Tag Archives: sleep

Just one extra hour of sleep can help overweight people eat less

Credit: Pixabay.

Research conducted over the years has increasingly linked poor sleep (particularly sleeping less than the minimally recommended 7 hours per night) to the risk of weight gain over time. Not sleeping enough may result in hormonal imbalances that affect appetite, leading some to eat more than they normally would on a healthy sleep regimen.

To investigate in more detail how sleep affects calorie intake, researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a randomized clinical trial involving 80 young, overweight adults who habitually sleep less than 6.5 hours a night.

“Over the years, we and others have shown that sleep restriction has an effect on appetite regulation that leads to increased food intake, and thus puts you at risk for weight gain over time,” said lead investigator Esra Tasali, director of the UChicago Sleep Center at the University of Chicago Medicine. “More recently, the question that everyone was asking was, ‘Well, if this is what happens with sleep loss, can we extend sleep and reverse some of these adverse outcomes?’”

The volunteers were randomly split into two groups. One received personalized sleep hygiene counseling, which involved changing one’s routine to avoid the things that hinder sleep (caffeine in the evening, heavy meals close to bedtime, excessively warm bedroom, etc.) and introduce activities that aid sleep (going to bed at the same time, using your sleep only for sleep or sex, etc.). The other group received no intervention at all and acted as a control.

In the first two weeks, the researchers just gathered baseline information about sleep and calorie intake. Sleep patterns were measured using wearable devices while calorie intake was quantified using the “doubly labeled water” method. The doubly labeled water method is a trialed and tested urine-based test for objectively tracking calorie intake, which involves a participant drinking water in which some hydrogen and oxygen atoms have been replaced with stable isotopes that are easy to trace. With this technique, it is possible to measure every calorie a person burned over a one to two week interval, without having to hawkishly record everything a person puts into their mouths.

“This is considered the gold standard for objectively measuring daily energy expenditure in a non-laboratory, real-world setting and it has changed the way human obesity is studied,” said the study’s senior author Dale Schoeller, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at UW–Madison.

A month after the study started, the researchers found that participants in the sleep intervention group managed to extend their sleep duration by an average of 1.2 hours. Compared to the control group, the sleep intervention reduced the participants’ daily calorie intake by 270 calories, the equivalent of a small meal.

Of important note is that this examination was performed in a real-world setting. Each volunteer slept in their own beds, ate what they wished, wasn’t prompted to exercise, and generally went about their day as they pleased and normally would. That’s in stark contrast to most weight loss studies that are generally short-lived and diligently measure calorie intake by making sure participants only consume a particular offered diet.

The only factor that was manipulated in the study was sleep duration, and this single aspect proved to have a significant impact on the participants’ calorie intake. If the average reduction in calorie intake of 270 calories per day is maintained over the long term, this would translate to roughly 12 kg (26 pounds) of weight loss over a three-year period. That’s on average; some participants consumed as many as 500 fewer calories per day.

“This was not a weight-loss study,” said Tasali. “But even within just two weeks, we have quantified evidence showing a decrease in caloric intake and a negative energy balance — caloric intake is less than calories burned. If healthy sleep habits are maintained over a longer duration, this would lead to clinically important weight loss over time. Many people are working hard to find ways to decrease their caloric intake to lose weight — well, just by sleeping more, you may be able to reduce it substantially.”

In the future, the researchers plan on studying the underlying mechanisms that may explain why more sleep can lead to weight loss. Previous research by Tasali and colleagues suggest that sleep is important for appetite regulation. Limited sleep may drive changes in appetite-regulating hormones and reward centers in the brain that could lead to overeating.

If you struggle with both your sleep and weight, these findings suggest a simple intervention could do wonders: just sleep more. That’s harder than it sounds, but with some hard work, it is possible. According to the researchers, limiting the use of electronic devices before bedtime was a key intervention.

Here are a few tips that may help you clock in more hours of sleep:

  1. Go to sleep at the same time each night, and get up at the same time each morning, even on the weekends.
  2. Don’t take naps after 3 p.m, and don’t nap longer than 20 minutes.
  3. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol late in the day.
  4. Avoid nicotine completely.
  5. Get regular exercise, but not within 2-3 hours of bedtime.
  6. Don’t eat a heavy meal late in the day. A light snack before bedtime is OK.
  7. Make your bedroom comfortable, dark, quiet, and not too warm or cold.
  8. Follow a routine to help you relax before sleep (for example, reading or listening to music). Turn off the TV and other screens at least an hour before bedtime.
  9. Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, do something calming until you feel sleepy, like reading or listening to soft music.
  10. Talk with a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping.

The findings of the new study appeared in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Cannabis abuse can cause extreme sleep patterns: too little or too much sleep

Credit: Flickr.

An increasing number of people use cannabis right before bedtime as a sleep aid, especially since recreational use has been legalized in many states and regions in North America. Recent research, however, suggests this habit does more harm than good, leading to disrupted sleep patterns that can negatively impact mood and overall physical and mental health. New findings have linked regular cannabis use to extreme nightly sleep duration: either sleeping less than 6 hours or, on the flipside, dozing off for more than 9 hours.

Cannabis and sleep

Only two-thirds of Americans get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep every night and more than half report daytime sleepiness virtually every day. Sleeping less than seven hours per day is associated with an increased risk of developing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress.

Sleep deprivation is on the rise in the United States and other industrialized countries. The troubles and stress of modern life are also accompanied by insomnia, which has made many turn to sleep aids.

Rather than buying pills, many Americans now opt for cannabis as a form of sleep aid. Cannabis may be a better alternative, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without risks.

In a new study published in the journal Regional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine, researchers at the University of Toronto combed through a dataset of a nationally representative sample of US adults aged 20-59. Among other things, the participants reported their sleep difficulties, such as having trouble falling asleep and sleeping too much in the preceding two weeks; and whether they regularly experienced daytime sleepiness in the preceding 30 days.

The participants also reported their cannabis use. The participants were classed as recent or non-users based on whether or not they used cannabis in the past 30 days.

A grand total of 21,729 people were included in the study, representing an estimated 150 million US adults. The researchers adjusted their statistical model to account for potential influential factors such as age, weekly working hours, a history of chronic disease, weight, smoking, heavy alcohol use, and prescription medication use, as well as use of sleeping aids like barbiturates and other sedatives.

Across the entire sample, the participants slept just short of 7 hours on average. Around 12% reported less than 6 hours of sleep while only 4% reported more than 9 hours of sleep. Both extremes are suboptimal for healthy sleep.

Heavy marijuana users were 64% more likely to experience short sleep and 76% more likely to experience long sleep.

Cannabis users were 34% more likely to report short sleep and 56% more likely to report long sleep than those who hadn’t used cannabis in the preceding 30 days, the study found. Moreover, they were also 31% more likely to respond that they had difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, as well as 29% more likely to see a doctor about sleep problems than non-users. Cannabis use didn’t seem to have any effect on daytime sleepiness.

The pattern of extreme sleep durations among cannabis users was most pronounced among heavy users — those who consumed cannabis on at least 20 out of 30 previous days. Compared to non-users, heavy users were 64% more likely to experience short sleep and 76% more likely to experience long sleep.

“Increasing prevalence of both cannabis use and sleep deprivation in the population is a potential cause for concern,” wrote the researchers led by Calvin Diep from the University of Toronto’s Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine.

“Despite the current literature demonstrating mixed effects of cannabis and various cannabinoid formulations on sleep architecture and quality, these agents are being increasingly used as both prescribed and unprescribed experimental therapies for sleep disturbances.”

Since this is an observational study, the researchers had no way to establish any causal relationship that may describe a mechanism by which cannabis could cause extreme swings in sleep duration, or why some sleep too little while others sleep too much. But this isn’t the first study to report something like this. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases found that daily marijuana users scored higher on the Insomnia Severity Index and sleep-disturbance measures. An earlier study from 2014  found regular marijuana users take longer to fall asleep, struggle to maintain sleep, experience  non-restorative sleep and feel daytime sleepiness. 

“Our findings highlight the need to further characterize the sleep health of regular cannabis users in the population…Sleep-wake physiology and regulation is complex and research about related endocannabinoid pathways is in its early stages,” said the researchers from the University of Toronto.

Two-thirds of college students are struggling with lack of sleep, poor sleep quality

The students are not all right, new research reports. According to the findings, around two-thirds of college students experience poor sleep quality, which affects their academic performance and can lead to the development of mental health issues.

Image credits Mohamed Hassan.

College has definitely been an enjoyable part of my life, but sleeping well was not really part of the deal. I think most of us can empathize with that statement. And college students enrolled today would likely say the same.

A new study working with a sample of 1,113 college-age students enrolled in university full-time reports that two-thirds are experiencing poor sleep quality. The data further shows that students reporting depressive symptoms are almost four times as likely to suffer from poor sleeping habits. Although female students were more likely to have trouble getting enough rest overall, poor sleep can lead to a number of health complications across the board and impair students’ ability to perform academically.

Sleeping in class

“Sleep disorders are especially harmful for college students because they’re associated with several negative effects on academic life,” says lead author Dr. Paulo Rodrigues from the Faculty of Nutrition, Federal University of Mato Grosso, Brazil. “These include failures in attention and perception, high absenteeism rate, and sometimes dropping out of the course”.

The study surveyed 1,113 undergraduates and postgraduates (aged 16 to 25) who were enrolled at the Federal University of Mato Grosso in Brazil. Participants were asked about their sleep quality, EDS, socioeconomic status, and their body mass index (BMI) was also assessed.

The authors say their findings raise an alarm about the fact that stressors associated with college life, such as heavy course demands, put students at an increased risk of developing sleeping disorders. In turn, such disorders pose a genuine threat to their academic performance and overall health. Universities, the authors conclude, should take steps to promote healthy sleep habits among their students, and take extra steps to safeguard their mental health.

Over half (55%) of the students enrolled in the study reported having issues with excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). This was more prevalent among female students overall. These 55% of students as a group were almost twice as likely to report feeling moderate to high levels of stress, and of exhibiting signs of depression.

The authors warn stressors, such as course demands, make college students vulnerable to sleep disorders which in turn affect academic performance and health. They’re calling on universities to do more to promote positive sleep habits and good mental health.

“The university environment offers greater exposure to factors that may compromise sleep habits such as academic stress and the demands of social life. It’s crucial to evaluate and monitor sleep habits, mental health, and the quality of life of students to reduce the risk of developing other chronic diseases,” Dr. Rodrigues adds. “University managers should plan the implementation of institutional actions and policies. This is to stimulate the development of activities that promote good sleep habits and benefit students’ mental health.”

Among the factors that make students likely to lose sleep include living away from home, on their own terms, for the first time in their lives; the use of stimulants such as coffee to impair sleep, and an erratic bedtime schedule. The same factors also increase the likelihood of students experiencing poor quality sleep even on days where they do get enough time to rest. On average, the participants of this study slept an estimated seven hours per day, compared to what is considered the ideal amount for adults, of nine hours per day.

The authors note that the issues of EDS prevalence and poor sleep among university students have been investigated and documented previously, but the link between these and stress or depression remained poorly understood. In addition, the study highlights a link between poor sleep quality and the ability of students to perform academically. Students enrolled in biological and health sciences were more likely to be affected, as were those enrolled in social and human sciences.

Despite this, the study cannot point to the exact mechanism that links sleep disturbance with depression, in the sense that it cannot tell if one causes the other or vice-versa. The authors note that further research is needed to understand this dynamic.

The paper “Poor sleep quality, excessive daytime sleepiness and association with mental health in college students” has been published in the Annals of Human Biology.

Not getting enough sleep? It’s probably affecting your walk as well

Walking and the way we control our pace (known as gait) can be affected by the lack of sleep, according to a new study by researchers at MIT and the University of Sao Paulo. But no worries, there’s a simple and effective solution to reduce this clumsiness: just make up for the lost sleep, even if it’s just a few hours on the weekend.

Image credit: Flickr / Andrew Roberts.

There’s a lot of evidence out there linking our length and quality of sleep to our performance in activities that are mentally taxing, such as maintaining a conversation or solving problems. But researchers haven’t looked that closely yet on how sleep influences activities that are less cognitively demanding, such as walking. 

Now, in a new study, researchers carried out a set of experiments with student volunteers and found that those who got limited sleep didn’t have much control when walking on a treadmill test. This was even more clear on students who didn’t sleep at all so to get ready for an exam the following morning, with their gait control decreasing further. 

“Scientifically, it wasn’t clear that almost automatic activities like walking would be influenced by lack of sleep,” Hermano Krebs, co-author, said in a statement. “We also find that compensating for sleep could be an important strategy. For instance, for those who are chronically sleep-deprived, like shift workers, clinicians, and some military personnel.”

Sleep and walking

Over the last decade, Krebs and his colleagues at MIT have looked at gait control and the mechanics of walking, trying to develop strategies for patients who had suffered strokes and other conditions that limited their mobility. He has shown that walking actually involves some conscious influence, adding to the more automatic processes.

In 2013, MIT signed a partnership with the University of Sao Paulo to find out whether more subtle stimuli like auditory cues could also influence walking. They did experiments in which they ask volunteers to walk on a treadmill while playing and shifting the frequency of a metronome. The volunteers matched their walk to the beat without realizing it. 

This suggested that gait wasn’t just an automatic process and that there was a lot of influence from the brain, Krebs explains. Experiments then continued, focusing on students from Brazil. The researchers noticed that students tended to perform worse on the experiments when being sleep-deprived, so they decided to embrace this situation. 

In their new study, the researchers enlisted a group of volunteers to participate in an experiment on the effects of the lack of sleep on gait control. Students were given a watch to monitor their activity over 14 days, which in turn gave information to the researchers on how many hours were the students sleeping and how many hours were they active. No instruction was given on how much to sleep.

Students slept on average six hours per day, with some compensating with more hours during the weekend. Right before the study was about to finish, one group of students stayed awake all night in the laboratory. They were designated the Sleep Acute Deprivation Group and were asked to carry out a walking test on a treadmill placed in the laboratory. 

Students had to keep step with the beat of a metronome, as researchers raised and lowered the speed without letting the participants know. There were cameras in place that captured how the students walked, especially the moment in which their heel hit the treadmill compared to the beat of the metronome. Many were off the rhythm and missed plenty of beeps, indicating that staying awake is taxing even on simple activities such as walking. 

“The results show that gait is not an automatic process, and that it can be affected by sleep deprivation,” Krebs said. “They also suggest strategies for mitigating effects of sleep deprivation. Ideally, everyone should sleep eight hours a night. But if we can’t, then we should compensate as much and as regularly as possible.”

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

A milk peptide could lead us to new, non-addictive sleep medication

A new study highlights that certain elements in casein tryptic hydrolysate (CTH), a mixture of protein elements that are naturally produced from the digestion of milk, could form the basis of new sleep remedies.

Image via Pixabay.

The calming, rest-inducing effect of a glass of warm milk before bedtime is already well known. Researchers ascribe this mostly to tryptophan, an amino acid present in milk. However, new research suggests that this isn’t the only compound in milk that helps us sleep. A mixture of peptides (the building blocks of proteins) collectively known as CTH, which is also present in milk, also seems to have such an effect.

New research zooms in on the issue more closely, identifying which specific peptides in CTH produce this effect. Such molecules could be used to create novel, all-natural treatments for sleep disorders, the study explains.

Milk for sleep

Insomnia is quite a serious issue on a global level. Different sources estimate that between 10% and 30% of adults worldwide suffer from chronic insomnia, although some estimates place it as high as 50% or even 60%. Since lack of sleep can quickly become a debilitating issue, doctors often prescribe sedatives to help their patients get some shut-eye. The most common drugs used for this purpose are benzodiazepines and zolpidem (brand name Ambien).

They do their job well, but the side effects can become very uncomfortable, even debilitating in their own right. Both of these sedatives are also quite addictive. So any alternatives to these treatments would be welcome, for both doctors and patients.

Many sedatives today work by activating the GABA receptor in the brain — this is a receptor site that, once bound, reduces anxiety and enhances sleep. The interaction between the casein in cow’s milk with trypsin, a digestive enzyme present in the human stomach, produces a peptide complex known as CTH. A specific element in this mixture, α-casozepine (α-CZP), has previously been identified as interacting with the GABA receptor. Starting from this background, the authors wanted to see if other peptides in this complex can produce similar or greater sleep-enhancing effects.

