By Michael J. Breus, PhD, ABSM
The year that just ended was a big one for sleep, with lots of important, news-making stories related to sleep and sleep disorders. Here are my picks for the biggest sleep stories of 2011, and the most important sleep advice to come from this year’s most compelling research.
Vitamins don’t just do your waking body good, they also can help improve the quality of your sleep. Vitamin B helps the body’s production of serotonin, the “calming hormone” that lulls the body toward sleep. Calcium also helps relaxation, and taken in combination with magnesium, can help with chronic sleep problems. Vitamin D got a lot of attention this past year—for good reason, since many people (in northern climates, with darker skin tones, elderly, overweight, pregnant and post-natal women) are at risk for vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is showing promise in lowering fatigue and daytime sleepiness.
This is the kind of practical strategy that I love: creating a proper sleep environment helps us sleep better, according to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation. People slept better when they kept a clean bedroom, kept clean sheets on the bed and changed them once a week, slept on comfortable mattress and pillows, and kept their rooms dark and cool. This is the essence of basic sleep hygiene. When your sleep starts to suffer, go back to basics and make sure your bedroom –especially your bed—is conducive to sleep.
This fascinating news could have real implications for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea, one of the most common sleep disorders. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that the interruption of breathing that occurs with OSA causes the brain to release a chemical called noradrenaline. Noradrenaline helps the body learn to breathe more deeply and fully. There’s a great deal more to investigate here, but research such as this could lead to simpler, more streamlined and effective treatments for OSA and sleep-disordered breathing. This is also a reminder of the power of the mind—and how we can put it to use in the service of sleep.
I’m highlighting this news to point out what the vast majority of us are not. Super sleepers—these are people who can function at full capacity on fewer than six hours of sleep per night—made headlines in 2011. These folks exist, but they are in the distinct minority. Though many of us may try to convince ourselves we can sleep four or five hours of sleep per night and not pay the consequences, it’s just not true. Only 1-3% of the population is short sleepers. The rest of us—you know, the 99%—need seven to eight hours of sleep per night to function well.
In 2011 we learned a lot about the connection between sleep and weight. Sleep helps regulate hormones that govern appetite and metabolism. It helps keep judgment sound and willpower strong. A full night of sleep allows you to wake feeling energized and ready to jump into your day, hopefully with calorie-blasting exercise. What’s more, during REM sleep, the body actually burns more calories than when you’re awake lying in bed.
This sleep news was some of the most intriguing of the year. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine discovered a direct link between sleep and the establishment of long-term memories. Testing with fruit flies, scientists were able to manipulate cells in the fly brain to show that sleep had a direct effect on the creation of long-term memories. Flies that slept after being exposed to new information were able to convert that short-term knowledge into memory.
Stay tuned for more sleep tips and a roundup of the most promising and important sleep stories from the second half of 2011. Happy New Year!
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
Everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep™