2013 brought scientific breakthroughs that deepened our understanding of the very nature of sleep, as well as important new information about Americans’ sleep habits and the tools they use to help them sleep better. Read on highlights from the most interesting, illuminating, and important sleep stories of the year, along with suggestions to incorporate the latest in sleep research to your own sleep routine:
Sleep suggestion: If you’re taking prescription sleep medication, make sure you’re alert to—and talking to your doctor about –any symptoms of morning drowsiness.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in January issued new guidelines regarding recommended dosages of sleep medications containing zolpidem, the active component in several of the most commonly-prescribed medications for sleep, including Ambien, Edluar, and Zolpimist. The FDA changes came as a result of research that indicated people taking medications with zolpidem at night were at risk for excessive drowsiness the next morning—enough to interfere with activities such as driving. The risks to alertness in the morning were found to be particularly high for women. The FDA instructed manufacturers of sleep medications containing zolpidem to lower the recommended dosages for women by half. The FDA also encouraged physicians and other medical professionals prescribing these medications to caution their patients—both men and women—about the risks of morning drowsiness, and to prescribe the lowest dosages possible to remedy sleep problems. With more than 4% of American adults estimated to be using sleep medications, these revised guidelines issued by the FDA affect millions of men and women who are taking prescription sleep medicine.
Hearing of changes to drug regulations when you’re a patient taking these medications can be unsettling. It may be tempting to stop taking medication abruptly, out of fear. But there’s no reason to panic. Take your medication as directed, be aware of how you respond to the medication you’re taking, and talk to your doctor before making any changes to your prescription regimen.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we discussed some important news about how sleep can impact our closest relationships. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley examined how sleep affects feelings of gratitude and appreciation between romantic partners. They found that poor sleep reduced people’s sense of appreciation for their partners, diminished feelings of gratitude, and increased feelings of selfishness. In a striking glimpse at how dynamic a factor sleep can be in relationships, we also learned this: poor sleep on the part of just one person tended to make both partners feel less appreciated in the relationship.
Sleep suggestion: Maintaining strong sleep habits may protect healthy gene function.
Getting enough high-quality rest may affect our health right down to the level of our genes. That’s the takeaway from a significant breakthrough made by sleep researchers this year, linking sleep shortages to altered gene function. Scientists at England’s University of Surrey investigated how sleep deprivation might influence genetic activity. They found that a week of mild sleep deprivation—sleeping slightly less than 6 hours per night—altered the function of more than 700 genes in the body. This level of mild sleep deprivation also weakened the alignment of several hundred genes to the body’s 24-hour circadian clock. Many of the genes affected by low sleep were related to critical physiological processes, including regulation of stress, inflammation, metabolic function, and the immune system. With the abundance of information we have linking poor sleep to health problems, we still understand relatively little about exactly how insufficient and poor quality sleep contribute to illness and disease. This discovery may prove significant in furthering that understanding, and may open up important new avenues for both research and treatment of chronic illness.
Sleep suggestion: Exercise regularly and you’ll sleep better. (You’ll feel better, too.)
The National Sleep Foundation devoted its annual survey to the topic of exercise and sleep. The results it returned painted a striking picture of just how dramatic an effect regular physical activity can have on the quality of nightly rest. The NSF found that regular exercisers are far more likely to report sleeping well most nights than people who don’t exercise. More than half (56-67%) of exercisers reported sleeping well every night or almost every night, compared to 39% of non-exercisers. Vigorous exercisers report the best sleep, and the fewest sleep problems. But exercisers of all levels—including those people whose primary exercise was light walking—slept substantially better than those who did not exercise regularly. A recently released study suggests that exercise can be as effective a therapy for some forms of disease as some medications can. If you’re one of those people who puts exercise on your New Year’s resolution list, make this the year you stick with it. Regular exercise is a powerful investment in your health and your sleep.
Sleep suggestion: Protect your heart by staying on alert to sleep problems.
On the heels of the very good news about the benefits to sleep health from exercise, we encountered this sobering news about the dangerous effects of poor sleep on the heart: left untreated, insomnia may dramatically increase the risks of heart failure. Norwegian researchers undertook a large-scale study of insomnia and heart failure, and found several symptoms of the sleep disorder associated with significantly elevated risk for this serious cardiovascular disease. Researchers looked at three of the most common symptoms of insomnia:
Their results indicated that all three symptoms were linked to increased risk for heart failure, compared to people who did not display any insomnia symptoms. People who experienced more than one symptom were at higher risk than those who had only a single symptom. Among those people with all 3 symptoms, the risk of heart failure more than tripled compared to people with no symptoms, and was significantly higher than for people who experienced 1 or 2 symptoms of insomnia. Keep in mind that this study revealed a link between insomnia and heart failure—it did not pinpoint insomnia as a cause of heart failure. Still, with significant evidence of sleep’s role in cardiovascular health, and more than 5 million American adults suffering from heart failure, this is an important connection for doctors and patients to understand.
Sleep suggestion: If you have asthma, talk to your doctor about your risk for obstructive sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder, disruptive to nighttime rest and to daytime functioning, and associated with elevated risks for a number of other health problems, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Worse yet, sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed, leaving people exposed to these risks without the benefit of treatment. Know the factors that put one at risk for sleep apnea is important. There are several well-documented risk factors for sleep apnea, including age, weight, neck and airway circumference, chronic congestion, tobacco and alcohol use. This year, sleep scientists identified a potentially new risk factor for sleep apnea: asthma. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that people with asthma were 1.7 times as likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea as those people without asthma. The longer a person had asthma, the higher his risk for sleep apnea. Among adults who developed asthma during childhood, the risk was even higher: childhood asthma was looked to 2.34 times the risk for sleep apnea in adults. If you have asthma, it doesn’t mean you have or will develop sleep apnea. But knowing you’re at greater risk is important. Once diagnosed, sleep apnea can be treated effectively through a number of different therapies.
We’ve covered a lot of ground, and we’re only halfway through the year! Check back soon for more fascinating and important sleep stories as we round out the year.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™