The authors used mass spectrometry to identify other peptides with bioactive properties released from CTH during a simulated gastric process (simulated digestion). They then virtually estimated their potential to pass through the blood-brain barrier and tie to the GABA site. The most promising candidates were then tested in live mice.

One, in particular, christened YPVEPF, had a very encouraging effect. Compared to mice in the control group, 25% of those who were administered YPVEPF fell asleep more quickly. Mice in the experimental group also slept on average more than 4 times as much as those in the control group.

Considering the efficacy YPVEPF showed in mice, the team hopes to carry on investigating its potential in human subjects. Eventually, they hope, it will form the basis for new, non-addictive drugs meant to tackle sleep disorders. They also advise that other promising peptides in the CTH complex be investigated further, especially those that can produce sleep-enhancing effects through pathways other than the GABA receptor.

The paper “Identification and Screening of Potential Bioactive Peptides with Sleep-Enhancing Effects in Bovine Milk Casein Hydrolysate” has been published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

We may have greatly underestimated the dangers of sleep deprivation

Getting a solid shut eye is not something you can just abandon — not if you want to stay in good health.

Image credits: Henning Roettger.

Sleep deprivation research isn’t new. Previous research has shown that sleep deprivation can cause a number of health problems, ranging from aching muscles and headaches to depression, memory loss, decreased immunity, and even depression.

But we may still be underestimating the damage that sleep deprivation can cause. An often-overlooked effect of lack of sleep is the propensity for errors. Simply put, the more tired you are, the more likely you are to make mistakes.

“If you look at mistakes and accidents in surgery, public transportation and even operating nuclear power plants, lack of sleep is one of the primary reasons for human error,” said Kimberly Fenn, associate professor of psychology and director of the MSU Sleep and Learning Lab. Sometimes, this lack of sleep reaches alarming levels. “There are many people in critical professions who are sleep-deprived. Research has found that nearly one-quarter of the people with procedure-heavy jobs have fallen asleep on the job.”

Of course, some errors are basic and make no significant difference in the grand scheme of things. You may forget where you left your cup or make a typo in an email — that kind of thing doesn’t really matter. But for millions of people, the daily routine also involves driving, and sleep deprivation is a prime cause for traffic accidents. For people operating complex machinery or doing complex procedures, that risk is even higher.

If you look at road accidents or major catastrophes such as Chernobyl or the Exxon Valdez oil spill, they often involve human error — and human errors are exacerbated by sleep deprivation.

So there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that lack of sleep can cause disasters. Quantifying that, however, has remained challenging. This latest study analyzed the effect lack of sleep has on a person’s ability to follow a procedure and maintain attention. In particular, Fenn’s team looked at how sleep-deprived people perform tasks when they are interrupted. Spoiler alert — it’s not good.

“Every day, approximately 11 sponges are left inside of patients who have undergone surgery. That’s 4,000 potentially dire missteps each year and an example of a procedural task gone terribly wrong that can result from sleep deprivation,” Fenn said. “Our research suggests that sleep-deprived people shouldn’t perform tasks in which they are interrupted — or, only perform them for short periods.”

In the experiments, researchers brought 234 people into the sleep lab at 10 PM. They had participants work on a sequence-based procedure that involved doing a series of activities in order. They were periodically interrupted and had to remember what they were doing in the procedure. At midnight, half of the participants went home to sleep and completed the procedure in the morning, and the other half stayed awake all night to pull through.

There was a stark jump in errors for the group that worked through the night — sleep deprivation was taking its toll.

“All participants met performance criteria in the evening, but roughly 15 percent of participants in the sleep-deprived group failed in the morning, compared to 1 percent of those who slept,” Fenn said. “Furthermore, sleep-deprived participants not only showed more errors than those who slept but also showed a progressive increase in errors associated with memory as they performed the task — an effect not observed in those who slept. This shows that the sleep-deprived group experienced a great deal of difficulty remembering where they were in the sequence during interruptions.”

The culprit for this is memory maintenance. When we don’t get enough sleep, our memory is hindered and we struggle to pick up tasks where we left off. Considering that we face a number of distractions every day, sleep deprivation can really ramp up our errors, even if we might not realize it.

“Our research showed that sleep deprivation doubles the odds of making placekeeping errors and triples the number of lapses in attention, which is startling,” said Kimberly Fenn, professor of psychology and director of the Sleep and Learning Lab. “Sleep-deprived individuals need to exercise caution in absolutely everything that they do, and simply can’t trust that they won’t make costly errors. Oftentimes – like when behind the wheel of a car – these errors can have tragic consequences.”

This is consistent with previous research and should be considered in real life situations, particularly in medicine and driving, researchers conclude.

“Our findings debunk a common theory that suggests that attention is the only cognitive function affected by sleep deprivation,” said co-author Michelle Stepan. “Some sleep-deprived people might be able to hold it together under routine tasks, like a doctor taking a patient’s vitals. But our results suggest that completing an activity that requires following multiple steps, such as a doctor completing a medical procedure, is much riskier under conditions of sleep deprivation.”

Journal Reference: Michelle E. Stepan, Kimberly M. Fenn, Erik M. Altmann. Effects of sleep deprivation on procedural errors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2018; DOI: 10.1037/xge0000495

Migraines affect both actual and perceived sleeping patterns and quality

Migraines — nobody likes them, nobody wants them. Yet, a lot of us suffer from them. New research is looking into how they link to sleeping patterns, in a bid to improve our ability to treat migraines.

Image via Pixabay.

Both children and adults suffering from migraines are liable to get less high-quality, rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep than their peers, is the overall finding of a new meta-study. Children with migraines, in particular, also get less total sleep time than healthy ones, but also fall asleep faster.

While the findings may not seem impressive at first glance, they go a long way towards understanding how migraines affect the sleeping patterns of patients. They also offer a better understanding of just what issues such patients face, and what doctors can do to help them overcome their unique set of problems. That being said, the meta-study didn’t aim to, nor did it succeed in, establishing a cause-effect relationship between lack of sleep and migraines.

Losing sleep

“Do migraines cause poor sleep quality or does poor sleep quality cause migraines?” said co-author Jan Hoffmann, MD, PhD, of King’s College London in the United Kingdom and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “We wanted to analyze recent research to get a clearer picture of how migraines affect people’s sleep patterns and the severity of their headaches. That way, clinicians can better support people with migraines and deliver more effective sleep treatments.”

REM sleep is an important stage in our sleep cycle, so named because its most observable feature is the erratic eye motions sleepers display during this stage. It’s a very active state internally, as well, characterized by high levels of brain activity, and often associated with dreaming. All this neural activity isn’t just for show, however. REM has a vital role to play in our brain’s ability to learn and strengthen memories.

The current meta-analysis included 32 studies totaling around 10,200 people. Each participant supplied data pertaining to the quality of their sleep via a questionnaire. This included data on their sleeping habits such as how long they need to fall asleep, total sleeping time per day, and whether they used any type of sleeping aids. A higher score on these questionnaires was indicative of worse sleeping quality.

For a large part of these 32 studies, participants also made an overnight visit to a sleep lab (the kind of lab where sleep disorders are diagnosed). Here, their brain activity patterns, levels of blood oxygen, heart rate, and eye movement patterns were recorded as they slept.

Adults who also reported experiencing migraines had overall higher average scores on the questionnaires than adults who didn’t suffer from migraines. A moderate amount of this difference was attributable to the migraines themselves, the team explains, adding that patients with chronic migraines scored even higher on average than all others (both those with migraines and those without).

Children with migraines slept less overall, had more wake time per day, and fell asleep faster than those without migraines. The team explains that it’s possible these children fall asleep more quickly because they’re sleep-deprived.

Both adults and children with migraines got lower relative levels of REM sleep — as a percentage of their total sleep time — than their healthy counterparts.

“Our analysis provides a clearer understanding of migraines and how they affect sleep patterns and illustrates the impact these patterns might have on a person’s ability to get a good night’s sleep,” Hoffmann said.

The study is correlational in nature — it can identify that certain traits go together, such as migraines and lower levels and quality of sleep. That being said, it can’t be used to determine that one causes the other. Another limitation of the meta-study was that the original studies didn’t account for patient’s use of any medication that could affect their sleep cycles.

That being said, the results are enough to show that patients with migraines do have “significantly poorer” perceptions of their own sleep quality, and also show important actual changes in their sleeping patterns and quality of sleep. As such, doctors treating patients suffering from migraines should take these two issues into account and take steps to help their patients better deal with them.

