As we bring 2013 to a close, we’re taking a look back at the sleep stories that made news this year. With so many fascinating developments in sleep science, it was hard to narrow it down, but here are the most challenging, eye-opening, important sleep stories from the second half of 2013:
Sleep suggestion: Help your child get off to a strong start in school. Set a regular bedtime and stick with it.
Maintaining a regular bedtime routine with young children isn’t always easy—but it’s well worth the effort. A study out of the United Kingdom revealed that inconsistent bedtimes for young children may interfere with healthy cognitive development. In the study, children whose bedtimes were irregular at ages 3, 5, and 7 demonstrated lower scores on reading, math, and spatial awareness tests administered at age 7, compared to children who went to bed at the same time every night. This research is particularly interesting because it zeroes in on the timing of sleep and the issue of bedtime consistency, apart from sleep quality or quantity. The results strongly suggest that a regular bedtime routine for even very young children may enhance their cognitive skills for several years going forward.
Sleep suggestion: Want to reset your sleep cycle? Sleep out under the stars.
Turns out camping isn’t just a family-friendly vacation, it’s also a sleep-friendly one. Spending some time sleeping away from the artificially-lit world, and exposing ourselves solely to natural light and darkness, can actually reset our circadian clocks. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder studied the effects of 7 days and nights of camping in the wilderness on sleep and circadian rhythm. They found that a week’s camping in the woods—without exposure to artificial light—had a powerful effect on circadian cycles. The volunteers’ individual biological nighttimes—when hormone levels shift in preparation for sleep—began a full 2 hours earlier after a week of camping. Both night owls and early birds—people with preferences for late night or early morning—saw these individual preferences diminish as everyone’s sleep-wake cycles aligned more closely with the solar day and night. The disruptive effects of nighttime exposure to artificial light to sleep and to overall health are an increasing public health concern. Disruptions to circadian function caused by too much nighttime light exposure are linked to elevated risks for serious illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Camping is a great break, and a chance to reset your sleep patterns—but also be sure to create time and space for darkness in your everyday life, by limiting your evening exposure to bright lights, and by keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom.
Sleep suggestion: If you have trouble using your CPAP machine, speak with your doctor about an alternative treatment option: oral appliance therapy.
Continuous positive airway pressure therapy, commonly known as CPAP, is a very effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. It can diminish and even eliminate the episodes of shallow or interrupted breathing that lead to poor sleep and often intense daytime fatigue, and contribute to higher risks for serious health conditions associated with OSA. The biggest drawback to CPAP is the difficulty that some people find in using the device, which involves wearing a mask over the nose and mouth during sleep. New research indicates there is another option for sleep apnea treatment that is effective enough to be considered an alternative to CPAP for some OSA patients. Scientists in the Netherlands compared the effectiveness of CPAP and oral appliance therapy for OSA, and found that oral devices returned similar rates of success in improving sleep as well as reducing daytime fatigue and other symptoms of sleep apnea. Their conclusion? For mild to moderate cases of sleep apnea, oral appliance therapy can be considered an alternative to CPAP. For severe cases of sleep apnea, CPAP remains the most effective treatment.
Sleep suggestion: Help control your appetite by getting a good night’s sleep.
If you’ve ever found yourself craving all the wrong kinds of foods on days when you’re tired and short on rest, there’s a reason for that: sleep and appetite are deeply connected. Poor sleep makes us more tempted by junk food, and more inclined to consume greater amounts of food. Sleep is a critical component of long-term weight control. This year sleep scientists uncovered a new neurological connection between sleep and appetite. Researchers at Brandeis University found a molecule in the brains of fruit flies that already was identified as an appetite regulator is also involved in modulating sleep and activity levels. This discovery opens up new avenues of inquiry that may deepen our understanding about exactly how sleep affects hunger, weight control and metabolic function. With hundreds of millions of adults and children in the U.S. and around the world struggling with obesity and its related health risks, discoveries like these—and the treatments that may eventually stem from them—can’t come often enough.
Depression is often accompanied by sleep problems. The two conditions can influence and exacerbate one another, yet treatment for depression often fails to include attention paid to sleep difficulties such as insomnia. That may soon change. A recent study—the first in a series of research projects on depression and insomnia sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health—suggests that treating insomnia in people with depression not only improves sleep, but also dramatically elevates rates of recovery from depression itself. The study focused on the effects of cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia—often referred to as CBT-I—a form of talk therapy designed to specifically target sleep problems. CBT-I is a low-cost, often short-term course of therapy that seeks to improve sleep routines and alleviate anxiety about sleep, while also exploring issues and emotions that may interfere with falling asleep and staying asleep. The federally-sponsored research found that the use of CBT-I in patients with insomnia and depression nearly doubled recovery rates for depression, compared to patients who did not receive treatment for insomnia alongside depression treatment. In 2014, we expect to receive additional results from similar studies, and we may soon see insomnia treatment become a standard part of treating depression.
Sleep suggestion: Play it safe for yourself and others. Don’t drive when you’re feeling drowsy.
The advent of the holiday season brought sleep into the headlines under tragic circumstances, when a Metro-North commuter train derailed on an early weekend morning, killing 4 people and injuring dozens. The engineer at the train controls reportedly fell asleep in the moments before the derailment. This terrible event highlights the need for greater focus on sleep in the transportation industry. It also provides us with a stark reminder that drowsy driving is dangerous, no matter who is behind the wheel. Too many motorists drive when they are tired, risking their lives and the lives of those other people with whom they share the road. The statistics on drowsy driving are scary. A report released by AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety in November 2013 revealed that 28% of drivers say they’ve had trouble staying awake behind the wheel at least once in the past 30 days. Research has shown that even moderate sleep deprivation can lead to mental and physical impairments that are similar to legal levels of alcohol intoxication. It’s time to start treating drowsy driving with the same seriousness that we treat drunk driving. Enjoy all the celebration that goes with ringing in a new year, but don’t get behind the wheel if you’re short on sleep.
I hope the New Year is for all of you healthy, full of good cheer and great sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™