Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

The Power of Rest

Purpose and Sleep

Purpose-driven sleep.

Posted Jul 27, 2017

Pixabay, via pexels
Source: Pixabay, via pexels

Does sleep have a purpose? Certainly. Sleep is like food. Without sleep, animals die. During sleep we reorganize our brains, consolidate memories, grow skin, rejigger hormones, rebuild tissues. In sleep we continuously remake the internal information that makes us us.

But does having a purpose make for better sleep?

Purpose Driven Sleep

Meaning matters.  If people have a sense of meaning in their lives, they’re healthier.

Folks who profess a good reason for getting up each morning live longer. They have less stokes. They have less Alzheimer’s disease. They’re less depressed.  They experience less disability.

So one group asked, would they also sleep better?

Aging and Purpose

A study was recently done looking at older folks in two large data sets – the Rush Memory and Aging Project, and the Minority Aging Research Study. The latter group was particularly interesting, as most large cohort studies generally do not include  including large minority representation. The starting age for these groups was 60, with an average age of 79. Showing that purpose, self direction would have an effect on sleep might seem a tall order in a group of this age, followed for two to three years. After all, sleep apnea, which ultimately over 40% of this group were at high risk for, does not seem intimately related with life's purpose.

Still the results were a little surprising. Sleep quality, engages issues of insomnia, the biggest bugbear in older populations, correlated with purpose, but only with increased sleep quality one year on. Yet sleep apnea risk went down appreciably with a sense of purpose in life through years one and two. Restless legs risk also diminished for those with a sense of purpose. 

The study was imperfect. The groups observed were relatively highly educated, averaging three years of college. The large majority of people studied (77%) were women. The majority of participants (53.7%) were African American.

Yet it's curious why purpose and meaning decrease one's risk of sleep apnea.

The Four Fold Path

Do people who have a sense of purpose and meaning act differently from others?

There’s quite a bit of evidence they do. They have a greater tendency to exercise.  They relax more. They go to the doctor more regularly.

Yet why should that make the rates of restless leg syndrome go down?

Because meaning affects a lot more than just people’s sense of purpose and their ability to deal with the negative outcomes of fate.

So let’s look at how purpose and meaning affect the four major actors in long-term health — physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being:

Physical well-being: when people feel what they’re doing with their lives is worthwhile, they generally feel physically healthier.  People who feel more alert and alive are also more prone to exercise.

In the Kungsholmen data, a longitudinal study of people in central Stockholm, lifestyle effects added six to seven years longevity from age 65, and four years added survival at age 85.  Much of the positive results came from increased physical activity and socialization.

Physically active populations live healthier and longer.  People with a sense of personal purpose are more likely to investigate and visit their local environment.

Mental well-being: seeing the world in terms of solutions as opposed to problems leads to better health outcomes.  A recent study of Alzheimer’s risk showed that one of the more useful strategies to keep dementia at bay was to treat depression early (see this space next week.) Perhaps 30% of the population will now experience depression sometime during their lives. Having a sense of purpose and meaning helps ward off depression. Those with a sense of purpose are also more likely to try and find solutions to problems.  If one sees depression as lack of adaptability, a breakdown of the natural resilience people exhibit responding to changes in their environment, matters of meaning matter more. 

Social well-being:  People with a sense of useful meaning in their lives are more likely to express that purposefulness in seeking relationships and in performing acts that help others, thereby making themselves feel better.  Social support is also a rarely acknowledged major factor in preventing heart disease.

Spiritual well-being: having a sense of meaning is one of the great benefits of the spiritual life.  In turn, feeling that one’s life is worthwhile makes it far easier to connect with forces and circumstances larger than oneself.

What this illustrates is that physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being are self-reinforcing.  Improving one component can make the others more effective.  Using physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being in concert produces a virtuous circle where most elements of health can concomitantly improve. 

Bottom Line

Purpose and meaning are things people search throughout their lives.  When they find them, their health often improves.  Even sleep apnea and restless legs are less common in people who have a sense of purpose.  And having that sense of purpose can improve physical, mental, social and spiritual health, all together.