The paper “Subjective Sleep Quality and Sleep Architecture in Patients With Migraine: A Meta-analysis” has been published in the journal Neurology.

Your brain is cleaning itself while you’re dreaming, new research suggests

The findings help us better understand why virtually all animals sleep, despite the fact that it leaves us helpless against predators and other threats.

Image via Pixabay.

The team, led by members from the University of Tsukuba explains that a certain phase of sleep (rapid eye movement sleep, or REM) gives our brains the opportunity to perform necessary maintenance. This, in turn, ensures that they’re running at peak capacity the rest of the time. The research builds on previous measurements of blood flow in the brain during different phases of sleep and wakefulness, which yielded conflicting results. In this study, the researchers used a technique to directly visualize how red blood cells move through the brain capillaries of sleeping and awake mice, while also measuring electrical activity in the brain.

Housekeeping

“We used a dye to make the brain blood vessels visible under fluorescent light, using a technique known as two-photon microscopy,” says senior author of the study Professor Yu Hayashi. “In this way, we could directly observe the red blood cells in capillaries of the neocortex in non-anesthetized mice.”

“We were surprised by the results. There was a massive flow of red blood cells through the brain capillaries during REM sleep, but no difference between non-REM sleep and the awake state, showing that REM sleep is a unique state”

In order to help elucidate the confusing previous findings around this topic, the authors monitored brain flow rates in different areas of the brain alongside electrical activity. The latter was used to distinguish between different states of awareness (non-REM sleep, REM sleep, full wakefulness). Since we know that the development of certain conditions such as Alzheimer’s — which involve the buildup of waste products in the brain — is associated with reduced blood flow in the brain, the former was used as a rough estimate for maintenance and cleaning processes taking place in the mice’s brains.

The link between the two is that the removal of these waste products involves biochemical processes that eventually culminate in an increased blood flow (as the waste needs to be physically removed) during rest. Disposal of this material doesn’t take place, to the best of our knowledge, during wakefulness; or, at least, not to any extent that we’ve been able to pick up on.

After recording the differences between the three states, the team also disrupted the mice’s sleeping. They report that this resulted in their brains engaging in a “rebound” REM sleeping pattern later in the experiment. This state, which resembles a stronger REM sleeping state, was likely used to compensate for the earlier disruption, the team hypothesizes. This, by itself, suggests that REM sleep has an important role to play in brain functionality.

Later, the team repeated this sleep disruption experiment with mice whose brain A2a receptors were artificially blocked — these are the same receptors that get blocked after you have a cup of coffee, and doing so makes you feel more awake. In these conditions, they saw a much lower increase in blood flow during both REM and rebound-REM sleep. This is a strong indicator “that adenosine A2a receptors may be responsible for at least some of the changes in blood flow in the brain during REM sleep,” says Professor Hayashi.

Judging from these findings, the team says that there may be merit in investigating whether the heightened blood flow seen in brain capillaries during REM sleep facilitates waste removal from brain tissues. This could, in time, lead us towards treatments or preventive measures against conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. They also point to adenosine A2a receptors as a prime candidate for such treatments, given the observed role of these neurons in modulating blood flow in the brain during REM sleep.

The paper “Cerebral capillary blood flow upsurge during REM sleep is mediated by A2a receptors” has been published in the journal Cell Reports.

Social isolation can lead to overeating and under-sleeping — if you’re a fruit fly

New research on fruit flies provides the first reliable animal model for studying our bodies’ reactions to loneliness.

Image credits Mohamed Nuzrath.

Social isolation; we’re all probably more intimately familiar with the term, given these past two years, than we’d like to be. But we’re not the only ones who suffer when we’re separated from our group. New research on fruit flies shows that they as well sleep too little and eat too much when deprived of social interactions. The paper also reports on changes in gene expression, neural activity, and behavior seen in the flies.

The findings are of interest to all of us today, as they point to novel ways of understanding the effects loneliness has on our bodies. They’re also relevant to scientists directly studying fruit flies, or those whose work involves fruit flies, as accounting for these effects would go a long way to improving the reliability of our conclusions.

Flyin’ solo

“Flies are wired to have a specific response to social isolation,” says corresponding author Michael W. Young, the Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor and head of the Laboratory of Genetics at Rockefeller. “We found that loneliness has pathological consequences, connected to changes in a small group of neurons, and we’ve begun to understand what those neurons are doing.”

It’s not a stretch to say that most of us have had trouble maintaining our pre-lockdown sleep schedule. Many of us are also overeating, or eating at odd hours, and have gained weight. The team behind this study suspected that the social isolation brought about by the lockdown is, in itself, to blame for this. It seems like their hypothesis panned out, as the results describe how chronic separation from the group can have measurable effects on the body (at least in fruit flies). These effects include changes in gene expression, neural activity, and behavior.

Fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) are a very social species. They forage and eat in groups, have complex mating rituals, and even engage in some tiny fights from time to time. However, they spend most of their time (up to 16 hours each day) sleeping — also in groups. They have long been a model organism for researchers in various fields of biology. So, when the team turned to them to test their hypothesis.

“Over and over again, Drosophila have put us on the right track,” says Young. “Evolution packed a great deal of complexity into these insects long ago and, when we dig into their systems, we often find the rudiments of something that is also manifest in mammals and humans.”

“When we have no roadmap, the fruit fly becomes our roadmap,” adds lead author Wanhe Li.

The team first compared how fruit flies behave under various lockdown conditions. Flies were kept together in groups of various sizes, ranging from several individuals to a single fly, for a week. For the most part, the insects didn’t have any problems; even flies who were kept with a single other fly didn’t show any distress. However, those that were entirely isolated from their peers started sleeping less and eating more as the trial progressed.

The team further reports finding changes in the expression patterns of a constellation of genes linked to starvation in the brains of these lonely flies. This, they argue, is the genetic link between social isolation and the observed biological changes. One group of cells known as P2 neurons were involved in changing the flies’ feeding and resting behavior. When the P2 neurons were disabled in chronically-isolated flies, they reverted to more normal feeding and sleeping patterns. Amplifying their activity in flies that were only isolated for one day caused them to exhibit the sleeping and overfeeding behavioral patterns of flies who had been isolated for a full week.

“We managed to trick the fly into thinking that it had been chronically isolated,” says Wanhe Li. “The P2 neurons seem to be linked to the perception of the duration of social isolation, or the intensiveness of loneliness, like a timer counting down how long the fly has been alone.”

While these findings haven’t been replicated in humans, the team is confident that more or less the same biological mechanisms seen in these flies operate in isolated humans as well. It’s not the same as confirming that people who ate more and slept less during the lockdown did so because of their P2 neurons — but it’s a starting point, at least.

“Clinically-oriented studies suggest that a large number of adults in the United States experienced significant weight gains and loss of sleep throughout the past year of isolation precautions due to COVID-19,” Young says. “It may well be that our little flies are mimicking the behaviors of humans living under pandemic conditions for shared biological reasons.”

The paper “Chronic social isolation signals starvation and reduces sleep in Drosophila” has been published in the journal Nature.

Slow mornings? Here’s how changing your alarm tone can combat sleep inertia

Ever wake up groggy in the morning and need more than a couple of hours to fully wake up and function, for no apparent reason? Odds are you’ve been called lazy or just not a morning person, but as it turns out, morning grogginess is a real thing — and you can fight it.

Image credits: Kinga Cichewicz.

First of all, let’s start with the term. ‘ Morning grogginess’ isn’t really a term you’ll find in the scientific literature. However, several studies do mention sleep inertia and that it’s a real condition that needs to be taken seriously because it can impact not just our mood and productivity, but also our safety and mental health.

Most people who experience sleep inertia say that they need at least 30 minutes to become fully alert, but the feeling can go on for as long as four hours. — and it can happen to everyone. One popular example that of a NASA astronaut on the International Space Station, who reported feeling unproductive after sleeping through two alarms, but you don’t necessarily need to have a demanding or exhausting job to experience it.

In a new study published in the Journal of Sleep Disorders & Therapy in March 2021, researchers from the RMIT University in Melbourne suggest that waking up suddenly may be responsible for sleep inertia and that changing our alarm tone to something more melodic could counteract it.

What makes sleep inertia potentially dangerous?

Sleep inertia may sound more like a minor inconvenience than a threat but, under certain circumstances, it can have serious consequences.

