by Syd Baumel
(Excerpt from Dealing with Depression Naturally: Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Restoring Emotional Health)
When the world is too much upon them, some people know just what to do: they toddle off and take a nap. Studies by psychologist Suzanne R. Daiss and associates at Texas A&M University and by others confirm that these pit stops from the daily grind do indeed freshen people's moods and perk up their performance.
But what to do when you're so burned out, it seems like the kind of nap you need could last maybe a year?
Go for it.
Sleep therapy is one of those common sense healing techniques, like light therapy and cold therapy, that keeps cropping up in the psychiatric traditions of the world. In India, ayurvedic psychiatrists prescribe rest cures of up to 15 hours a day, writes Sudhir Kakar in Shamans, Mystics & Doctors. In Nigeria, medicine men treat their mentally disturbed patients to marathon, drug-induced sleep sessions. In the U.S., the rest cure was championed a century ago by the distinguished neurologist Weir Mitchell.
In some parts of Europe -- the former Soviet Union in particular -- sleep therapy (ST) was still going strong as recently as the 1960s. In 1960, a Soviet psychiatrist named B. V. Andreev wrote a monograph on the subject. ST, he noted, works best for patients who look and feel like they need it. Typically, Andreev observed, such persons can't stand "noise, bright light, and social intercourse"; they're foundering at work; they long for "peace, quiet, and solitude;" and they're very, very tired. The ones who benefit most from ST, Andreev and others found, are burned out and depressed.
In Andreev's clinic sleep therapy usually involved nodding off for 11 to 17 hours a day for one to three weeks. By then most patients had had all the sleep therapy they could stand. In a series of 87 patients Andreev reported the following results (the outcome for 12 depressives is in parenthesis): 17 percent (16 percent) were "cured"; 37 percent (58 percent) considerably improved (back in action, but not fully recovered); 30 percent (8 percent) moderately improved; 13 percent (16 percent) slightly improved; and 3 percent (0 percent) unchanged.
ST may be particularly beneficial for people whose depression and lethargy is a sequel to a toxic or infectious brain disease, research by Andreev and his contemporaries suggests. Many such people would today be diagnosed as having chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). And indeed, some people with CFS do find oversleeping helpful. In an interview on CBC radio in 1989, Dr. Stuart Rosen of Charing Cross Hospital in London reported that a majority of 300 CFS patients responded well to ST, combined with measures to counteract their tendency to hyperventilate.
Sleep therapy may be an overlooked antidote for the manic phase of bipolar disorder. Not only is mania accompanied by sleeplessness, it usually is preceded -- and perhaps precipitated -- by it. As we saw a couple of chapters ago, persuading a rapid cycler to spend 10 to 14 hours in bed every night prevented both his manic and depressive mood swings. Possibly, bipolars could nip some manic episodes in the bud if they resist the impulse to burn the midnight oil and go to bed instead, with help from safe, natural sleep aids like tryptophan, 5-HTP, GABA, melatonin, valerian, hops, hot baths, relaxing music, and sleep tapes. As we'll see in the next chapter, there is preliminary evidence that this really can work. Preventing an episode of mania, with its huge expenditure of energy, can prevent the depressive "payback" that often follows.
Despite sleep therapy's common sense appeal, it is virtually unheard of in modern Western medical practice. This may be more than just the usual aversion for simple, natural treatments at work. In the late 1970's, a horror story of medical malpractice came to light in Australia. At the Chelmsford Private Hospital near Sydney, psychiatrists had for years been subjecting patients to days or weeks of barbiturate-induced "deep sleep therapy," accompanied by frequent sessions of electroshock therapy, sexual abuse, and in some cases, psychosurgery. Scores of patients died during treatment, committed suicide after being released, or were permanently scarred.
For most doctors, the Chelmsford scandal -- and a similar one at the Allen Memorial Institute near Montreal -- may well have put a deep chill on anything remotely connected with sleep therapy.
Taking the Rest Cure
Catching some extra sleep at night or napping during the day could be all the sleep therapy you need. A full-blown rest cure is another matter.
At Charing Cross Hospital, the procedure, according to Dr. Rosen, is "to sleep the patient out for a few days, 15, 16, 17 hours a day. . .basically having several days where they just have nothing but their batteries recharged by a good sleep." After that, ST continues on a more modest scale. Eventually patients very gradually return to a normal schedule.
In Andreev's clinic, patients would usually sate themselves on 11 to 17 hours of sleep a day for 1 or 2 weeks. Because they found very prolonged sleep disagreeable, they would get their extra sleep by napping from 10 AM to 2 PM and 3 PM to 7 PM. Bedtime was from 10 PM to 8 AM.
Dealing with Depression Naturally: Alternatives and Complementary Therapies for Restoring Emotional Health