Sleep

Follow the poodle? Alternatives to prescription sleep medications

Stuart Quan, MD
Stuart Quan, MD, Contributing Editor

If you’ve been having trouble sleeping, you may be concerned that there’s no other option besides prescription sleep aids. Fortunately, there are many other treatments to pick from. In fact, sleep specialists now agree that behavioral (non-drug) treatments should be the first treatment for most cases of insomnia. But beware: not all non-drug insomnia treatments are created equal.

Awake, alert, and alive: Is two hours’ sleep enough?

Stuart Quan, MD
Stuart Quan, MD, Contributing Editor

According to an estimate from the Institute of Medicine, up to 20% of all motor vehicle crashes are related to drowsy driving. A panel of experts recently concluded that anyone who has slept less than two hours in the previous 24 hours is not fit to drive. This is only a rough guideline, however, because the relationship between sleep and safe driving is complex. (For example, a pre-existing sleep debt and driving at night increase the effects of drowsiness.) In general, driving while sleep-deprived is a dangerous undertaking for you — and others on the road with you.

Yoga for Better Sleep

Marlynn Wei, MD, JD
Marlynn Wei, MD, JD, Contributing Editor

Yoga is a gentle and restorative way to wind down your day. A national survey found that over 55% of people who did yoga found that it helped them get better sleep. Over 85% said yoga helped reduce stress. Dr. Marlynn Wei shares a bedtime yoga routine and explains how to use the breath to relax deeper into the poses.

Gout: Sleep apnea may raise your risk

Matthew Solan
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes people to stop breathing for short periods during sleep. It is linked to several chronic health problems, including heart disease and high blood pressure. A recent study suggests that sleep apnea may also raise the risk for gout, a common form of inflammatory arthritis. This is just one more good reason to talk with your doctor if you have symptoms of sleep apnea (which include loud snoring and excessive sleepiness during the day).

Sleeping like a caveman?

Stuart Quan, MD
Stuart Quan, MD, Contributing Editor

Recent news reports of a study of sleep duration in geographically isolated societies in Africa and South America suggest that Americans are actually getting plenty of sleep because members of these tribes spend about the same amount of time asleep each night as people in modern societies. These controversial findings will be debated, but are not relevant to the widespread sleep deficit and associated health consequences in more modern societies.

Too little sleep and too much weight: a dangerous duo

Stuart Quan, MD
Stuart Quan, MD, Contributing Editor

Americans are sleeping less and weighing more. Science tells us this is no coincidence. Inadequate sleep can contribute to weight gain in several ways, including altering levels of the hormones that control appetite and fullness and setting off a chain reaction of poor habits that can increase the risk of weight gain and obesity. Sleep is proving to be as important to health as good nutrition and regular exercise.

What is the magic sleep number?

Stuart Quan, MD
Stuart Quan, MD, Contributing Editor

America is exhausted. A recent report from the CDC says that the percentage of adults sleeping fewer than 6 hours per night has increased by 31% since 1985. This sleep deficit not only leaves people tired, irritable, and less productive, but also increases the risk for some serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and even earlier death. Just how much sleep we need isn’t completely clear, although according to the available data, most people should aim for 7 hours of sleep each night. Simple lifestyle changes can help people meet that goal.

The effects of sleep deprivation on surgeons — and their patients

Anant Mandawat, MD
Anant Mandawat, MD, Contributing Editor

Do the long hours in the hospital, often with little sleep, make doctors in training more prone to making mistakes? Over the past decade, concerns regarding trainee doctors’ sleep loss and the potential for medical errors have brought about limits on the number of consecutive hours a resident can work in the hospital. Do the same concerns apply to fully licensed surgeons? A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the answer is no. Comparing the data on patients whose surgeons were on call the night before with that of patients whose surgeons were not working the night before showed virtually no difference in how well the patients did after surgery. It is not clear, however, whether these doctors anticipated the effects of being on call and compensated for them, or whether these results would be the same for less-experienced surgeons-in-training.

Cognitive behavioral therapy offers a drug-free method for managing insomnia

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Many people with insomnia turn to sleeping pills, which often have unwanted side effects. Few of them know about an equally effective therapy that targets the root cause of insomnia without medications. Called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-i, this short-term talk therapy teaches people to change the unproductive thinking patterns and habits that get in the way of a good night’s sleep. While this therapy can’t “cure” insomnia, it does provide tools to better manage it. In a review article in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that people treated with CBT-i fell asleep almost 20 minutes faster and spent 30 fewer minutes awake during the night compared with people who didn’t undergo CBT-i. These improvements are as good as, or better than, those seen in people who take prescription sleep medications such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). And unlike medications, the effects of CBT-i last even after the therapy ends.

Mindfulness meditation helps fight insomnia, improves sleep

Julie Corliss
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.