Islamabad - Insomnia, nightmares, and erratic sleep times could be indicators of worsening suicidal thoughts among young adults, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that young adults who experienced sleep disturbances were more likely to have suicidal thoughts over the subsequent 3 weeks, compared with young adults who slept well.

Lead author Rebecca Bernert, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in California conducted the research.

For 1 week, participants were required to wear an accelerometer on their wrist each night. This enabled the researchers to monitor their wrist movements, which previous research has shown is a reliable indicator of sleep-wake patterns.

The participants also completed questionnaires detailing the severity of insomnia, nightmares, depression, alcohol intake, and suicidal thoughts. Questionnaires were completed at study baseline, as well as 1 and 3 weeks after sleep monitoring.

Compared with participants who fell asleep and awoke at similar times each day, those who had greater variability in their sleep and wake times - particularly the former - were more likely to have suicidal thoughts 1 and 3 weeks later.

“Insomnia and nightmares beget more variability in when we are able to then fall asleep on subsequent nights, which speaks to the way in which insomnia develops,” notes Dr Bernert.

“Sleep is a barometer of our well-being, and directly impacts how we feel the next day,” she adds. “We believe poor sleep may fail to provide an emotional respite during times of distress, impacting how we regulate our mood, and thereby lowering the threshold for suicidal behaviors.”

Dr Bernert and team believe that insomnia, variability in sleep-wake times, and other sleep disturbances may be a predictor of suicidal thoughts among young adults - a population most commonly affected by suicide.

As Dr Bernert says, sleep disturbances “may represent an important treatment target in suicide prevention.”

The team is already in the process of conducting two clinical trials, in which non-drug treatments for insomnia are being tested for their efficacy in preventing suicidal behaviors.

“Compared to other risk factors for suicide, disturbed sleep is modifiable and highly treatable using brief, fast-acting interventions,” says Dr Bernert.

Rebecca Bernert, said that “Because sleep is something we universally experience, and we may be more willing to openly talk about it relative to our mental health, we believe its study may represent an important opportunity for suicide prevention.” Meanwhile, a new review may provide just that. Researchers have found that cocoa flavanols could boost cognitive function within just a few hours of consumption.

Additionally, researchers found that regular, long-term intake of cocoa flavanols may protect against cognitive decline.

Flavanols are naturally occurring compounds found in various types of plants, with some of the highest levels found in the beans of the cocoa tree.

Flavanols have antioxidant properties, meaning that they have the ability to reduce the effects of cell damage caused by oxidative stress.

Previous studies have suggested a link between the intake of cocoa flavanols and better cognitive function, with dark chocolate often cited as the best source.

For the new research, Socci and team wanted to delve deeper into the brain benefits of cocoa flavanols: what specific cognitive functions are affected by cocoa flavanols? And are the effects immediate?

The researchers sought to answer these questions and more by conducting an in-depth review of existing studies looking at the cognitive effects of cocoa flavanols.

The researchers found that, while only a small number of randomized controlled trials have looked at the short-term effects of cocoa flavanols on cognitive function, they do point to some significant benefits.

The team uncovered evidence of a link between consumption of cocoa flavanols and almost immediate improvements in working memory. One study, for example, identified working memory improvements in young adults just 2 hours after consuming 773 milligrams of cocoa flavanols.

In another study, researchers found that consumption of cocoa flavanols appeared to offset cognitive impairment caused by a night of sleep deprivation.

However, the authors note that the reported acute effects of cocoa flavanols were dependent on the type of cognitive assessments that the studies used, as well as the length of these assessments. They found that it required highly demanding cognitive tests to detect the most subtle benefits of cocoa flavanol consumption.

The review suggests that a daily intake of cocoa flavanols - for at least 5 days and up to 3 months - posed the greatest benefits for cognitive function, leading to improvements in attention, processing speed, verbal fluency, and working memory.

Socci and team note that these benefits were strongest for elderly adults who already had mild cognitive decline or other memory impairments when the studies began - a finding that surprised the researchers.

“This result suggests the potential of cocoa flavanols to protect cognition in vulnerable populations over time by improving cognitive performance,” say Socci and co-author Michele Ferrara, also of the University of L’Aquila.

“If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus,” they continue. “This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.” The researchers add, “Regular intake of cocoa and chocolate could indeed provide beneficial effects on cognitive functioning over time.”

The team cautions, however, that we should avoid eating too much chocolate, since it is high in calories and sugar. Still, the results suggest that when it comes to cognitive function, a little bit of chocolate could do wonders.