Just one night without sleep may increase anxiety levels by up to 30%, but getting a full night's sleep restores calm and resets an anxious brain, researchers report.
Neuroscientists at UC Berkeley discovered that deep sleep is a natural anti-anxiety intervention. The deep sleep that fights anxiety is called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) slow-wave sleep. This type of sleep results in drops in blood pressure and heart rate as well as synchronization of neural oscillations (brainwaves).
Lack of sleep shuts down the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps regulate anxiety levels, according to study results published in the journal Nature Human Behavior. The study found that sleeplessness also increases activity in the brain's deeper emotional centers, which leads to increased anxiety.
Deep sleep combats these issues, restoring activity in prefrontal brain areas leading to lower physiological and emotional reactivity and preventing anxiety from escalating, according to study lead author Eti Ben Simon.
Researchers used functional MRI, polysomnography, and other tests to obtain the results. Matthew Walker, senior study author and professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, said deep sleep decreases anxiety by reorganizing connections in the brain.
Anxiety disorders are common psychiatric conditions associated with symptoms like restlessness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, headaches, and sleep problems, according to MedicineNet author Michael J. Peterson, MD, PhD. Sleep problems associated with anxiety disorders include trouble falling or staying asleep and sleep that is not restful.
"There are a variety of treatments available for controlling anxiety, including several effective anti-anxiety medications and specific forms of psychotherapy," Dr. Peterson said.
The UC Berkeley study shows an association between the nightly quantity and quality of sleep people get and the level of anxiety they feel the next day. Not only are sleep disturbances symptoms of anxiety disorders, but sleep optimization may one day be recommended by doctors as part of a treatment plan for patients who struggle with anxiety.
Walker said people in industrialized nations suffer from poor sleep and high levels of anxiety disorders and the two may be causally related. Sleep improvement may one day be prescribed as a natural, drug-free intervention to reduce anxiety.