By Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM
As we begin a new year, we’re taking a look back at some of the most interesting, thought-provoking sleep stories of the year just ending. Here are my picks for the second half of 2012:
Sleep suggestion: Want to boost your power to resist junk food? Get a good night’s sleep.
Ever notice that you’re more likely to indulge in junk food cravings when you’re tired? This year we saw results of two studies that examined the relationship between sleep deprivation and our ability to choose healthy foods. Both studies found that insufficient sleep affects brain behavior in areas that control impulse control and decision making, in ways that make us more likely to eat indulgent foods. This is just another hurdle for people trying to maintain a healthy weight. We know that lack of sleep and disrupted sleep also contribute to increased appetite, an overall increase in the number of calories consumed daily, and a shift to eating later in the day and night.
When it comes to controlling weight by sticking to a healthy diet, it’s not so much about “willpower” as it is about sleep power.
Sleep suggestion: Use sleep to protect your immune system.
Stress is damaging to immune health, increasing the risk of illness and disease. Sleep deprivation has also been found to disrupt normal immune system functioning. This year we learned that a lack of sufficient sleep may affect the body’s immune system in ways very similar to stress, and just as damaging. This study examined the human response to sleep deprivation and found that it mimicked the body’s cellular response to physical stress. We hear a great deal about how important managing stress is to long-term health. Rightly so, but it’s no less important to manage sleep for the same reason. A regular routine of high-quality sleep, 6-8 hours per night, is an important protection for health as we age.
Sleep suggestion: Parents—choose bedtime over study time for teens.
Staying up late to study is something that most of us have done at some point. Remember those all-nighters in college, cramming for tests? As parents, we might find ourselves tempted to let our kids stay up late to squeeze in extra study time. It may seem like a virtuous sacrifice, but a new study suggests that it could cause more harm than good. Researchers found that high school students who stayed up late to study were more likely to have difficulty in school the next day than those who did not stay up late. The students who studied later into the night had more difficulty understanding material being discussed in class, and also scored lower on tests, quizzes, and homework. This was true regardless of how much study time students put in overall. Most teens these days are not getting the sleep they need on a daily basis. It’s important to help teens establish a regular sleep routine that includes a bedtime that enables them to get 8-9 hours of sleep a night. Once the routine is in place, stick to it—even when it comes to studying.
Sleep suggestion: When it comes to sleep, remember that quality matters as well as quantity.
It’s not just how much you sleep that can affect your health for better or worse, it’s also how well you sleep. In October we discussed a study that found women who sleep poorly are at substantially higher risk for resistant hypertension than women who experience higher-quality sleep. Resistant hypertension is a form of blood pressure that is difficult to treat and does not respond to blood-pressure medications. Researchers found an increased risk among women based on the quality of their sleep. They found no increased risk of resistant hypertension associated with quantity of sleep. Researchers also found no increased risk of resistant hypertension for men. We need to see further studies before we presume that this is a problem exclusive to women. Here’s what we do know: high blood pressure is all-too-common among adults in the U.S., affecting nearly 1/3 of the population, and putting millions at risk for heart attack and stroke. Sleep—high quality and appropriate quantity—can play an important part in lowering risk levels for high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.
Sleep suggestion: Improve your physical prowess and lower your risk of injury with sleep.
We saw a lot of welcome attention to the role of sleep in sport in 2012. Sleep can make a real difference in the performance of professional athletes at all levels. Studies show that sufficient sleep is associated with improvements to speed, accuracy, and reaction times across a number of sports. There’s also research that indicates that getting enough sleep on a regular basis decreases the risk of sport-related injury, compared to those athletes who get insufficient sleep. These findings don’t just have ramifications for your favorite college football team, or MLB lineup. Whether you’re a dedicated marathoner, a regular on your office basketball team, or someone who hikes and bikes for fun and relaxation, if you want to improve your physical performance, sleep can help.
Sleep suggestion: Don’t fight your sleep (and wake) tendencies—use them to your advantage.
Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, the tendency to prefer one end of the day to another is genetically determined, according to this recent research. Scientists found common gene variants that appear to influence the timing of circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep-wake cycles. People with a certain gene variant will tend to wake as much as 60 minutes earlier than others, with still another group falling in the middle of this timeframe. This research may prove to be significant in improving treatment and prevention strategies in medicine. We all can benefit from listening to our bodies when it comes to sleep. If you’re an early morning riser, don’t leave lots of work until the evening hours. Not a morning person? Trying to force yourself into an early a.m. gym routine may be a struggle. Be practical and honest with yourself about how and when you function at your best, and use this knowledge to help create a sleep and wake schedule that you can live with—well.
What a great year for sleep research and our understanding of the science of sleep. I can’t wait to see what we learn in the year to come.
Happy New Year to all! I wish you good health and good sleep in 2013.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™