Sleep is regulated by the brain. So it makes sense to look inside the brain to find out what might be hampering insomniacs’ ability to fall and stay asleep. Is there some substance under- or overrepresented in our brains? Something that keeps us conscious when our brains should be turned off?
A study published in PLoS One last month suggests a role for two important neurotransmitters, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. Here’s a bit of background and what the new research tells us about the neurobiology of insomnia.
The evidence is now solid: short sleepers are far more susceptible to colds than average sleepers. Results of a study published this month in the journal Sleep show that people who sleep 6 hours or less are over 4 times as likely to catch a cold as people who get over 7 hours a night.
This may come as no surprise. If you’ve got insomnia, or if you’re naturally a short sleeper, you’ve probably had quite a few colds and suspected it had something to do with your sleep. You’re right: sleep shores up the immune system, and getting too little leaves you vulnerable to getting sick.
Here’s more about it and steps you can take to dodge the bullet this year as cold and flu season begins.
We’re often warned about getting less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. Short sleepers—variously defined as people who sleep 5 hours and less or less than 6—are more susceptible than normal sleepers to a host of problems: cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and dementia. Many people with insomnia fall within that 5- to 6-hour range. Rarely do we get encouraging news about our prospects for a healthy life.
But recent research on genetic mutations tells a different story. Not only does it begin to explain some of the differences in sleep duration among human beings. It also suggests that short sleep may not necessarily have adverse effects on our health and quality of life.
A woman attending a talk I gave on insomnia was worried about developing Alzheimer’s because she wasn’t getting enough sleep.
“Sometimes I sleep only 4 hours a night,” she said, “and I’m really lucky when I get 5.”
There’s a lot of talk these days about the health risks that accumulate if we sleep less than 7 or 8 hours a night. But reports that appear in the popular media can make the risks sound greater than they actually are.
Cold and flu season has arrived. If you have insomnia or your sleep is on the short side of normal, it’s a good idea to take extra precautions to avoid these nasty bugs.
Why? Research shows that poor and short sleepers are more susceptible to infection than people who sleep a solid 7 to 8 hours. This heightened vulnerability has to do with the immune system, which is seemingly compromised in short sleepers, just as it’s compromised in the sleep deprived.
Here’s a quick explanation of why we short sleepers need to go the extra mile to stay healthy, followed by a list of suggestions for how to do it.
You wouldn’t think dietary choices would differentiate people who have trouble falling asleep from people who have trouble staying asleep. But apparently they do.
This is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who looked at data collected from over 4,500 participants in a national health survey. The diet of people with sleep-onset insomnia is different from the diet of people with sleep-maintenance insomnia, and both groups make different dietary choices than people who sleep well. It’s possible that making changes to your diet will improve your sleep.
I’ve always wondered how much of an impact my diet really has on my sleep. Sure, I know from experience that caffeine late in the day gives me insomnia at night. I avoid alcohol within a few hours of going to bed—otherwise, I wake up at 3 in the morning.
As for foods supposed to help with sleep, I’m not so convinced. Evidence for the sleep benefits of kiwi fruit, gelatin, and turkey—to name a few I’ve read about on the web—is slim, and the studies they’re based on are small. It’s a stretch to believe that eating more of these foods would actually improve my sleep.
But I’m intrigued by findings published recently from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Those of us plagued by short sleep, and who have trouble falling or staying asleep, consume less of certain nutrients than do good sleepers, their data (based on two huge studies) show. For us, foods high in these nutrients may be golden.
The October issue of the journal Sleep showcases research that may be sobering for people who struggle with chronic insomnia. Short sleepers—defined variously as people who report getting 5 or fewer, 6 or fewer, or less than 7 hours of sleep a night—are more vulnerable to a host of nasties, including obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, suicidal ideation, and dementia.
But sleep length is only one factor in the equation that predicts long-term health.