Van Winkle’s is the website obsessed with sleeping, waking and everything in between. For every hour we spend with our eyes closed, roughly two waking hours are impacted. It is our goal to elevate the conversation around sleep and help our readers understand how important those eight hours should be.
After almost two and a half years, Van Winkle's is calling it a night. We launched on June 9, 2015 to make sleep journalism a thing. And, if I do say so myself, we succeeded.
We immersed ourselves in the world of sleep — and dreams and wakefulness and biological rhythms and relaxation and anything else related to the little neurobiological process that keeps us, and every other living species, chugging along — and discovered a wealth of stories to tell.
We broke down data on sleep health and habits according to gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation, race, income, immigration status, country of birth, country of residence and chronotype, among other differences, both socially constructed and biologically essential.
I think you get the idea: We covered sleep exhaustively. And now it's time for VW's to hit the sack. But I'm not leaving sleep behind entirely. Starting today, I'll be working at Woolly, a brand-new website, also published by Casper, that's focused on comfort and wellness. It (almost) goes without saying that sleep is an integral aspect of getting comfy and being well. So, rest assured, Woolly will feature regular sleep coverage. (Please come visit me at my new editorial home!)
Seeing Van Winkle's through each stage of its evolution has been a rewarding and exciting experience, due in large part to the many people who worked hard to keep the sleep-journalism machine running. I want to thank the sources who lent us their knowledge, time and perspective, the Van Winkle's staff members and freelancers who filled the site with thoughtfully written and thought-provoking #content, and Casper.
And, most of all, I'd like to thank our readers. I hope Van Winkle's has helped you understand, appreciate and explore the science and culture of sleep.
Keep on sleepin' on*
*I've never been able to use this egregiously cheesy sign-off. This may be my last chance, so I'm taking it.
The "post-everything electronic-rock" project known as Ghost Against Ghost was quite literally the stuff of dreams for Christopher Bono. Back in 2007, the New York-based composer/producer/multi-instrumentalist dreamt of a "surreal socio-political concept album," as he told the blog TuneCore.
Soon enough, Bono turned his reverie into reality. In order to achieve his vision of "epic soundscapes and arrangements," Bono — who turned to music at 21, after an injury threw a wrench in his plans to play professional baseball — took up the study of classical music. He also recruited two other artists, including Thomas Pridgen, ex-drummer for The Mars Volta, to help bring his project to life. Now, a decade later, Bono has released four Ghost Against Ghost albums, the most recent of which, "Still Love," came out in April.
Bono generally ends his days at 10pm, after two hours in the studio. To turn off his busy mind and transition into sleep mode, Bono often does a short pre-bed meditation session. And, when he's traveling, Bono relies on reading or listening to music to "tune out the external noise."
What music does Bono recommend turning on to help you nod off? It depends. "First," Bono told Van Winkle's, "[you need to] decide on what you intend to induce."
But, if Bono wants to, say, "induce sleepy visions," he'll select early compositions by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, such as the "Rite of Spring," "Petrushka" or "The Firebird." "I believe 20th century composers are fantastic for inducing alien dreamworlds," he said.
Drone music, by artists like Steve Roach, Stars of the Lid and Brian Eno, makes for ideal bedtime listening, Bono says, because "the lack of rhythmic punctuation tends to put the mind in a calm, floating state."
And, if you're looking to put yourself into a grateful mood, Bono suggests transcendent jazz, such as "A Love Supreme" by John Coltrane or something by the nature-inspired pianist John Luther Adams, whose compositions, Bono says, "are great reminders of the beauty of existence on planet earth."
His final piece of advice for a sleep soundtrack? "Don't neglect the profound value of silence."
To some, Cassiopea jellyfish may appear constantly sleepy. They rarely swim, instead opting to lie on their backs on the seabed and gently pulse. But it hasn't been clear whether or not these "upside-down" jellyfish actually sleep — until now. A group of scientists from California recently made the surprising discovery that the listless creatures really do sleep at night. And, if they don't get enough sleep, they become groggy and sluggish the next day.
The findings are significant. They prove, for the first time, that animals without brains need sleep. The study, published in the journal Current Biology, reveals new possibilities about sleep’s evolutionary origins.
“We went for the simplest animal that we thought might sleep," said study co-author Ravi Nath, a graduate student at Caltech. "Going to jellyfish, we pushed this back to the root of sleep. It shows sleep must be rooted in an ancient and important function.”
