12/31/2012 08:20 am ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

The Sleep Stories of 2012: Part I

We learned so much about sleep this year. 2012 was bursting with great sleep stories that revealed the power of sleep to enhance our health and well-being, and the dangers associated with sleep deprivation and disrupted sleep. Here are my picks for the sleep stories of 2012 -- along with suggestions for ways you can bring the benefits of the latest in sleep science to your everyday life.


Sleep suggestion: In times of emotional turmoil, turn to sleep.

Scientists found that sleep may take some of the sting out of emotionally difficult experiences. Researchers at University of California, Berkeley monitored the brain activity of people while they were looking at a series of emotionally-charged images. Some of the participants slept after viewing the images, while others stayed awake. All were shown the images a second time. Those who slept experienced a significant decrease in the intensity of their reaction to seeing the images a second time, compared to those who did not. Getting enough sleep is important for mental health. This research showed that sleep might also help ease the emotional pain of particularly difficult emotional experiences.


Sleep suggestion: Stay at a healthy weight (a BMI below 25), and guard against diabetes, by getting enough sleep.

Research in recent years has established strong links between sleep and Type 2 diabetes. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation increases risk of developing diabetes. In 2012, scientists found a genetic connection between the sleep hormone melatonin and diabetes risk. Researchers in this study identified a series of mutations to a gene involved in melatonin regulation that is associated with significantly elevated risk for diabetes. These mutations are rare, but identifying them could help improve diagnosis and treatment for high-risk diabetes patients. With this study, we continue to learn more about the role of melatonin, and the body's circadian rhythms, in the onset of diabetes and other diseases. Sleep is a powerful tool for weight management, and an important part of any prevention strategy for Type 2 diabetes.


Sleep suggestion: Don't ignore your child's snoring or other signs of sleep-disordered breathing.

Children who experience sleep-disordered breathing are more likely to develop behavioral and emotional problems, according to this study. Researchers analyzed data on more than 11,000 children, using information from parent questionnaires. They found evidence of a relationship between sleep-disordered breathing and behavioral and emotional issues in children as young as 1 year. Hyperactivity, anxiety, depression, aggressiveness, and problems socializing with peers were all found more often among children with sleep-disordered breathing. Sleep-disordered breathing is actually a cluster of conditions that disrupt airflow during sleep. Snoring and mouth breathing are common signals of sleep-disordered breathing in children. If your child's sleep appears disrupted -- even mildly so -- by breathing difficulties, talk with your pediatrician.


Sleep suggestion: Create -- and maintain -- a sleep-friendly bedroom.

In April we discussed the results of the National Sleep Foundation's "bedroom poll," which sought a comprehensive look at how Americans use, feel about, and care for their bedrooms -- and, of course, how bedroom conditions affect sleep. The results showed that a majority of Americans feel pretty good about their bedrooms -- but fewer than half said they slept well on most nights. Most people reported sleeping better when they slept on clean sheets and made their beds on most days.

The basics of good sleep hygiene include a clean bedroom, good-quality sleep equipment (mattress, pillows) and a room that's cool and dark. The ability to make the bedroom dark at night is critical -- this means shades or blinds for the windows, it also means no TV or tablet screens lighting up the room after bedtime. Put some time into making, and keeping, your bedroom comfortable and sleep-friendly, and you'll be rewarded with better and more restful sleep.


Sleep suggestion: Curb your consumption of energy drinks.

Research increasingly shows that energy drinks may be harmful to health and to sleep. Studies such as this one found these caffeine-packed, high-sugar beverages raise blood pressure and heart rate, and are linked to anxiety and insomnia. Most of these drinks are classified and marketed as dietary supplements, which means they're only minimally regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Don't let the colorful, kid-friendly packaging of these drinks fool you -- some energy drinks have as much as 360mg of caffeine in a single serving. That's two to three times as much caffeine as an eight-ounce cup of coffee.

It's important to be careful about overconsumption, if you choose to consume these drinks at all, or let your kids drink them. If you need a caffeine boost, a regular cup of coffee will do the trick. Just make sure not to consume caffeine of any type after 2 p.m., so as not to interfere with your sleep at bedtime.


Sleep suggestion: Make sleep -- and sleep disorders -- an ongoing part of your conversation with your doctor.

A pair of studies presented this year linked obstructive sleep apnea to an increased risk of cancer and cancer death. Sleep apnea is also associated with a number of other serious health complications, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes. These two studies are the first to establish a link between sleep apnea and cancer risk in humans. (Previous research has found this link in animals.) It's important to note that neither of these studies established sleep apnea as a cause of either developing cancer or dying from cancer. What researchers in both studies found was a link between the presence of obstructive sleep apnea -- and its severity -- and the risk of developing and dying from cancer. There will be a lot more research that explores the relationship between sleep apnea and cancer risk. For all the health risks associated with sleep apnea, it's critically important that you talk to your doctor about your sleep, and any sleep difficulties you may have.

So much to talk about, and we're only halfway through the year! Check back for the second installment of the sleep stories of 2012.

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

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