In simpler terms, sleep inertia is a physiological phenomenon marked by symptoms like grogginess and confusion after waking up. Compared to study participants who woke up alert and well-rested, participants with sleep inertia showed lower alertness levels, slower response times, and poorer memory. What’s more, people with sleep inertia also find it harder to make complex decisions and may not be able to be efficient in emergency situations.

The 2021 study highlighted the risks of sleep inertia for emergency responders, such as fire and police officers and military personnel, because they have to take difficult, real-world decisions immediately after waking up. The study also cited an air crash disaster, whose causes have been linked to sleep inertia: the pilot, suddenly woken up from an in-flight nap, could not make the critical decisions needed to avoid the accident where 158 people lost their lives.

In recent years, scientists have explored the importance of auditory treatments in emergency situations and found that high-frequency alarms were better at reducing the symptoms of sleep inertia.

To counter the effects of sleep inertia, first, we have to first understand what causes it, and research shows that the main cause behind it is sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a persistent issue in modern society, and it’s only recently that we’ve started to explore its risks. For example, one 2017 study found that insufficient sleep, apart from being harmful to mental health, leads to poor work and academic performance and requires hundreds of billions of dollars in spending every year. What’s more, people who struggle with sleep inertia are more likely to be involved in accidents and require hospitalization.

Music could help combat sleep inertia

If you wake up suddenly, right in the middle of a sleep cycle, or you didn’t get enough sleep, it’s normal to experience some degree of sleep inertia. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to ease the symptoms. Among the most effective ones, researchers included having a cup of coffee, a hot shower, or light treatments.

But the biggest part of the research went toward understanding the impact of the sounds we wake up to on our mood and alertness. If you wake up with your heart pounding after hearing your alarm and the first thing you want to do is hit snooze and go back to bed, you’re not alone.

The default alarm on your phone may make your sleep inertia worse, and researchers explain that the sudden beeping you hear first thing in the morning should be replaced by something more melodic. To further test the efficiency of melodic alarms, the team of researchers at RMIT University conducted an additional study, where they split the participants into two groups: one that used traditional alarm sounds and one that used melodic tunes. After the participants woke up, researchers asked them to perform a series of tasks on an app. Unsurprisingly, the group that woke up to melodic alarms showed better response times and higher accuracy.

According to the experts at Melody Loops, the easiest way to differentiate between melodic and unmelodic tunes is to try to sing or hum along with them. If you can do that, then that song may help you wake up better. But, if the alarm induces anxiety even when you listen to it in the middle of the day, it’s a good idea to change it. Your ringtone settings are a good place to start with, but you can also download a melodic alarm tune from somewhere else.

Some people say that waking up to their favorite song makes their day better, but that’s debatable since you may end up disliking it. Other good ideas include famously melodic songs, like Here Comes the Sun, by The Beatles, Dancing in the Moonlight, by Toploader, or Happy, by Pharrell, but it’s up to you to choose a song that you really want to start your day with. You can also consider the Bedtime feature on your phone, if you have one, because it wakes you up gradually, with soothing melodies or nature sounds.

At the end of the day, one thing is for sure: although that extra loud alarm will wake you up from heavy sleep, it won’t make your day any better. Apart from causing sleep inertia, loud, unmelodic alarms have also been linked to high blood pressure, high heart rate, and headaches.

Yoga and mindfulness training can help kids sleep more and more peacefully

Children participating in a mindfulness curriculum at their elementary schools gained more than an hour of sleep per night. The boost in sleep time included an extra 24 minutes of rapid eye movement (REM), the very important dream stage of sleep when memories of the day are consolidated and stored, potentially offering many long-term benefits. 

Image credit: Standford University.

Elementary-age children and pre-teens should get between nine to 12 hours of sleep every night, while teens should sleep between eight to 10 hours, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, a 2015 study showed most kids are getting less than the recommended amount of sleep for their age. 

“Children and adolescents who do not get enough sleep have a higher risk for many health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and injuries,”according to the CDC. “They are also more likely to have attention and behavior problems, which can contribute to poor academic performance in school.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics considers sleep deprivation among children an “epidemic,” and recommended that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8.30 am so to allow more sleep time. A steady diet of poor sleep can cause mood disorders such as depressions, cognitive and memory problems, and metabolism disruption. 

In the new study, researchers at Stanford University used polysomnography techniques, which measure brain activity, to assess how mindfulness training changes children’s sleep. The course taught children how to manage stress by focusing their attention on the present, but it didn’t instruct them how to get more sleep.

“The children who received the curriculum slept, on average, 74 minutes more per night than they had before the intervention,” the study’s senior author, Ruth O’Hara, PhD, a sleep expert and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, said in a statement. “That’s a huge change.”

The researchers recruited over 1,000 third and fifth graders from two school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both had high rates of violence and a history of struggling with food insecurity and unstable housing — a recipe for poor sleep. One community received the intervention and the other served as the control group. 

The kids received training in bringing one’s attention to the present; exercises featuring slow, deep breathing; and yoga-based movement. Teachers taught the curriculum twice a week for two years. From the 1,000 kids, the researchers also recruited a smaller group for in-home sleep assessments, done before and after the curriculum started. 

At the start of the study, the researchers found that children in the control group slept 54 minutes more, on average, and had 15 minutes more REM sleep per night than children in the group that later received the training. Those in the control group slept about 7.5 hours per night, while those in the curriculum group about 6.6 hours per night.

But the sleep patterns evolved differently as the study progressed. In the control group, sleep declined by 63 minutes per night, while the minutes of REM sleep remained steady – in line with sleep reductions seen in later childhood and early adolescence. Meanwhile, kids that participated in the curriculum gained 74 minutes of total sleep and 24 minutes of REM sleep

“It makes intuitive sense that children who didn’t participate in the curriculum decreased their sleep, based on what we know about what it’s like to be a kid this age,” the study’s lead author, Christina Chick, said in a statement. “I interpret our findings to mean that the curriculum was protective, in that it taught skills that helped protect against those sleep losses.” 

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Sleeping well is deemed an ‘essential’ element for personal health and public safety

Sleep — we all like to skip it for the real fun stuff. But is that wise? Obviously not. According to a new position statement from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), sleep is actually a biological necessity, and not getting your fair share has negative impacts on your health, well-being, and public safety.

They do look very healthy. Image credits Roy Buri.

Although this may not be groundbreaking news to anyone who’s ever skipped out on a night’s sleep, the new statement officially recognizes the importance of sleep for the health and well-being of children, adolescents, and adults. This is a great step towards solidifying the importance of sleep in the public consciousness, and might even nudge people towards getting a little more shut-eye each day.

Dr. Sandman

“Healthy sleep is as important as proper nutrition and regular exercise for our health and well-being, and sleep is critical for performance and safety,” said AASM President Dr. Kannan Ramar. “It is the position of the AASM that sleep is essential to health, and we are urging educators, health care professionals, government agencies, and employers to prioritize the promotion of healthy sleep.”

The statement, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, underscores that sleep is a biological necessity and that not getting enough sleep, as well as untreated sleep disorders, has significant and detrimental effects on health, well-being, and public safety. The AASM hopes that officially recognizing its importance would go a long way towards promoting a greater emphasis on sleep health in education, clinical practice, the workplace, and public health campaigns.

AASM’s board of directors — which includes 11 physicians specializing in sleep, and a clinical psychologist — are the ones who wrote the statement. Here they outline a few key points:

  • Sleep education should have a prominent place in school and college health education, including medical school and graduate medical education. Educational programs for other health professionals could further help in this regard.
  • Clinicians should routinely monitor the sleeping habits, and any sleep-associated symptoms, of their patients during every encounter. Hospitals and long-term care facilities should optimize sleep conditions, to ensure their patients get enough rest.
  • Public health and workplace interventions should aim to promote healthy sleeping habits and behaviors that help people attain healthy sleep should be actively promoted.
  • More sleep and circadian research is needed to understand the importance of sleep for public health and the contributions of insufficient sleep to health disparities.

“Education about sleep and sleep disorders is lacking in medical school curricula, graduate medical education, and education programs for other health professionals,” said Ramar. “Better sleep health education will enable our health care workforce to provide more patient-centered care for people who have common sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia.”

They further cite data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Child Health Bureau showing that 34.1% of children, 74.6% of high school students, and 32.5% of adults in the US don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis.

