In 2015, a total of 2.44 billion people, or 32.9% of the entire world population, were immigrants [1
]. There is an increasing trend of migration into developed regions. The United Nations described 2014 as the year with the highest level of forced migration on record. As of 2015, one out of 122 people worldwide was a refugee or was seeking asylum [2
]. A total of 4.7 million people immigrated to a European Union member state during 2015 [3
]. In 2014, 35.4% of the permanent resident population in Switzerland had a migration background (immigrants and children of immigrants). Of people with a migration background, 80% were immigrants themselves, whereas one fifth were born in Switzerland [4
]. The majority of Switzerland’s foreign resident population is of European origin, most of whom are nationals of the European Union or a European Free Trade Association member state. The largest groups of migrants are Italian (15.3%), German (14.9%), Portuguese (13.1%) and French (5.8%) [5
Health information on migrants’ health and their access to health services is scarce and contradictory. The frequency of adverse health outcomes among migrants is higher than that seen in the host population [6
]. Analyses of Latino immigrants in the United States of America (U.S.) revealed more negative health outcomes such as depression, diabetes, and obesity than in the non-immigrant population [7
]. Bischoff and Wanner [8
] showed that the self-reported health of immigrants in Switzerland was inferior to that of the non-immigrant Swiss population as indexed by a history of symptoms of chronic conditions, lack of mental well-being, lack of a sense of mastery, physical inactivity; and obesity. This difference could not be explained by differences regarding access to mental health care, which was the same for both for immigrants and non-immigrants according to Swiss reports on the migrant population. Previous studies in Europe identified immigration as a health and sleep-relevant stress factor [9
]. Similarly, Voss and Tuin [10
] studied women who had integrated more into the host society and found that they slept worse than less-integrated women, suggesting that non-integration may serve a protective function. An Australian study analyzed the impact of acculturative stress on depression and sleep, showing that despite long durations of stay, health disparities persisted [11
Prior studies have offered initial evidence that some psychosocial factors—such as education level, income, unemployment, and access to social resources—among immigrants or minority populations may explain the development and persistence of disturbed sleep [12
]. However, there is little population-based research on the impact of emotional distress on sleep patterns and whether it might explain the unhealthy sleep disparity (i.e., short or long sleep, irregular or interrupted sleep) between immigrants and non-immigrants. Emotional distress is defined as a state of emotional suffering characterized by symptoms of depression and anxiety [14
], which can affect the overall health and well-being of an individual [15
]. In fact, the often unrecognized and under-analyzed relationship between emotional distress and socio-demographic factors may obscure an independent relationship between emotional distress and sleep.
Based on the literature, we hypothesized that immigrants suffer more from emotional distress and experience more insomnia symptoms than the non-immigrant population. Furthermore, we hypothesized that emotional distress would partially account for the relationship between immigrant status and perceived sleep quality and insomnia symptoms.
The current study explored whether emotional distress might explain differences in insomnia symptoms between immigrants and non-immigrants. We found that immigrants had higher rates of insomnia symptoms compared to non-immigrants, which is consistent with previous findings [9
Our finding that immigrants reported greater levels of emotional/psychological distress compared to non-immigrants is consistent with previous studies [20
]. These studies illustrate that distress among immigrants is more likely if the individual is unemployed, living below the at-poverty-risk-threshold, and is of a lower socioeconomic status. Other studies indicate that social strain, such as excessive demands, overprotection, and rejection, may be related to emotional distress [21
]. As evidenced in the current study, emotional distress corrected for socio-demographic, behavioral, and chronic disease factors was predictive of insomnia symptoms for both immigrants and non-immigrants. However, immigrants compared to non-immigrants had a higher prevalence of emotional distress, insomnia symptoms, and appeared to be more vulnerable to the ill effects of emotional distress on sleep.
In comparison to Swiss natives, higher levels of emotional distress among immigrants were associated with increased symptoms of insomnia in the male population. These findings suggest that male immigrants’ sleep is more sensitive to higher levels of emotional distress compared to non-immigrants. The lack of interaction in the female population is unexpected. We hypothesize that female immigrants might be less susceptible to experiencing ED-related sleep disturbance due to experiencing different sources of ED relative to men. Aichberger et al. [20
] found in their study that socioeconomic status was only related to emotional distress in female Turkish immigrants without a partner. The authors hypothesized that difficulties may emerge when immigrant women from more collectivistic and family-oriented cultures try to be economically and socially independent. Our findings might reflect a reality of immigrant women with traditional family values leading to reduced contact with the host culture. Due to classical gender roles, females tend to care for the families and stay at home, thus showing a reduced integration into the host society, while males are forced to integrate due to their work environment [22
]. Previous studies attribute sleep differences between immigrants and native populations to acculturation phenomena. Immigrants are likely to adopt negative health behaviors and increased stress as they adjust to living in the host country [7
]. The process of societal integration appears to have negative consequences on sleep quality [10
Past studies have indicated that biological, socioeconomic, health, medical comorbidities, and psychosocial factors may explain differences in sleep between immigrants and non-immigrants. Firstly, studies have shown that immigrants face various chronic stressors, which might lead to somatic stress responses. Physiological reactions may have adverse effects on sleep and in fact may partly explain the difference between immigrants and non-immigrants [23
]. Secondly, studies have shown that acculturation in the host country might have an impact on the physical health status of immigrants [25
]. Chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension can in return affect sleep quality [26
]. Thirdly, psychosocial factors like socioeconomic status (low education and unemployment), low income, and being unmarried are related to sleep disruption [27
]. Immigrants in Switzerland experience more difficulties in finding jobs and integrating into the community compared to non-immigrants [28
One other possible explanation for the sleep disparity between immigrants and non-immigrants may be due to discrimination-related stress, since immigrants disproportionately encounter higher levels of prejudice and discrimination compared to non-immigrants [28
]. Fischer et al. [23
] found that immigrants reported higher levels of perceived ethnic discrimination, which resulted in increased stress. We argue that chronic exposure to difficulties in the acculturation process and discrimination may lead to emotional distress among immigrants, which in turn may induce a stress response and then a disruption in sleep.
Despite the plethora of evidence mentioned above for the determinants of sleep disruptions, to our knowledge, very few studies have found which determinants significantly lead to sleep differences between immigrants and non-immigrants.
Limitations and Future Directions
The current paper’s findings should be interpreted cautiously in light of several potential limitations. Firstly, the accepted languages were German, French, and Italian, which might have selected only those participants who have been assimilated to a certain degree to the host culture. Secondly, the use of self-reported sleep disorder symptoms, as opposed to objective measurement of sleep from polysomnography, may not yield the most accurate measurement of an individual’s normal sleep. Thirdly, the cross-sectional design of the SHS data prohibits us from making causal inferences between emotional distress and sleep. Lastly, we were unable to determine the nature and source of emotional distress, which would affect our interpretation of how emotional distress affects sleep. Future studies should investigate whether significant reductions in emotional distress might improve overall sleep quality among immigrants and therefore reduce sleep disparity between immigrants and non-immigrants. Additionally, future studies should include other emotionally distressing symptoms beyond symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Despite these limitations, our study adds significantly to the literature by suggesting that emotional distress may explain sleep disparities between immigrants and non-immigrants in a Swiss national data set. Sleep disorders are a significant public health problem in Switzerland and all over the world, especially among immigrants, who are disproportionately affected. While sleep is profoundly influenced by distal biological, environmental, health, and psychosocial factors that are hard to modify, our finding that emotional distress, a more proximal and modifiable factor, is linked to sleep disorder symptoms might explain sleep disparities between immigrants and non-immigrants.