Sleep, Mental Health, and Emotion: The Crucial Link

The Crucial Role of REM Sleep in Mental Health

Huberman and Walker discuss the critical link between sleep and mental health, particularly focusing on the role of REM sleep. REM sleep is essential for removing the emotional content of the previous day’s memories, providing a form of overnight therapy that allows individuals to feel emotionally restored upon waking.

When deprived of REM sleep, even well-adjusted individuals can start showing signs of paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions. The brain has a strong hunger for REM sleep, and the deprivation of this stage can lead to severe psychosis-like symptoms.

Research has shown that during REM sleep, the brain can detach the emotional component from memories, allowing individuals to recall emotional events without experiencing the same visceral emotional reaction. This process is facilitated by the shutdown of noradrenaline, a stress-associated neurochemical, in the brain during REM sleep.

The discussion highlights the importance of understanding the link between sleep and emotional regulation, as it can serve as a guide for individuals seeking to improve their mental health and well-being.

The Crucial Link Between Sleep, Emotion Regulation, and Mental Health

Walker emphasizes the intimate, bidirectional relationship between sleep health and mental health. In his 20 years of research, he has not discovered a single psychiatric condition in which sleep is normal.

Sleep not only plays a role in mental illness but also in mental wellness. Getting proper sleep can provide benefits and move individuals in the direction of mental wellness rather than mental illness.

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Emotional Regulation

Walker and Huberman discuss the relationship between sleep and emotional regulation. Without enough sleep, the amygdala, which generates emotional reactions, becomes 60% more reactive to negative stimuli. This heightened sensitivity is due to a severed connection between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, which normally acts as a rational control mechanism.

Sleep deprivation also leads to an absence of motivation and a strong parasympathetic state when not interacting with the world. However, when provoked or challenged, individuals quickly shift to a highly sympathetic state. Additionally, sleep-deprived individuals are excessively reactive to both negative and positive stimuli, leading to increased impulsivity and addiction potential.

This erratic and extreme reactivity is maladaptive, as emotions are meant to help organisms survive. The loose “hinge” between the sympathetic and parasympathetic states, as well as the abnormal sensitivity to both positive and negative stimuli, creates the worst of all adaptive responses when sleep-deprived.

The Prefrontal Cortex: Regulating Emotions and Behavior in Context

McDougall, a neurosurgeon from Neuralink, describes the main function of the prefrontal cortex as quieting neural activity in certain brain circuits under specific conditions. The prefrontal cortex can determine the appropriate context for robust amygdala activation, such as protecting oneself or taking swift action to protect family.

Walker provides an example of how the prefrontal cortex understands context, comparing the reaction to a gun pointed at someone’s face in the real world versus in a movie theater. Without the prefrontal cortex, individuals become more reflex-driven and regress to a more basic, emotional brain state.

Knudsen, a colleague at Stanford, describes how lesions to certain regions of the prefrontal cortex can cause people and animals to become stimulus-driven machines, orienting to any stimulus present without considering the reason behind it. This has implications for conditions like ADHD.

Optimizing Sleep for Mood and Mental Health

Huberman and Walker emphasize the importance of getting enough quality sleep, particularly REM sleep, for emotional well-being and regulation.

Huberman shares his personal experience, noting that when he follows his chronotype and goes to bed early and wakes up early, it has a powerful antidepressant effect. However, when he deviates from this schedule, even with the same amount of sleep, he experiences low-level depression.

The experts highlight the “QQRT” formula for sleep: quantity, quality, regularity, and timing. They suggest minimizing alcohol and cannabis use, as these substances can inhibit REM sleep.

Walker recommends focusing on all four macros of sleep and slightly over-indexing on REM sleep to optimize emotional reactivity and balance. He suggests that if lifestyle permits, prioritizing REM sleep is a simple and effective way to improve emotional well-being.

The Relationship Between Sleep and PTSD

Walker and Raskind collaborate to understand the relationship between sleep and PTSD. Walker theorizes that in PTSD, REM sleep fails to strip away the emotion from traumatic memories, leading to repetitive nightmares. He notices that PTSD patients have heightened levels of noradrenaline during sleep, which may disrupt this emotional processing.

Raskind, a psychiatrist treating PTSD veterans, shares data showing that Prazosin, an alpha-adrenergic antagonist, not only helps with hypertension but also reduces nightmares in PTSD patients. This finding aligns with Walker’s theory, suggesting that blocking noradrenaline allows emotional memories to be processed during sleep, leading to symptom resolution.

The collaboration between Walker and Raskind leads to Prazosin becoming an FDA-approved medication for PTSD and repetitive nightmares. This discovery highlights the importance of scientific collaboration and the sharing of ideas to foster new discoveries and clinical advancements.

Exploring Alternative Sleep Therapies for PTSD and Addiction Recovery

Huberman and Walker discuss the potential benefits of non-sleep deep rest, also known as Yoga Nidra, for individuals struggling with addiction and sleep deprivation. They explore how this practice may serve as a compensatory tool, particularly in the morning hours when sleep can be challenging to achieve.

