Stress Test is a series about the science behind our busy lives and how stress affects our bodies. The biweekly column uncovers the latest research and explains how to put it to use in a practical way. Look for the science behind epigenetic markers of stress, mindfulness, meditation and deep brain stimulation.
Sleep is vital in the fight against stress, and you’re not getting enough of it. Just last week, yet another study uncovered the importance of sleep, especially for adolescents who wake up early for class. By delaying high school start times, teens can gain huge benefits from an extra hour of sleep, not to mention some time for breakfast. This latest study documented that 29 high schools with 30,000 students in seven states pushed back their start times by an hour, and they’ve already seen an improvement in attendance and graduation rates.
Should we be surprised? Biological studies say we need sleep. Neurological studies show we need sleep. Lack of sleep affects us emotionally, mentally, professionally and sexually. In particular, sleeplessness increases depression, suicide, anxiety and car accidents. Studies have said this for some time, but we’re still not listening. It’s largely part of our plugged-in, always-on-the-go drive to fit more into a day and worry about sleep later. But this month alone, several reports have explained how many issues we have with sleep and how it’s going to wreck us in the end.
At the beginning of February, for instance, a group of researchers in California and Washington studied 400 twins to understand the genetic links between sleep, pain and depression. They estimated that heritability for sleep quality is about 37 percent, so your genes could be to blame for some of your snooze issues. At the same time, sleep quality is environmental and related to your daily stressors, another group of researchers from Harvard and Penn State said a week later. They looked at the associations between sleep, stress and positive/negative events. For example, daily positive experiences were associated with improved sleep, especially positive events at home. And on the flip side, better sleep quality led to better emotional well-being and lower odds of facing stress the next day.
The good news is there seems to be some movement in the right direction. Some middle schools and high schools around the country are paying attention to the science and starting to change their bell schedules. Some researchers are working with university students to improve their sleep by reducing technology use throughout the day, especially before bed. And some companies are beginning to see sleep as part of the organization and an issue to address in the workplace.
Now that you’re paying attention to the science, think about these four things you can do to improve your sleep life.
As mentioned above, sleep concerns can be both genetic and environmental. What runs in your family, and is there anything you should begin to address now as you age? On your days without bedtimes or morning alarms, how long do you sleep before you naturally wake? Try doing this for several days in a row, and you’ll learn how much sleep your body needs. Beyond that, knowing the other factors that affect sleep, especially during stressful times, is largely important. A study from mid-February says that both stressful days and calm days work hand-in-hand to create efficient and quality sleep, depending on who you are and how your body works. Importantly, the duration and context of the stress may help you predict when a rush of adrenaline can boost you through a tough time (such as a college exam), or when you seriously need a break (such as prolonged daily work stress).
Beyond genetics and our built environments, the body responds to nature as well. The terms circadian rhythm, melatonin and seasonal affective disorder may sound familiar. These are all related to the natural chemicals that tell our bodies to prepare for sleep, along with the natural lighting changes that signal to our bodies to produce those chemicals. A study published in Current Biology in early February uncovers how circadian rhythms change across seasons and with modern electrical lighting, as compared to natural lighting. In fact, they were able to show that “biological night” and sleep occur earlier during the winter months when the sun sets sooner, and we naturally sleep sooner in both the winter and summer when camping outside without artificial light sources. Interestingly, the study demonstrated that a short weekend camping trip with natural light exposure could reset the circadian cycle from the distorted modern environment we put ourselves in daily.
We set goals and resolutions for work, fitness, and even personal hobbies, yet sleep seems like a guilty luxury enjoyed on special weekends. More studies are grouping sleep with other lifestyle changes—such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness—in controlled trials to help stressed-out patients cope. In a study released last month, teachers who faced high rates of physical and psychological problems from stress benefited from the Mind Sound Resonance Technique, a yoga-based mindfulness relaxation that also focuses on improving sleep. After trying it for 30 minutes a day for five days a week for one month, the teachers reported significantly lower stress, anxiety and fatigue and better sleep and self-esteem.
The science behind sleep is getting out, but it needs help, especially as Western society continues to cling to sleep deprivation as a trait to be praised. As work-related stress, illness and burnout increases—in as much as half of U.S. employees, some sources estimate—the conversation is slowly inching into organizations around the country. A new program, called Mindful2Work, combines exercise, yoga and meditation in group sessions for workers who complain about burnout. During a test of the program in Amsterdam, workers reported better sleep quality and lower stress, anxiety and depression. They also reported a lower risk of quitting work and a higher rate of completing their hours. No joke—before the program, the employees worked only 65 percent of their contract hours, compared to 73 percent after the program, then 81 percent after a six-week follow-up and 93 percent after a six-month follow-up.
Now that’s a jump worth noting. Hey, maybe workplaces will start paying attention to stress and sleep soon, too.
Images: Moyan Brenn, Flickr, CC-BY
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.