In regards to the effects of chronic insufficient sleep, the team lists increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, workplace accidents, and causing motor vehicle crashes.

The paper “Sleep is essential to health: an American Academy of Sleep Medicine position statement” has been published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Beware earworms: Listening to catchy music before bedtime may disrupt sleep

Study participants had brain activity and bodily metrics monitored while they tried to sleep after listening to some super catchy tunes. Credit: Robert Rogers/Baylor University.

Michael Scullin kept waking in the middle of the night a song stuck in his head. This nuisance caused him to sleep terribly as no matter how much he tried, the earworm was still burrowing through his brain. But at least something good came out of this ordeal.

Inspired by this experience, Scullin, who is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, set out to investigate if there was any relationship between listening to music and sleep quality.

The brain can still process music even hours after the tune stopped playing

Previously, a survey by psychologists from the University of Sheffield found that many people use music as a sort of sleeping aid. The respondents claimed that listening to music close to or during bedtime helps them sleep better because it blocks external stimuli, induces a mental state conducive to sleep, offers unique properties that stimulate sleep, or simply because it’s become a habit. Overall, 62% of the 651 respondents confirmed that they play music to help themselves sleep.

However, Scullin’s research focuses on a rarely-explored phenomenon related to music known as involuntary musical imagery, or “earworms”. These mental patterns override our normal train of thought, which is replaced with a song or tune that is replayed in one’s mind over and over again. Apparently, Scullin isn’t alone. Many people who have earworms stuck in their heads report trouble sleeping.

“Our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep,” Scullin said. “Everyone knows that music listening feels good. Adolescents and young adults routinely listen to music near bedtime. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. The more you listen to music, the more likely you are to catch an earworm that won’t go away at bedtime. When that happens, chances are your sleep is going to suffer.”

The research consisted of two parts: a survey and a laboratory experiment. During the survey, 209 participants had to answer questions pertaining to sleep quality, music listening habits, and earworm frequency, as well as how often they reported experiencing an earworm while trying to fall asleep, during the middle of the night, or immediately upon waking in the morning.

People who experience one more earworm per week at night were six times more likely to report poor sleep quality compared to those who rarely experienced earworms.

During the experimental part, 50 participants listened to three catchy pop songs — Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off,’ Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ — and then had to spend the night at the Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory at Baylor. While they slept, the participants were wired to various instruments that measure brain waves, heart rate, and breathing.

Half of the participants were randomly selected to only listen to the de-lyricized instrumental versions of the pop songs, while the other half listened to the original versions.

This experiment confirmed that those who caught an earworm had greater difficulty sleeping, more nighttime awakenings, and spent more time in light stages of sleep.

“We thought that people would have earworms at bedtime when they were trying to fall asleep, but we certainly didn’t know that people would report regularly waking up from sleep with an earworm. But we saw that in both the survey and experimental study,” Scullin said.

Instrumental music actually triggers twice as many earworms than music with lyrics

Brain scans revealed that those who caught the dastardly earworm had slow oscillations during sleep, a marker of memory reactivation. These telltale oscillations were most active over a region of the primary auditory cortex which is known to be implicated in earworm processing. In other words, the brain scans showed how the earworms were triggering memories of song time and time again.

But the most surprising part was that instrumental music led to the worst sleep quality. You’d think that catchy lyrics are to blame for earworms, but apparently, music with no lyrics leads to twice as many earworms.

“Almost everyone thought music improves their sleep, but we found those who listened to more music slept worse,” Scullin said. “What was really surprising was that instrumental music led to worse sleep quality — instrumental music leads to about twice as many earworms.”

Those most at risk of catching an earworm that threatened to disturb their sleep were individuals with greater music listening habits.

These findings run counter to the notion of music as a sleeping aid, which is embraced by many health organizations that recommend listening to quiet music before bedtime.

Scullin’s research has objectively shown that the brain continues to process music for several hours even after the music itself stops.

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. For some, listening to relaxing music before bedtime may indeed work as a sleep aid. Others, however, may find the experience way too stimulating and stay awake well into the middle of the night because they can’t shed the earworm.

For those who have problems sleeping, Sculling advises moderate music listening — especially before bed.

“If you commonly pair listening to music while being in bed, then you’ll have that association where being in that context might trigger an earworm even when you’re not listening to music, such as when you’re trying to fall asleep,” he said.

If you don’t align your sleeping patterns to your body clock, you risk depression, lower wellbeing

If you like to skip on sleep, we have some bad news: a new study reports that people whose sleeping patterns go against their natural body clock are more likely to be depressed, and experience lower levels of wellbeing.

Image via Pixabay.

Early bird gets the worm and all that, but we now have evidence to show that some people really are naturally early risers. Even worse, going against this, or being a night owl by nature, seems to promote issues such as depression and lower perceived quality of life. But you can rest easy, there’s nothing wrong with you. Most likely, these effects are caused by the way our societies are ordered, as they are generally tailored more for early risers, through the standard 9-5 working pattern.

The right time for sleep

The research was built on previous work that mapped 351 genes linked to being either an early riser or a night owl. A statistical process known as Mendelian Randomisation was employed to see whether these genes had a causal association with seven mental health and wellbeing outcomes (major depression was one of these seven). Data for the study was supplied from the UK Biobank’s biomedical database and research resource and pertained to over 450,000 UK adults.

Apart from genetic information, participants also supplied information regarding their sleeping habits (i.e. whether they were a morning or evening person) through a questionnaire.

Alongside this data, the authors also developed a new indicator of “social jetlag”, a measurement of the variations in sleeping patterns one experiences between workdays and free days. This was measured in around 85,000 UK Biobank participants (for whom sleep data was available) via wrist-worn activity monitors.

The first important finding of the study was that participants whose natural and actual sleeping patterns were more misaligned were more likely to report depression, anxiety, and lower wellbeing.

“We found that people who were misaligned from their natural body clock were more likely to report depression, anxiety, and have lower wellbeing. We also found the most robust evidence yet that being a morning person is protective of depression and improves wellbeing,” says lead author Jessica O’Loughlin, of the University of Exeter.

“We think this could be explained by the fact that the demands of society mean night owls are more likely to defy their natural body clocks, by having to wake up early for work.”

Morning people had the highest likelihood of their sleeping patterns being aligned with their natural body clock. When looking at shift workers alone, the team found that being a morning person doesn’t seem to protect them from depression. This is likely indicative that morning people who work shifts don’t get any benefits from their natural sleeping patterns, but this remained inconclusive overall.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a new flexibility in working patterns for many people. Our research indicates that aligning working schedules to an individual’s natural body clock may improve mental health and wellbeing in night owls,” said senior author Dr Jessica Tyrrell, of the University of Exeter.

The paper “Using Mendelian Randomization methods to understand whether diurnal preference is causally related to mental health” has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Lockdown increased our use of electronic devices (and caused a lot of sleep issues)

From reading an e-book in bed to watching something on Netflix, the COVID-19 lockdown has made a lot of people use electronic devices more than before — especially in the evening. While this may have helped people cope with the isolation, it came at a cost, significantly worsening our sleeping habits. 

Image credit: Flickr / Aurora

In the countries hit hardest by the virus, the total messaging and the time spent on social networks increased by more than 50%, while the time in video calling increased tenfold. In Italy, for example, during the lockdown, the daily internet traffic volume almost doubled compared to the previous year, with most people spending more time on smartphones and computers than ever before. 

A lot of the time, electronic devices daily usage increased to compensate for the limited social interactions, fill up free time, and ward off boredom. Furthermore, working from home has become the norm for millions of workers worldwide, and 40% of those currently working in the European Union began to telework full-time due to the pandemic (with comparable trends in parts of the US).

Previous studies showed a strong relationship between the use of electronic devices after sundown and alterations of sleep patterns, with the usage of electronic devices displacing sleep time the more they are used. Moreover, screen-based activities are related to digital engagement, and the activity type plays a role in the digital media effects on sleep.

Based on this evidence, researchers decided to look at the effects of the larger screen time during the pandemic. They first carried out a survey of 2,123 people during the third and seventh week of Italy’s first national lockdown (March 25th-28th, 2020) and evaluated sleep quality and insomnia symptoms, using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index and the Insomnia Severity Index.

The survey was then followed by a second one with the same group of people in the seventh week of lockdown in Italy (April 21st – 27th, 2020). As well as repeating the sleep questionnaires, the researchers inquired about usage of electronic devices in the two hours before falling asleep, hoping to see an increase in that specific period of the day. 

