When my son Dan was dealing with severe OCD, he would often be awake all night, pacing throughout the house. It was not unusual for me to get up in the morning and find him fast asleep on the living room floor, or wherever else he happened to finally collapse from exhaustion.
Even when his symptoms began to improve, he still could not seem to fall asleep at a normal hour and would be awake until 4:00 am or so. Not surprisingly he’d then sleep half the day away. His sleep cycle was all out of whack.
It turns out that this abnormal sleep pattern is not unusual in those with OCD and has warranted the attention of researchers. In this July 2018 article published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, scientists determined that living at higher latitudes, where there is less sunlight, appears to result in an increased prevalence of OCD.
In regards to the delayed sleep-wake pattern similar to what my son Dan experienced, Professor Meredith Coles, first author of the study, explains:
“This delayed sleep-wake pattern may reduce exposure to morning light, thereby potentially contributing to a misalignment between our internal biology and the external light-dark cycle. People who live in areas with less sunlight may have less opportunities to synchronize their circadian clock, leading to increased OCD symptoms.”
In other words, if you sleep through the morning hours of sunlight, you have less chance of “catching up” with your sun exposure if you live in areas with less sun.
Professor Coles finds the results of this project exciting as they provide a new way of thinking about OCD. She says, “Specifically, they [the results] show that living in areas with more sunlight is related to lower rates of OCD.”
I find the results of this research quite interesting, though not particularly shocking. We already know that lack of exposure to sunshine can affect our mental health — those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can certainly attest to that.
As is often the case, results of studies leave us with more questions than answers. Why do those with OCD often have abnormal sleep cycles to begin with? Is it anxiety keeping them awake, or is it something else? Professor Coles wants answers to these questions as well and says that future studies are in the works including testing a variety of treatment options that address sleep and circadian rhythm disruptions. She says:
“First, we are looking at relations between sleep timing and OCD symptoms repeatedly over time in order to begin to think about causal relationships,” said Coles. “Second, we are measuring circadian rhythms directly by measuring levels of melatonin and having people wear watches that track their activity and rest periods. Finally, we are conducting research to better understand how sleep timing and OCD are related.”
Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be such a complex disorder — it is always encouraging to hear of research being done on different aspects of it. Who knows? Maybe these studies will somehow lead to better treatment options, or even a cure, for OCD. Surely that would help us all sleep soundly!