To Sleep, Perchance to Restore
By Rebecca Maxon
A good night’s sleep can make a world of difference. According to a March survey by Consumer Reports, 80 percent of U.S. adults report having trouble sleeping at least one night per week. Four out of 10 report that they toss and turn most nights. Thirty percent of that same group report that poor sleep negatively affects their quality of life.
Those who have trouble sleeping at night are 60 percent more likely to be injured on the job than those who sleep well; and, drowsy drivers cause about 10 percent of car wrecks, according to a 2018 report from the American Automobile Foundation for Traffic Safety. Missing sleep also has a negative impact on not only our effectiveness, but also our moods. This is particularly true among children and adolescents.
But what to do? How can we help our children — and ourselves — avoid this nasty downward spiral? FDU Magazine talked to faculty experts and graduate students studying sleep to find out.
The Importance of Bedtime
There are numerous situations in which people steer away from getting enough sleep: becoming caught up in doing things before going to bed, an unfinished paper or project due the next day, watching a late-night movie or comedy show, not paying attention to caffeine intake in the afternoons and evenings or just feeling generally anxious. These are all things that can sidetrack a good night’s sleep.
It’s tempting to think as children grow that bedtimes can be adjusted or be removed altogether. Adults — particularly young adults — may feel they don’t need a bedtime at all. But Eleanor McGlinchey, assistant professor of clinical child psychology at FDU’s Metropolitan Campus and an expert on sleep and its effects on mood and behavior in adolescents and adults, says, “Bedtimes are actually important for everyone at every age.” Adolescents need about nine hours of sleep a night, and even young adults continue to need at least eight, but ideally nine.
“Having a regular wake-up time is also important,” says McGlinchey. Going to bed and waking around the same time everyday helps to establish healthy, functioning circadian rhythms. “A healthy circadian rhythm and proper number of hours slept helps students to learn new information; forget unimportant information and consolidate learning over time.”
Many adolescents experience changes in their sleep habits with the onset of puberty, leading to falling asleep later and waking up later. Couple this change in circadian rhythms with early high-school start times, and adolescents may feel the impact of being sleep deprived.
“Waking up much later on weekends than on weekdays (known as social jetlag) also makes it more difficult to achieve satisfying sleep,” adds Julia Marver, a third-year clinical psychology student working, with McGlinchey’s mentorship, on her dissertation about how diet, exercise and electronic device use all affect sleep habits.
McGlinchey studied the effects of sleep deprivation and chronotype (circadian rhythm or body clock preference labeled “morningness” or “eveningness”). Her findings suggest that eveningness might be a marker of emotional vulnerability, and that early intervention and prevention strategies, including therapy, can improve sleep — and thus moods — among night owls.
“Sleep deprivation affects attention and memory,” McGlinchey says. That itself is a detriment to effective learning and work. But school and work are only part of how sleep affects every stage of life.
Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. —Thomas Dekker
Shrugging it Off?
People may adjust to less sleep and feel like they’re fine. But those people aren’t functioning at their best. Beyond academics and work, other things like weight and appetite, athletic performance or emotional regulation, can take the hit.
Immune functions are suppressed when humans don’t get enough sleep as well. “There’s actually a 73 percent reduction in our natural ‘killer cells’ [antibodies] after a poor night’s sleep,” says McGlinchey, “so it makes us overall a lot more susceptible to an infection or illness.”
She continues, “Pretty much any other health condition you can think of has some relationship to poor sleep.”
So when you can, opt for the ZZZs and allow for some wind-down time before bed.
A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow. — Charlotte Brontë
Sleep and Emotions
Disturbed or shortened sleep is not only a symptom of depression, but also has been shown to predict more negative emotions and fewer positive emotions. “Overall, sleep deprivation makes everyone more vulnerable to emotional dysregulation, which can be a symptom of anxiety, depression, ADHD and other conditions,” McGlinchey says.
“This is one of the really sad and critical health issues for adolescents,” McGlinchey reports. In some cases, sleep deprivation can precede the onset of psychiatric symptoms. A recent meta-analysis showed that shortened and/or disturbed sleep in young people led to increased risk for suicidal thoughts, attempted and completed suicide — even when an adolescent was not exhibiting other symptoms of depression.
Parents should be aware of changes in sleep habits, moods or personality and seek professional help if their adolescent shows signs of anxiety or depression, such as loss of interest in their favorite things, poor concentration, irritability, difficulty making decisions, reckless behavior or unending worry.
A well-spent day brings a happy sleep. — Leonardo da Vinci
Inside the Clinical Psychology Lab
McGlinchey is mentoring four students, three third-year students and one second-year student, in the PhD in clinical psychology program. Working side-by-side with McGlinchey in the lab, students gain exposure to her ongoing research projects as well as develop their own thesis topics.
Under her supervision, third-year students Marver and Elizabeth Martin worked together to create the survey instrument for a study of undergraduate student sleep habits for Marver’s dissertation. Marver hopes to address why women tend to have lower-quality sleep than men; to determine how food and exercise habits relate to mood and quality of sleep; and to quantify how using a cell phone or other blue-light emitting electronics before bed makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Her study will ask participants to fill out a two-week diary of their sleep, exercise and electronic use, as well as how they have been feeling over the past two weeks.
Meanwhile, Martin is studying the role of sleep in protecting children against the consequences of early adverse experiences on their social and emotional development, using data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. These adverse experiences can range from abuse, to loss of a loved one, to not fitting in with peers at school. “I’m going to be able to look at a diverse population of urban children,” Martin says. And there are a variety of factors to consider, including neighborhood, demographics and health-service utilization. Martin hypothesizes that good sleep patterns will buffer children against negative effects in the long term.
“What’s unique about this epidemiologic study,” she says, “is that not a lot of people ask about sleep, which is why this is such a wonderful opportunity. They have these sleep variables that they haven’t even looked at yet.”
Martin has also been working on one of McGlinchey’s studies. “I’m interested in child development, and sleep is an area I hadn’t been exposed to. It’s been a wonderful way to merge my interest in child development and pathology with sleep, which is ubiquitous and transcends many psychological disorders.
While Martin’s research is focusing on data that has already been collected, McGlinchey is actively working with the New York State Psychiatric Institute to study adolescents who have sleep disturbances like insomnia and hypersomnia, and the impact of an intervention that focuses on sleep and their depressive symptoms.
Working on the study with McGlinchey, Martin says, “I’m just doing the intakes this year.” But she is looking forward to next year, when she will be a practicing therapist in the study.
McGlinchey has been an inspiration to Marver as well. “She encourages me to pursue my own areas of interest while also exposing me to theories and methods I am less familiar with,” Marver says. “I have seen firsthand how interconnected sleep and mood are. She has also exposed me to ‘mechanisms of change.’ It’s one thing to determine whether a treatment works to improve sleep, but we are interested in why it works. That can aid in the development of more efficient, effective treatments.”
Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of FDU Magazine.