Sleep

Julie Corliss

Mindfulness meditation helps fight insomnia, improves sleep

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Worrying about a problem or a long to-do list at bedtime can be a recipe for insomnia. Mindfulness meditation — a mind-calming practice that focuses on breathing and awareness of the present moment — can help, according to a report in JAMA Internal Medicine. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. It helps you break the train of your everyday thoughts and relax. In addition to calling on mindfulness meditation at night to fight insomnia, it’s a good idea to practice it during the day, too, so it’s easier to evoke the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep.

Heidi Godman

Guidelines recommend sleep test for obstructive sleep apnea

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common cause of daytime sleepiness. It occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much during sleep. This lets the tissues around the throat close in and block the airway. People with obstructive sleep apnea can wake up gasping for breath scores of times a night, usually without knowing it. Obstructive sleep apnea can boost blood pressure and increases the risk of stroke. New guidelines from the American College of Physicians recommends an overnight sleep test to diagnose, or rule out, obstructive sleep apnea for individuals with unexplained daytime sleepiness. These are usually done in a sleep center, but home tests can also be done using a portable monitor.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Too little sleep, and too much, affect memory

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

When it comes to memory, sleep is a Goldilocks issue: both too much and too little aren’t good. Aim for “just right,” says a new report from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study. Study participants who slept five hours or fewer per night or nine hours or more did worse on tests of memory and thinking skills that those getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night. The researchers estimated that undersleepers and oversleepers were mentally two years older than the women who got seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night. Although this study couldn’t prove that getting too little or too much sleep causes memory and thinking problems, it’s in line with other work showing the potentially harmful effects of poor sleep. Previous research has linked poor sleep with higher risks of heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and depression.

Daniel Pendick

Treating severe snoring can help with tough-to-control blood pressure

Sleep apnea—pauses in breathing while sleeping followed by snoring-like gasps for breath—can cause daytime drowsiness and mental fatigue. It can also boost blood pressure and the risk for developing heart disease. A new study suggests that treating sleep apnea by using a breathing machine during sleep can make a difference for people with hard-to-treat high blood pressure. Although blood pressure medications offer a bigger bang for the buck to reduce blood pressure, treating sleep apnea can help, and offers other benefits as well. Getting used to using a breathing machine, which delivers continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), may take some work. One key is to find a mask that works, which may be a trial-and-error process.

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.

Daylight Saving Time “fall back” doesn’t equal sleep gain

Anthony Komaroff, M.D., Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Daylight Saving Time officially ends at 2:00 am this Sunday. In theory, “falling back” means an extra hour of sleep this weekend. But it doesn’t usually work out that way. Many people don’t, or can’t, take advantage of this weekend’s extra hour of sleep. And the focus on gaining or losing an hour of sleep overlooks the bigger picture—the effect of Daylight Saving Time transitions on the sleep cycle. This seemingly small one-hour shift in the sleep cycle can affect sleep for up to a week. It’s difficult to side-step the effects of Daylight Saving time on sleep. So be aware that it can take your sleep rhythms a week or so to get adjusted to the new clock.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Wellocracy aims to help trackers choose and use health apps and devices

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

There’s something satisfying about getting immediate feedback about exercise, sleep, and other activities. That’s why more and more people are joining the “quantified-self” movement. It involves formal tracking of health and habits, usually using apps and devices that feed data to them—from heart rate, activity, and sleep monitors to Bluetooth connected scales. But with so many apps and connected devices on the market, it can be hard to decide which ones are worth trying. Wellocracy, a website launched by the Harvard-affiliated Center for Connected Health, aims to give people impartial information about fitness trackers, mobile health apps, and other self-help technologies. It reviews dozens of sleep trackers, wearable activity trackers, mobile running apps, and mobile pedometer apps, lets you compare apps and devices in each category, provides a guide for beginners and offers tips for adding activity “bursts” throughout the day.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

For fans, World Series is a marathon, not a sprint

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Millions of baseball fans will tune in tonight for the opening game of the World Series. Boston Red Sox versus St. Louis Cardinals. Sportswriters are saying it will be an interesting series between two well-matched teams. Football fans have it easy. They have to sit through just one big game to decide the year’s champion. For us baseball fans, it could take seven games spread over nine days to determine this year’s champion. That means fans need to approach the series as a marathon, not a sprint. Pay attention to sleep, exercise, food, alcohol, and emotions. The Red Sox and Cardinals are two very likable teams. Commentators point out that these guys play the game the “right way.” The players themselves say it’s going to be fun. Let’s see if we fans can remember that baseball is a game. This World Series should be fun to watch. Whoever you’re rooting for, have fun watching.

Stephanie Watson

Weight loss, breathing devices still best for treating obstructive sleep apnea

Having obstructive sleep apnea puts you at risk for a number of conditions, including high blood pressure and stroke. New guidelines from the American College of Physicians (ACP) emphasize lifestyle modifications for treating obstructive sleep apnea to prevent those conditions. The guidelines don’t offer any radical treatment updates, but they do reinforce the effectiveness of tried and true therapies. The first recommendation is weight loss for people who are overweight and obese. The link between excess weight and sleep apnea is well established. The second recommendation is using continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. This is typically the first-line treatment because weight loss can be so hard to achieve.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Lack of sleep boosts food purchases the next day

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Savvy shoppers know that it’s a bad idea to shop for food when they are hungry. It’s a formula for filling your cart with high calorie foods, and likely spending more money than expected. Shopping while sleep deprived may have the same effect. That finding came from an interesting experiment done by a team of Swedish researchers. Sleep-deprived men bought more food, and more high-calorie foods, the morning after sleep deprivation than the morning after sleeping well. We’ve known for some time that not getting enough sleep is linked to weight gain. It’s possible that shopping may contribute to this phenomenon. For years, research on weight gain and obesity has focused on genes, foods, diets, and physical activity (or the lack of it). This study from Sweden, along with many others, are showing that our behaviors also play important roles in weight maintenance and weight gain.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Take a nap to adjust to Daylight Saving Time

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

It always takes me a few days to get used to Daylight Saving Time. While I love the extra hour of light at the end of the day, I’m not so wild about the extra hour of darkness in the morning or waking up an hour earlier than I need to. And I sure miss the hour of sleep I lost yesterday. That lost hour seems to be a big deal. A report in this month’s American Journal of Cardiology details the jump in heart attacks seen in a large Michigan hospital the first week after the start of Daylight Saving Time, and the small decline after it ends in the fall. A few years back, researchers showed a similar pattern in Sweden. The number of traffic accidents are similarly affected. In a Canadian study, there were more accidents on the Monday after the start of Daylight Saving Time than there were on the Monday the week before the change. If ever there was a perfect day for a nap, today would be it. A single nap won’t fully reset your body clock or make up for a lost hour of sleep, but it can help. It’s also a good way to stay sharp, especially in the afternoon.