Walker suggests that while sleep is essential for mental and physical health, liminal states like Yoga Nidra may provide similar benefits through a different route. The two researchers plan to collaborate on studies to investigate the electrical activity in the brain during these states and compare it to sleep.

Huberman emphasizes the need for zero-cost tools that can help people access the replenishment and recovery that comes from sleep, especially when sleep is not readily available. They believe that practices like Yoga Nidra may not only provide benefits similar to sleep but also serve as a portal to improve sleep quality.

Exploring the Liminal State as a Tool for Overcoming Insomnia

Walker and Huberman discuss the potential of using the liminal state as a tool to help people who struggle with insomnia fall asleep. They explore the idea that by training people to enter this state, they may be able to alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with not being able to sleep.

Huberman suggests that this could be a zero cost, non-pharmacologic tool for people to get the rest and restoration they need, ultimately leading to better sleep. Walker appreciates the paradox of using non-sleep deep rest to allow one to enter sleep deep rest.

The two ponder the possibility of the liminal state becoming a recognized stage before stage one of sleep, potentially redefining the staging criteria for sleep.

The Bidirectional Relationship Between Sleep and Anxiety

Walker and Huberman discuss the complex relationship between sleep and anxiety. If any aspect of sleep – quantity, quality, regularity, or timing – is off, it can lead to increased anxiety or mood disorders.

In a study, individuals with no signs of anxiety disorders were sleep deprived, and by the next morning, nearly 50% of them had anxiety levels severe enough to reach the diagnostic threshold for an anxiety disorder. Another study tracking individuals’ sleep and anxiety levels found that poor sleep quality, rather than quantity, was the best predictor of increased anxiety.

Surprisingly, deep non-REM sleep, not REM sleep, was found to be the critical factor in dissipating anxiety overnight. The greater the amount of deep non-REM sleep, the greater the reengagement of the frontal lobe the next day, which predicted the reduction in anxiety. Deep non-REM sleep appears to shift individuals from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state.

The Relationship Between Sleep Quality and Anxiety

Walker emphasizes the importance of sleep quality in managing anxiety. He explains that manipulating the quantity, quality, regularity, or timing of sleep can change anxiety levels. However, the most significant factor appears to be sleep quality rather than quantity.

In a study, the quality of sleep measured from one night to the next was predictive of anxiety levels. When participants were brought into the laboratory, the electrical activity of their brains during sleep also predicted anxiety. Specifically, good, continuous sleep that is rich in deep non-REM electrical brain activity seems to provide an anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) benefit to the brain the following day.

Walker suggests that sleep can be a strategic tool for managing anxiety, especially for those who prefer not to rely on medication. Prioritizing sleep quality can serve as a buffer against anxiety.

Three Key Strategies to Improve Deep Non-REM Sleep Quality

Walker and Huberman discuss ways to improve the quality and quantity of deep non-REM sleep, which is important for managing anxiety. Walker emphasizes the importance of regularity in sleep schedules, as it helps the brain understand when to instigate deep sleep and leads to more stable, continuous sleep with fewer awakenings.

Exercise is another key factor in improving the electrical quality of deep sleep, although the exact protocol is not yet scientifically prescribed. Additionally, keeping the bedroom cool can promote an increase in deep sleep.

In summary, Walker recommends three main strategies for improving deep non-REM sleep: maintaining a regular sleep schedule, engaging in physical activity, and keeping the bedroom at a cool temperature.

Optimizing Sleep Quality: The Do’s and Don’ts

Walker and Huberman discuss the negative effects of alcohol on sleep quality. Alcohol fragments sleep, making it more unstable and vulnerable to waking up, especially in the first 4-5 hours when alcohol concentration is highest in the system.

Alcohol is also associated with longer-term chronic anxiety, despite being used as a short-term sedative. Walker advises staying away from excessive alcohol in the evening to optimize sleep quality and integrity.

Huberman highlights that the previous four episodes of the series provide actionable, zero-cost tools for improving sleep, requiring only a small investment of time and thought.

Walker also recommends taking a warm bath or shower before bed to improve deep non-REM sleep. By warming up before cooling down to fall asleep and keeping the room cool, one can achieve more deep sleep.

The Relationship Between Sleep and Suicide

Huberman and Walker explore the relationship between sleep and suicide. Short or poor quality sleep predicts suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completions. Sleep disruption precedes these events, making it a potential biomarker for upcoming suicide risk.

Researchers are developing AI-based tools that detect changes in voice, sleep patterns, and other metrics to predict suicidal tendencies. These tools could allow individuals to consent to risk mitigation through wearable devices that alert support networks when concerning sleep patterns are detected.

Suicide attempts and completions occur more frequently during the late night hours, possibly due to the absence of support, heightened negative thoughts, and lack of sleep. Nightmares are an even stronger predictor of suicide risk than sleep disruption alone, increasing the likelihood by five to eight times.

The Bidirectional Relationship Between Sleep and Depression

Walker notes that depression and sleep have a bidirectional relationship, where depression can disrupt sleep and disrupted sleep can trigger depression.

Some people conceptualize depression as being different from anxiety based on memory. Anxiety is considered a disorder of the future, where people constantly worry about upcoming events.

In contrast, depression is sometimes seen as involving rumination about the past, such as painful events like bereavement or divorce.

However, Walker is not entirely sure if this distinction is completely accurate. Nonetheless, he finds it interesting that both abnormal prospection (worrying about the future) and abnormal retrospection (ruminating on the past) seem to disrupt sleep.

The Difference Between Anxiety and Depression

Huberman and Walker discuss the distinction between anxiety and depression. Anxiety is often about the future in a way that disrupts one’s present, while depression is frequently about the past in a way that disrupts one’s sense of the present and future.

Huberman shares his personal experience with depression, recalling a recurring feeling of having lost something that was once on track, without being able to pinpoint a specific event that led to the change. He also mentions close friends who have gone through similar experiences.

Walker agrees with Huberman’s observation, emphasizing that the word “had” is in the past tense, which aligns with the concept of depression being focused on the past. While neither Huberman nor Walker are psychiatrists, they find this contextualization of anxiety and depression to be useful for understanding these mental health challenges.

The Peculiar Relationship Between Sleep and Depression

Walker discusses the complex relationship between sleep and depression. Depression can disrupt sleep, leading to shorter sleep duration and decreased sleep quality. However, the notion that depression causes excessive sleep, or hypersomnia, may be misleading.

Studies suggesting hypersomnia in depression often conflate time spent in bed with time spent sleeping. When examining actual sleep time, the hypersomnia phenomenon is less pronounced. People with depression may spend more time in bed due to a desire to avoid interacting with the world.

Another peculiarity in depression is the change in REM sleep. While the amount of REM sleep may not be excessive, it tends to emerge earlier in the night, a phenomenon known as shortened REM sleep latency. This could be an adaptive response, with the brain prioritizing REM sleep for emotional processing, or a maladaptive abnormality in emotional processing.

Interestingly, some antidepressants delay the onset of REM sleep or reduce it significantly. While the efficacy of antidepressants is debated, the alteration of REM sleep by these medications may suggest that the early arrival and potential excess of REM sleep in depression is not optimal.

Sleep Deprivation as a Treatment for Depression: Inconsistent Results and Short-Lived Benefits

Walker explains that sleep deprivation can have an antidepressant effect in some patients, but it’s not a sustainable or clinically viable treatment. When sleep deprived, individuals become more responsive to rewarding stimuli, which may help alleviate anhedonia, a key feature of depression characterized by an inability to experience pleasure.

However, not all patients respond positively to sleep deprivation, and the antidepressant benefits disappear once the patient sleeps again. Walker suggests that among the four factors of sleep – quantity, quality, regularity, and timing – timing may have the strongest evidence in relation to depression.

Circadian misalignment, or falling out of sync with one’s natural chronotype, is a strong predictor of depression. Walker recommends understanding your chronotype and aligning your sleep schedule accordingly as a starting point for improving mental health.

Daylight Exposure and Darkness at Night Linked to Mental Health Benefits

Huberman and Walker discuss a recent study that found a relationship between light exposure during the day and darkness at night, and mental health. The study concluded that getting as much sunlight as possible during the day and being in dim or dark environments at night can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal ideation.

The researchers found that even if a person doesn’t get enough sunlight during the day, being in a dark environment at night can still provide benefits. However, being awake in the darkness at night is not beneficial.

Huberman compares artificial light at night to empty calories and suggests that making one’s home environment dark at night is akin to avoiding sugary, non-nutritious calories. He emphasizes the importance of getting sunlight, even through cloud cover, early in the day and throughout the day when possible.

Junk Light: The Deleterious Effect on Sleep

Walker plans to educate people about the concept of “junk light,” a phrase he borrows from Huberman. Just as people are familiar with junk food, there is also junk light, which can be detrimental to sleep and everything that depends on it.

Huberman acknowledges that he may have inadvertently lifted the phrase from someone else, and Walker notes that everyone stands on the shoulders of other giants. They both recognize the importance of building upon the knowledge and ideas of others in their respective fields.

The Crucial Link Between Sleep and Mental Health

Huberman and Walker discuss the critical connection between sleep and mental health, including emotion regulation, anxiety, PTSD, and depression. They emphasize the importance of both non-REM and REM sleep in impacting mood and reactivity during the day.

Walker provides actionable tools to improve mental health and emotional well-being through better sleep habits. He stresses the importance of focusing on the quantity, quality, regularity, and timing of sleep, rather than just aiming for a specific number of hours.

The pair also touch on the potential impact of artificial light and smartphone use in the middle of the night on mental health challenges. Huberman expresses gratitude to Walker for providing a clear, logical framework and roadmap for optimizing sleep to support mental health.

Leave a Comment