“The overuse of electronic devices in the hours before sleep was a deeply rooted habit in our society already before the pandemic emergency, in particular among young people. In our opinion, the current period of social distancing added fuel to the fire, Federico Salfi, first author of the study, said in a statement.

Of the participants surveyed, the researchers found that over 90% of them increased their electronic device usage between the first and second surveys. These participants had a decreased sleep quality, increased insomnia symptoms, shorter total sleep times and later bedtime and rising times. They also found an increased prevalence of poor sleepers. 

At the same time, about 7% of the participants reported a decrease in evening screen time between the first and second survey, and conversely reported improved sleep quality and fewer symptoms of insomnia. These respondents went to bed consistently earlier after four weeks of home confinement, with a decrease in the prevalence of poor sleepers. 

Those who said that their screen time exposure didn’t change during the lockdown had no variation in their sleeping habits. This group had the best sleep quality and fewest insomnia symptoms in the first survey results, which suggests that the lockdown worsened negative sleep conditions for people already suffering from poor sleep quality.

“The evidence of a strong relationship between screen habits and the time course of sleep disturbances during the lockdown period suggests that, now, more than never, raising public awareness about the risks of evening exposure to electronic devices could be crucial to preserve general sleep health,” Michele Ferrara, co-author, said in a statement. 

The study was published in the journal Sleep.

Afternoon naps could help keep your mind limber and stave off dementia

A nap a day keeps mental degradation at bay, a new paper suggests. The findings showcase that individuals who took regular afternoon naps showed better mental capacity over time.

Image credits Jim Black.

As we age, the tissues making up our bodies physically wear down. Given the longer life expectancies of today (compared to our natural baseline), this creates many more opportunities for neurodegenerative conditions, such as dementia. While napping won’t keep us perfectly safe from such issues, it does seem to promote mental agility and stave off mental decline over time.

The good sleep

The findings suggest that taking regular naps is associated with locational awareness, verbal fluency, and working memory.

Sleeping patterns change as we age, the team explains, and most people take afternoon naps more frequently as they get older. However, we didn’t know for sure whether this change could prevent cognitive decline and the risk of developing conditions such as dementia, or if it was a symptom of such cognitive decline.

Around 1 in 10 people over the age of 65 in the developed world will develop dementia, the authors note, so research such as this can help keep a lot of people mentally healthy.

The study worked with 2214 “ostensibly healthy” participants aged 60 and up, all of them residents in several large Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian. Out of these, 1534 regularly took an afternoon nap, while 680 didn’t. Both groups slept on average 6.5 hours per night, and all participants underwent a series of health checks and cognitive assessments beforehand to check for dementia. The test for dementia (Mini Mental State Exam, MMSE) included 30 items that measured several aspects of cognitive ability and higher functions such as visual and spatial skills, attention span, working memory, and verbal fluency.

Afternoon naps were defined as any period of at least five minutes but no more than 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep taken after lunch. Each participant was asked how often they napped during the week, ranging from once a week to every day. Nappers in the study showed significantly higher scores on the cognitive test than those who didn’t nap. The most pronounced differences were in locational awareness, verbal fluency, and memory.

This was an observational study, so the findings aren’t the be-all and end-all on the matter. Elements such as nap duration or timing were not taken into account, for example, and they could be very meaningful for the overall effect. At the same time, napping may not be the cause of the cognitive differences between participants. All we know so far is that they happened together in this group; more research is needed to understand what we’re seeing.

However, the team does have some hypotheses it wants to test moving forward. One is that inflammatory chemicals, which play an important part in sleep disorders, are the link between poor health outcomes and mid-day naps. Sleep helps regulate our immune system and could be an evolved response to inflammation, as seen in patients with higher levels of inflammation.

The paper “Relationship between afternoon napping and cognitive function in the ageing Chinese population” has been published in the journal General Psychiatry.

Stress, lack of sleep might be contributing to concussion-like symptoms

Lack of sleep and stress can lead to symptoms like those of post-concussion syndrome (PCS), a new paper reports. While it found that between 11% and 27% of the student athletes questioned had such symptoms, the overall percentage is likely higher in the general population due to lower overall fitness levels.

Image via Pixabay.

The findings suggest that a lot of us might unknowingly be bumbling our way through life with concussion-like symptoms, which can’t be good for us. The paper adds that the most reliable predictors of PCS-like symptoms were lack of sleep, pre-existing mental health problems, and stress. All in all, the authors say these findings suggest we need a more individualized treatment approach for athletes recovering from brain injury. It probably also means we should all get more sleep.

Hit in the head

“The numbers were high, and were consistent with previous research in this area, but it is quite shocking,” said study lead author Jaclyn Caccese, assistant professor in The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“These are elite athletes who are physically fit, and they are experiencing that many symptoms commonly reported following a concussion. So looking across the general population, they’d probably have even more.”

The participants were healthy college athletes (with no recent history of concussions at the time of the study) from four U.S. military service academies and students who competed in NCAA sports at 26 U.S. higher education institutions. The study was conducted by the Concussion Assessment, Research, and Education (CARE) Consortium.

Between 11% and 27% of 31,000 participants reported combinations of symptoms that meet the official definition of post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Between 50% and 75% further reported one or more symptoms commonly seen in post-concussion individuals, including fatigue or low energy and drowsiness.

Now, the symptoms by themselves aren’t conclusive proof of anything — several things can cause them. Student athlete post-concussion care aims to determine those symptoms caused by injury through a variety of means, including knowing the medical history and baseline symptom status of each individual.

“When a patient comes into a clinic and they are a month or more out from their most recent concussion, we need to know what symptoms they were experiencing before their concussion to know if their symptoms are attributable to their concussion or something else. Then we can start treating the concussion-related symptoms to hopefully help people recover more quickly,” Caccese said.

Post-concussion syndrome is a persistent condition following a concussion with symptoms ranging from persistent headaches, dizziness, and fatigue to anxiety, insomnia, and loss of concentration and memory. Although we know it’s associated with concussion, we don’t understand why these symptoms appear.

The research was aimed at bettering our knowledge of concussion effects and recovery among student athletes at colleges, universities, and military service academies. But the findings may be more broadly applicable than the team hoped.

Statistical analyses of the data showed that some of the factors in participants’ medical histories were also more likely to be associated with reported symptoms indicative of PCS. Among military cadets, 17.8% of men and 27.6% of women reported symptom groups that met PCS criteria. Among NCAA athletes, 11.4% of men and 20% of women reported the same.

Sleep problems, particularly getting insufficient sleep the night before the trial, and psychiatric disorders were the most reliable predictors of these symptoms. A history of migraines also contributed to symptoms that met PCS criteria. For cadets, being a first-year student and experiencing academic difficulties were tied to an increased chance of meeting PCS criteria, while for NCAA athletes history of ADHD or depression did the same.

One limiting factor of the study is that it relied on self-reported data, which is notoriously unreliable as it’s subjective. At the same time, some symptoms may be more closely tied to a concussion while others could be due to a variety of causes.

“Perhaps we can create a battery of symptoms more specific to concussion,” said study lead author Jaclyn Caccese, assistant professor in The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

“This hopefully not only shows clinicians that we need to consider how people would have presented before injury, but also provides some normative data so they can interpret other patients’ data. We really don’t know a lot about why people have persistent symptoms, and it seems to be very variable. So we’re trying to understand this better to help predict who will have a prolonged recovery, and who will not.”

The paper “Factors Associated with Symptom Reporting in U.S. Service Academy Cadets and NCAA Student Athletes without Concussion: Findings from the CARE Consortium” has been published in the journal Sports Medicine.

Can you die from lack of sleep?

Credit: Pixabay.

In December 1963, two boys thought of a bright idea for a school science project– they would stay awake for as long as possible and report back on what happens inside their sleep-deprived brains. The project ended on 8 January 1964, when 17-year-old Randy Gardner had managed to stay awake for 11 days and 25 minutes, setting a world record.

When asked by reporters who crowded the front yard of his parent’s home in San Diego how he managed the feat, Gardner answered philosophically. “It’s just mind over matter,” he said.

Gardner’s record hasn’t been broken ever since, although the Guinness Book of Records stopped certifying attempts, fearing that it would be too dangerous for people’s health. Some have even wondered: can you die from lack of sleep?

