The case for sleep deprivation

Researchers have quietly studied the health boons of skimping on sleep. Here's what they've found.

The more-sleep-is-better, 8-hours-a-night drum is beaten hard. And for good reason: Sleep deprivation has been linked to everything from obesity and cancer to anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular issues. Too little sleep, we are told, is the enemy.

But what if complete and total sleep deprivation could benefit your health—even eliminate debilitating diseases like depression? That’s the idea behind a medical technique called chronotherapy, which can involve staying up for a full day or longer. (A different form of chronotherapy involves altering someone’s bed time—usually by 3 hours night—all the way around the clock in an attempt to reset the circadian rhythm.)

“It has been well documented that total sleep deprivation is one of the fastest ways to reduce and in some cases eliminate depression,” says sleep expert Michael Breus, M.D. “However it is also well known that once the person goes back to sleep, the depression will return.”

Forty to 50 percent of the time depressive symptoms will fade for the 24 or 36 hours awake, Breus says. Why? “We don’t really know,” Breus says. “My theory is that when the body remains awake, it goes into high alert, thinking: ‘There must be a reason I’m still awake and that could be danger.’” This type of a scenario can not only activate your fight-or-flight response but can also alter hormone levels. “Levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine will be increased and may block secondary hormones. When the brain goes through a list of priorities in a sleep-deprived scenario, survival is the priority—not depression. Depression is counterintuitive to survival.”

But rest and wake and the symptoms creep back. However, in a recent study, people who followed a wake therapy intervention—staying up for a day then sleeping—then followed up with exposure to bright light in the morning and sleep scheduling saw a maintained anti-depressant effect. “At one week, the remission rate was 24 percent; at 9 weeks, it was at 46 percent,” says Breus. So while the sleep deprivation may have temporarily alleviated symptoms, bright light exposure maintained the effect. “We know that lights in the blue light spectrum can help with seasonal affect disorder,” says Breus.

Chronotherapy is not for the biohacking enthusiast, however—it's physically grueling and should be done under the advisement of a medical professional. But as this somewhat counterintuitive form of sleep therapy continues to be studied, there could be new recommendations for using your sleep-wake cycle to maximize your health and reverse disease.