What Can a Sleep Study Tell You About Your Mental Health?

Sad depressed woman suffering from insomnia, she is sitting in bed and touching her forehead, sleep disorder and stress concept

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Sleep plays a critical role in your mental health. Not being able to fall asleep, sleeping too much, or waking up multiple times throughout the night can impact your mental health or could be a sign of a mental health issue. 

“The brain recharges and does a fair amount of emotional and memory processing at night,” says Alex Dimitriu, MD, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, who considers sleep to be a vital sign, along with blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration.

We all need sleep; it’s essential. But what can your sleep habits tell you about your mental health? A lot, actually.

What You’ll Learn From a Sleep Study

If you’re having trouble sleeping, your doctor may recommend a polysomnography test, also called an overnight sleep study. This is often conducted in a lab or medical office. A technician will monitor your breathing, brain waves, and movements while you sleep. 

Results of the study, which a sleep doctor analyzes, will reveal if you have insomnia, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, or another sleep disorder. The test can give you insight into many different things, including:

  • Oxygen levels
  • Heart rate
  • Apnea-Hypopnea Index (AHI)
  • Sleep efficiency
  • How much REM sleep you get

Follow-up tests and treatment may be recommended, depending on the results. However, the test cannot diagnose or confirm a mental health condition. Instead, the results will show if you have poor quality sleep or insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, or another sleep disorder, which could be a sign or symptom of a mental health disorder. 

Even if you don't have a sleep disorder but are experiencing poor quality sleep consistently, you should consider visiting a psychiatrist or a mental health professional to discuss your results and how they may be related to your mental health.

The Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health

We’ve all had a bad night of sleep. It can impact your mood, energy levels, and behaviors, affecting your relationships, job performance, and other aspects of your life. If this happens, night after night, it will severely impact your mental health. 

According to Dr. Dimitriu, poor sleep on a consistent basis can lead to a variety of issues, including anxiety, depression, worsening memory, substance misuse, food overuse, or poor impulse control. 

“Any disturbance in sleep, like trouble falling or staying asleep, or waking up often in the night, is worth investigating if it's been going on for more than a week or two,” says Dr. Dimitriu. Also, any symptoms that are significantly debilitating during the day, such as sleepiness, fatigue, lack of motivation, should be explored. 

“We consider sleep to be an essential marker for mental health, like a canary in a coal mine,” says Dr. Dimitriu. “One issue in psychiatry is that many symptoms are subjective. Sleep, on the other hand, is objective.”

Co-occurring Disorders

Psychiatric disorders commonly cause sleep-related problems, which is why the results of a sleep study could help figure out what symptoms you’re experiencing and why you’re experiencing them.

“Psych issues can cause poor sleep, and psych issues can result in poor sleep. So the relationship is circular, like a yin-yang, which is why the practice of sleep and psychiatry is so essential together,” Dr. Dimitriu explains. 

The most common sleep disorders include:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Narcolepsy
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Parasomnia
  • Insomnia

Insomnia is very closely tied to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health disorders. For example, for patients with depression, insomnia is one of the most common symptoms.

Among individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, the majority experience poor sleep quality. Disturbed sleep, alongside other symptoms, can also be a predictive factor in determining who will develop psychosis.

The same pathophysiological mechanisms that cause insomnia or hypersomnia can also cause psychiatric disorders, which may explain why the comorbidity of sleep disorders and psychiatric disorders are so common.

If you’re having trouble sleeping on a consistent, ongoing basis, it’s important to speak to a mental health professional. While this sleep change could result from a lifestyle change, such as becoming a parent, moving to a new neighborhood, or undergoing a stressful month of work, it is likely connected to your mental health. Even a lifestyle change may require mental health support, which will, in turn, improve your sleep. 

How to Improve Your Sleep Habits

You may be struggling with sleep, but what is the underlying cause? A sleep study won’t necessarily give you this answer, but it will offer you more insight into the quality of sleep you’re getting and help you understand what exactly is happening to your body while you sleep. 

If you’re experiencing poor mental health, it will impact your sleep, which is why sleep issues are often the first sign of a mental health problem. In order to improve your sleep, you’ll want to practice healthy sleep habits. These include:

  • Turning off electronics more than an hour before bed
  • Avoiding or limiting alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine 
  • Exercising daily
  • Avoiding eating food before bed
  • Lowering the temperature in your room so it’s cooler

Certain practices like putting your phone in a different room or journaling before bed could help, but if you’re battling an undiagnosed mental health disorder then these changes won’t treat the underlying problem. This is why it’s important to speak with a mental health professional if you’re experiencing ongoing sleep issues. 

If you’re simply stressed, regular therapy sessions could help you develop better sleeping strategies, which will help to improve your mental health. However, if you’re dealing with a more severe mental health disorder, you will need to speak with a mental health professional about a proper treatment plan, which should help to address your quality of sleep.

A Word From Verywell

No matter your situation, sleeping can be difficult. Your mind may race at night, as you stress about finances. Your baby may be keeping you up for hours and hours at a time, preventing you from getting a quality night’s sleep. Or you may simply wake up multiple times throughout the night, unsure why, or sleep way late into the day, unable to pull yourself up. 

These situations can happen to any of us, but if the problem persists, then you’ll need to speak with your doctor or therapist about it. A sleep study is a good first step to diagnosing the sleep-related problem, but in order to treat the underlying cause, you’ll want to seek mental health care.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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