The scene may be a familiar one: a friend, family member or even you, sleeping until well after the sun comes up, smacking the snooze button over and over until you’ve snored half the day away.
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Sure, sometimes we all need extra rest to recuperate, but chronic oversleeping can be a sign of something more serious than just catching up after a late night, including links to depression.
Sleep psychologist Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM, says that while insomnia is more likely to be associated with depression than oversleeping, it’s still possible that sleeping too much is a sign that something is amiss.
Dr. Drerup says that oversleeping is a symptom in 15% of people with depression and she notes that it tends to more often be related to atypical depression.
Atypical depression is a specific type of depression in which the person’s mood can improve in response to a positive event. But even though their mood may brighten, it’s only temporary and the root depression remains.
“Often, they don’t realize they’re depressed,” Dr. Drerup adds. Besides oversleeping, other symptoms are increased appetite and interpersonal sensitivity, like the feeling of being rejected. And that depression feeds into other reasons sleep can be so greatly affected.
While oversleeping can be a symptom of atypical depression, there are different factors that also contribute to it. “When someone is depressed, it can be because they sleep as a form of escape,” says Dr. Drerup. “They may be thinking, ‘I don’t have anything to look forward to so why do I even start the day?’’
It’s also possible that if you or someone else is oversleeping, there’s an underlying sleep disorder. “Sleep apnea is commonly comorbid with depression,” she adds. “In that case, a person is often experiencing non-restorative sleep at night so they’re not rested even after eight hours. So then they oversleep in trying to catch up.”
During sleep apnea, a person will stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night. Because of what Dr. Drerup calls “fragmented and disrupted sleep,” they often don’t get into the deeper stages of sleep or get as much REM sleep as they need. As a result, they’ll feel exhausted even if they have slept an adequate number of hours.
Another factor that could cause oversleeping in a depressed individual is an interruption to a person’s circadian rhythm, a disruption to their body’s internal clock. In fact, according to Dr. Drerup, sometimes it’s not so much someone is oversleeping so much as they’re simply sleeping on a delayed sleep phase.
“They can’t wake up in the morning or they’re sleeping way past their alarm because their circadian rhythm is delayed,” she says. “They aren’t able to fall asleep early so they sleep into the morning and sometimes early afternoon hours.”
It’s important to remember that oversleeping is a possible symptom of depression and that oversleeping doesn’t cause depression. But it can exacerbate and worsen depression symptoms, Dr. Drerup explains. “If someone’s oversleeping, they may wake up and feel like they’ve missed out on the day,” she says. “They feel like they’re behind and they don’t have the ability to get done the things they wanted.”
Those with sleep apnea might fall into this cycle, too. “They may have depression but they’ve never really been evaluated for any sleep disorders,” Dr. Drerup notes. That’s why she recommends making sure your sleep needs are being met if you’re dealing with depression. “If they have insomnia or undiagnosed sleep apnea or another disorder, treating the depression and improving symptoms is a lot more difficult if those issues aren’t addressed.”
Oversleeping, much like getting too little sleep, can have other major negative impacts on your health, too. “These can include increased risk for diabetes as well as increased rates of heart disease and stroke,” Dr. Drerup says. “It’s also been associated with fertility issues, cognitive decline and even obesity.”
It’s a tricky time for parents of teenagers as it can be hard to tell the difference between oversleeping that’s connected with depression and typical inconsistent teen sleep patterns. Dr. Drerup “It can be hard to gauge teen sleep because they tend to have a very different, inconsistent sleep pattern compared to adults,” she says.
As kids grow and become teenagers, their circadian rhythm naturally becomes delayed, their tendency to stay up later being a biologically-driven trait. But the pandemic has thrown some sleep patterns off, Dr. Drerup says.
During a typical, non-pandemic time, kids and teens would typically get shorter sleep during the week because they’re staying up later and then getting up early for school. Consequently, they could be more likely to oversleep on the weekends. “In that case,” she says, “it’s not depression but rather catching up on their sleep deficit.”
Because so many teens are now home-schooling due to the pandemic, their sleep pattern may be better adjusted. “It’s been an interesting unintentional sleep experiment,” Dr. Drerup adds. “If they’re starting school from home at 9 a.m. instead of having to get up at 6 a.m. to get ready for school, they’re not developing as large a sleep deficit.”
But, Dr. Drerup says, oversleeping is a more common symptom of depression in teens and young adults. And even though it may be harder to gauge, it’s still important to keep an eye out for certain signs. If they seem to be getting plenty of sleep, 8 to 10 hours, consistently but still complaining about feeling tired or seem excessively sleepy or fatigued, then that may be one reason for concern.
Additionally, she says, look for those other symptoms of depression including mood and appetite change. “The mood component is going to be more common right now because of the pandemic. They’re away from friends, they’re missing activities. So just be aware that may not be depression but, rather, adjusting to this unusual time.”
If oversleeping is a symptom of depression, it’s most important to see a healthcare provider for treatment of that depression. And even if someone is being treated for depression, the sleep difficulties can be residual. “Sleep can remain a struggle because it’s developed a life of its own and become very habitual,” she says.
Dr. Drerup does have a few suggestions on how you can avoid falling into bad sleep habits that could exacerbate the sleep situation. “These techniques can make a huge difference for people when they implement behavioral changes like this because the mood symptoms aren’t impairing them.”
If people can get out of bed and get a more consistent start to their day, it can make their day better, Dr. Drerup says. “They feel like they can be more productive and get more accomplished. And it can help improve their mood and allow them to make other changes over time that helps increase more pleasurable activities and engaging with people instead of the oversleeping and avoidance of interactions.”
This may not be a popular idea given how much it’s a ritual for so many of us. But Dr. Drerup points out that repeatedly hitting the snooze button doesn’t really help you. “When you hit the snooze button and you doze for those short seven or eight minute increments, you’re getting brief, fragmented sleep periods. You may think you’re gradually becoming more alert but really you’re developing sleep inertia and your body wants to stay asleep.”
Another tip is not sleeping in on the weekends. “Nobody wants to hear it,” she says, “but it’s about staying consistent. If you sleep from midnight until 9 a.m., try to stay consistent with that whether it’s a weekend or a weekday.”
Making sure you get plenty of light in the morning and avoid it before bedtime can help you keep a consistent sleep pattern. “Light helps turn off your melatonin production,” Dr. Drerup says, “ so that’s why it’s good to get out and take the dog for a walk during the day or get outside for activity.”
But at night, she says, you should avoid light, especially blue light from phone and electronic device screens since that’s known to suppress melatonin. She also notes that teens may be more vulnerable to this issue because of their tendency of increased screen time so making sure they put the phones away at a certain time can help them, too.