Full Night of Sleep May Aid Antidepressant Response

By Rick Naurert PhD
November 22nd, 2022
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.
Full Night of Sleep May Aid Antidepressant Response

Although treatment for major depression often involves medication, obtaining relief can take time. Normally, it takes up to six weeks for a person to respond to pharmacotherapy and even then, one-third of people fail to respond to medication.

Now, new research finds that obtaining a full eight hours sleep when taking the new drugs enhances medication efficacy.

Researchers at the University of Michigan who specialize in both psychiatry and sleep medicine made the discovery in a serendipitous manner.

Investigators originally set out to determine if a precise sleep schedule could affect antidepressant remission rates and response time. This hypothesis was based on previous studies, mostly in inpatient settings, that had found total or partial (four- to five-hour) sleep deprivation on a single night improved mood the following day for about 60 percent of patients.

In the new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 68 adults were assigned to spend either six or eight hours in bed each night during their first two weeks on the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac).

The study is the first to assess the mood effects of a modest time-in-bed restriction on outpatients. Sleep and mood were measured daily for the first two weeks, and mood measurement continued weekly for six more weeks after the patients returned to their preferred sleep schedules and continued fluoxetine (Prozac).

Although the prior inpatient studies had found benefit associated with sleeping four to five hours, investigators did not believe this extreme amount of sleep deprivation was not practical or safe for patients in their own homes.

“It’s important to find practical and safe strategies that can enhance our traditional depression therapies, so we decided to evaluate a more modest amount of sleep deprivation that could easily be implemented alongside medication treatment,” says J. Todd Arnedt, Ph.D., principal investigator and University of Michigan associate professor in psychiatry and neurology.

“Although we predicted the group with restricted time in bed (six hours per night) would have a better response, based on previous sleep deprivation research in depression, we actually found the opposite.”

Surprisingly, the group who spent the full eight hours in bed each night showed greater improvements on all fronts. The subjects were almost twice as likely to achieve symptom remission after the full eight weeks of antidepressant treatment: 63 percent compared with 33 percent in the six-hour group.  They also experienced a faster response to treatment.

“This is the first study to demonstrate that adequate sleep might accelerate and augment antidepressant treatment response,” Arnedt says, “but more research is necessary.”

Of the subjects who spent six hours in bed, one group was told to stay up two hours later and the other to wake up two hours earlier.

The researchers wanted to assess whether changes in deep slow-wave sleep or REM (dream) sleep affected response or remission rates. Previous studies had produced contradictory findings about whether treatment response was related to changes in particular sleep stages.

After two weeks on the six-hour schedule, overnight polysomnography verified that the subjects who woke up two hours earlier experienced a significant reduction in REM sleep while those who stayed up later experienced an increased amount of slow-wave sleep.

But no differences in treatment response were found between the two six-hour groups.

“This research did not support the specific role of either slow-wave sleep or REM sleep as critical to treatment response,” Arnedt says.

New wearable technology allowed the researchers to know just how well their subjects were following their time-in-bed instructions.

The ActiGraph devices, similar to a Fitbit but able to detect sleep more accurately, use movement sensors to determine if patients spent their assigned hours in bed.

The group tasked with eight hours in bed mostly adhered to the schedule. But the six-hour group had great difficulty. The early-rise-time group spent nearly an hour more time in bed than instructed.

“These findings tell us that, even if the six-hour condition had yielded better results in terms of treatment response, patients would be unlikely to follow a clinical recommendation to spend only six hours in bed during the initial two weeks of antidepressant therapy. So, this is a strategy that is not practical for implementation in outpatient settings,” Arnedt said.

Because this study was designed to primarily evaluate the effects of restricting time in bed on antidepressant treatment response, the next step, Arnedt says, is to directly assess whether optimizing or extending sleep time while initiating antidepressant therapy improves response.

Source: University of Michigan

Dr. Rick Naurert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Naurert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.