Friday, June 29, 2012

Sleep is brain

When my dad had a stroke, one of the first things to go through my mind was the phrase “time is brain.” Neurologists know that the faster you get clot-busting medicine into a stroke victim (hopefully within a few minutes), the better the chances for recovery.  

While less urgent, “sleep is brain” may be worth remembering as well.  Newly released studies argue that getting enough sleep may represent a powerful form of stroke prevention.    

One of our researchers made news recently with her finding that middle-aged people of normal weight and at low risk for sleep apnea are at four times greater risk for stroke symptoms if they sleep less than six hours a night.  

Too little sleep increases future stroke risk regardless of whether or not you smoke, drink, don’t exercise, have diabetes, heart disease or feel depressed, according to a study led by Megan E. Ruiter, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the UAB Center for Outcomes and Effectiveness Researchand Education.  Her study is that latest analysis to come of the massive REGARDS study led out of UAB. 

Some experts think too little sleep raises levels of stress hormones like cortisol, raises blood pressure, changes appetite and ticks up inflammation.  All of these things weaken the tissue lining blood vessels as part of vascular disease.  Moving forward, Ruiter’s team will seek to confirm its findings, and test whether disparities in stroke across demographic groups can be explained by sleep differences.

Her work jibes with another study just posted by Scientific American: “The Disunited States of Sleep.” The article refers to a CDC study that found foreign-born residents are more likely than native-born Americans to sleep the recommended six to eight hours each night.  The field recognizes that sleep patterns differ by race, ethnicity, culture and economic class, but is not yet sure why. Human behaviors are typically driven by a mix of biological and psychosocial factors, and sleep is no different, says Ruiter.  

The takeaway: sleep is as important as what you eat, whether you exercise and your mental health in determining how long and how well you will live.  If you have problems sleeping, seek out a sleep physician or behavioral sleep medicine specialist. For certain sleep disorders, behavioral methods may be better than taking sleeping pills, Ruiter says, particularly with many medications meant to be taken no longer than two weeks.

Locally, those with sleep problems should look up the UAB Sleep and Wake Disorders Clinic. On the national level, refer to the websites of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation

On a final note, a Wall Street Journal article describes how couples may get even more health benefits just from sleeping in the same bed.  

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