect teens’ mental health.

Their work revealed that adolescents who struggle with chronic sleep issues are more likely to also struggle with depression.

“Our findings suggest that significant sleep delays during adolescence may increase the likelihood of depression onset in both males and females,” said researcher Nafissa Ismail, PhD. “Additionally, sleep delay may sensitize adolescent females to other stressors and increase the likelihood of mood disorder development.”  

Less sleep leads to more stress

To understand what effect sleep can have on depression risk, the researchers conducted a sleep experiment on 40 adolescent and 40 adult mice. While some mice slept normally for seven nights, other mice were disrupted for the first four hours of their sleep each night for seven nights. To assess their depression following this sleep cycle, the researchers exposed the mice to a stress-inducing activity.

The researchers learned that the adult mice responded differently than the adolescent mice after losing sleep for seven consecutive nights. Despite both groups experiencing sleep disruptions, only the adolescent mice reacted poorly to a new stressor, which indicates that they could be at a greater risk for depression. 

“When exposed to a new stressor following seven days of repeated sleep delay, only adolescent male and female mice showed increased activity in the prelimbic cortex of the brain -- not the adults,” Dr. Ismail said. “The prelimbic cortex is associated with stress coping strategies and can be damaged from overreaction following sleep deprivation.” 

The study also revealed that the female adolescent mice produced a greater stress hormone response than the male adolescent mice. The researchers explained that female teenagers may be more susceptible to depression than their male counterparts, and poor sleep only exacerbates that issue.

“A popular theory suggests that depression originates in adolescents overexposed to stress, and that differences between male and female depression rates are attributed to an increased female vulnerability to chronic stress,” said Dr. Ismail. 

“Sleep disruption is a common stressor during adolescent development,” she added. “Its repeated exposure could partially be responsible for adolescent female susceptibility to depression.”

Sleep and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect consumers’ sleep, stress, and mental health, the researchers worry about how these current circumstances will affect rates of teen depression moving forward. 

“As COVID-19 quarantine requirements -- such as remote learning, limited in-person social interactions, and increased screen time -- have removed some pressure to adhere to regular sleep schedules, adolescents could be at a higher risk than ever before for developing depression and other mood disorders,” Dr. Ismail said.

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