A sleep-deprived brain is a stupid brain

Whether sleep deprivation can kill is somewhat debatable. That’s because people who forgo sleep for extended periods of time may also use a lot of stimulants from the benign coffee to the more dangerous types of drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine. So, it can be difficult to single out a person’s cause of death in fatalities that involve sleep deprivation. Was it the countless hours without sleep that killed a person or was it the drugs? Or was it both?

In 2012, a Chinese man died after he went 11 days without sleep — almost as much as Gardner — in an attempt to watch every game in the Euro 2012 football championship. The 26-year-old man was reportedly in good health, according to The Telegraph, but he drank and smoked while watching the football.

Typically, one wouldn’t expect people to die just from lack of sleep, as long as no substances have been consumed. But that doesn’t mean that sleep deprivation is harmless.

The detrimental effects of sleep deprivation appear after just 24 hours of no sleep, such as rising stress hormone levels, which raises blood pressure.

After two days of no sleep, the body’s ability to turn glucose into energy is diminished and the immune system stops working as well as it does when fully rested. The body’s internal temperature also begins to sink.

By day three, cognitive abilities are profoundly impaired, especially short-term memory and executive functions such as paying attention and multitasking.

“I mean, it was crazy, where you couldn’t remember things, it was almost like an early Alzheimer’s thing brought on by lack of sleep,” Gardner told NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, more than 50 years after he showed just how long you can go without sleep.

And since sleep deprivation causes parts of the brain to work together in a chaotic way, as if you had taken stimulant drugs, hallucinations can also occur as a result.

According to Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of Berkeley, even an hour of insufficient sleep can have dramatic health consequences. To illustrate his point, the neuroscientist mentions the results of the largest sleep experiments ever done, which have been performed on over 1.6 billion people — it’s called daylight saving time. In the spring, we lose an hour of sleep, a period that is associated with a 24% increase in heart attacks. In the fall, we gain an hour of sleep, which is associated with a 21% decrease in heart attacks.

In a 2018 study, Walker and colleagues also found that sleep-deprived individuals are less likely to engage with others, and are more likely to feel lonely, exhibiting symptoms similar to social anxiety. Researchers have found that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day and that lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships. However, that’s not to say that sleep deprivation summarily causes these deaths.

One cruel study from the 1980s performed by researchers at the University of Chicago, placed rats on discs above a tray of water. The rodents weren’t allowed to doze off because the rotating risc would always shove them towards the water, startling them back awake. Within a month, all the rats died, although the researchers weren’t sure why. Possibly, the stress of being awoken at least a thousand times a day broke the animals down.

However, a person that intentionally wants to stay awake for days at a time won’t be as stressed as if they were tortured to stay awake. And even if that happened, is it the stress or the sleep loss that killed the person?

While sleep deprivation may not kill you on the spot, it has been linked to a greater risk of diabetes, obesity, depression, heart conditions, and other health problems. Luckily, our bodies have pretty good defense mechanisms that help most people avoid insufficient slumber. By making us lack energy, feeling groggy, and generally miserable, the body sends a clear message: ‘please sleep!’

According to the Sleep Foundation, adults should sleep between seven to nine hours per night, while kids should clock in about 10 to 11 hours a night. However, approximately 35 percent of adults in the United States do not get enough sleep. 

If your job or family situation makes it impossible to sleep enough, you can try napping. A 2017 study found that only a half an hour nap can restore your protein and hormone levels to normal.

Bottom line: sleep deprivation won’t kill you, but it will make you suffer greatly.

Do you use blue light blocking glasses? You might want to consider it

Scientists have long known there’s a link between sleep and work performance, with a lack of quality shut-eye shown to cause fatigue, low energy, and poor focus. Now, a new study has shown that enjoying a better night’s sleep and boosting your performance at work could be as simple as wearing a pair of blue light filtering glasses.

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Most of the technology we use at home and in the office such as smartphones and all sorts of screens emit blue light that can disrupt sleep, according to previous studies. The pandemic has made us more dependent on all these devices as we moved from going to the office or to school to doing everything from home.

The media has recently described the benefits of blue-light glasses for those spending a lot of time in front of a computer screen. This topic is the focus of the new research, extending our understanding of the circadian rhythm, a natural and internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours.

“We found that wearing blue-light-filtering glasses is an effective intervention to improve sleep, work engagement, task performance and organizational citizenship behavior, and reduced counterproductive work behavior,” said Cristiano L. Guarana, co-author, in a statement. “Wearing blue-light-filtering glasses creates a form of physiologic darkness.”

The researchers collected data from 63 company managers and 67 call center representatives at the Brazil offices of a U.S. multinational financial firm and measured task performance from client feedback. Participants were randomly chosen to test glasses that filtered blue light or normal glasses.

In the week they wore the blue glasses, customer service representatives slept 6% longer, improved the quality of their sleep by 11%, and improved their task performance by 9%. They also increased their work engagement by 8.25%, their helping behavior by 18%, and decreased their negative work behavior by 12%.

Similar results were found in call center representatives. They slept 5% longer, improved the quality of their sleep by 14%, improved their task performance by 7%. Their work engagement increased by 8.5%, their helping behavior by 17% while decreasing their negative work behavior by 12%.

“We have clear evidence that all of those outcomes were improved merely by wearing these glasses,” said Cristopher Barnes, co-author, in a statement. “Most organizations, if they had just made a large financial investment on an expensive performance improvement program and they got a 9% improvement (on task performance) as an outcome, they would be ecstatic.”

The study was published in the journal Applied Psychology.

Weighted blankets are ‘safe, effective’ in treating clinical insomnia

If you’re struggling with insomnia, a weighted blanket could be just what you need.

Image via Pixabay.

New research from Sweden reports that such blankets are both safe to use and effective, leading to reduced severity of insomnia, improved sleep, and lower levels of daytime sleepiness. The study used a weighted chain blanket on patients diagnosed with clinical insomnia and a co-occurring psychiatric disorder such as depression.

Heavy blanket, light sleep

“A suggested explanation for the calming and sleep-promoting effect is the pressure that the chain blanket applies on different points on the body, stimulating the sensation of touch and the sense of muscles and joints, similar to acupressure and massage,” said Dr. Mats Alder, consultant psychiatrist in the department of clinical neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, and first author of the study.

“There is evidence suggesting that deep pressure stimulation increases parasympathetic arousal of the autonomic nervous system and at the same time reduces sympathetic arousal, which is considered to be the cause of the calming effect.”

The research involved 120 adults of both sexes (32% men) with a mean age of 40, who had previously been diagnosed with both clinical insomnia and a psychiatric disorder. Such co-occurring conditions include major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. The participants were randomly assigned to an experimental or a control group.

Those in the experimental group were given a weighted blanket to use for four weeks while sleeping, while those in the control group were given a lighter blanket. All in all, participants in the experimental group reported “significantly” improved sleep quality, including reduced insomnia severity, better sleep maintenance, and higher activity levels during the day. They also reported reduced symptoms of fatigue, depression, and anxiety.

Quantitatively, the team explains, those in the experimental group were roughly 26 times more likely to experience a 50% decrease in insomnia severity compared to the control group and were almost 20 times more likely to see a remission of their insomnia. Roughly 60% of the participants in the experimental group showed improvements in their symptoms compared to 5.4% of those in the control group. Remission was seen in 42.2% of the participants in the control group compared with 3.6% in the control group

The participants were given the option of using a weighted blanket for one year (12 months) after the experiment and had to choose between two chain blankets (6 kilograms and 8 kilograms) and two ball blankets (6.5 kilograms and 7 kilograms). Most chose the heaviest one, the team explains, and one chose to discontinue the study due to feelings of anxiety when using a weighted blanket.

Participants who switched from the control blanket to a weighted blanket saw similar improvements to the patients who were initially part of the experimental group. After 12 months, 92% of weighted blanket users were responders, and 78% of patients were in remission (only 92% of the initial participants had responded with their data by this point).

The team says they were “surprised” by the magnitude of the effect such blankets had on insomnia, and “pleased” to see they helped with both anxiety and feelings of depression. As to why this happened, they believe that touch is a basic need and the tactile stimulation provided by the blankets can help foster feelings of calm and comfort.

The paper “A randomized controlled study of weighted chain blankets for insomnia in psychiatric disorders” has been published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.