Academics have long been intrigued about which animals need to sleep. In some creatures, like humans and cats, the signs of sleep are unmistakeable. But as animals become more primitive, the necessity of sleep becomes more of a puzzle.
Scientists often study sleep in invertebrate fruit flies, and have found evidence that roundworms sleep, too. But these simple animals are still an evolutionary level above jellyfish, which have a "nerve net" of neurons spread around the body rather than a centralized nervous system.
“Humans and jellyfish are almost as distant evolutionarily as you can go," said co-author Claire Bedbrook, a graduate student at Caltech. "This really emphasizes how important the sleep state is, and gets you thinking about why something as simple as a jellyfish would even require sleep."
Scientists from Australia had previously shown that deadly box jellyfish exhibit certain signs of sleep. But no one had demonstrated that jellyfish could fall into a full slumber.
Biologically, sleep is a carefully defined term. To prove that the jellyfish were actually asleep — rather than simply tired or comatose — the scientists had to carry out a number of experiments.
First, they measured how frequently the jellyfish pulsed at night, compared to during the daytime. After analyzing their tank of 23 jellyfish for six days, they discovered that the pulse rate declined by around 32% at night.
Then, researchers had to find out if the jellyfish could be woken up easily — to prove they were experiencing sleep rather than paralysis or coma — which the researchers achieved by sprinkling a little food into their tanks.
Another element of the sleep test was finding out if the jellyfish became less responsive at night.
They did this by measuring how long it took the sleepy jellyfish to move to the bottom of the tank, their favorite spot, at night compared to during the day. And, just like humans, the jellies were sluggish after being woken up. But they recovered quickly when scientists made them do the same task a second time.
The final task was to figure out whether the spineless study specimens displayed evidence of sleep deprivation. In what was surely a brutal night for the jellyfish, the researchers squirted them with water for ten seconds every 20 minutes. And, the next day, the sleep-deprived jellies were lethargic and inactive.
So what can we understand from a tank of sleepy jellyfish? Their behavior suggests that, at its essence, sleep might be a more basic process than scientists had previously realized. It's possible that the complex functions achieved by our eight hours in bed are merely the window dressing on a simple biological requirement.
“If sleep is found in such a basic and simple animal, it's likely the original function of sleep is also basic and simple," said Nath. "That means that the complicated sleep [features], like memory [consolidation] and sleep stages, were added on as decoration later on, as sleeping evolved."
“It is pretty surprising that something as seemingly simple as a jellyfish has a sleep-like state,” said Dion Dickman, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, who wasn’t involved in the study, but who researches sleep in flies.
The study, Dickman explained, supports the idea that sleep may have originally emerged as something distinct from the vital process for memory and learning that it's become in higher-order organisms.
Stock photography isn't known for its realism. Sure, Getty, Shutterstock and other repositories for generic images have evolved in their depiction of daily life. In the past decade, for instance, photos of young, thin women laughing alone with salads, or lying half-naked under towels, have given way to photos of a more diverse group of women climbing mountains, fixing computers and doing push-ups. But, when it comes to sleep, stock photography still has a ways to go.
Not only do stock photos often portray sleep as an improbably beautiful act, performed by Instagram-ready boho-beauties on grassy knolls. But, according to a new study, stock photos of sleeping babies rarely comply with pediatric health guidelines. More often than not, researchers at WellSpan York Hospital and the University of Virginia School of Medicine found, infants are shown dozing in positions and environments deemed unsafe by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Given how influential media images can be, researchers argue, stock photo sites are missing an opportunity to help parents keep their kids safe and undermining efforts to promote healthy sleeping practices.
According to the AAP, here's how an infant should sleep: on their back, in a safety-approved crib (or bassinet) that contains only a firm mattress and a fitted sheet. (That means no stuffed animals, head coverings or fluffy, soft bedding.) The crib should be placed in the parents' room and shouldn't have a crib bumper. The baby should not be "overbundled" and should be offered a pacifier at bedtime once they're breastfeeding. The baby should not be sleeping in the same bed as another person.
The AAP devised these guidelines based on epidemiological studies that identified risk factors for Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID). In 1996, the AAP began to run safe-sleep public awareness campaigns. But, despite these efforts, rates of SUID haven't really declined since 2000. And nonadherence to safe-sleep guidelines, researchers wrote, remains widespread. It's possible that media exposure has something to do with these dispiriting trends.
In addition to relying on doctors, family members and friends for advice on sleep practices, parents are likely to take cues from the media. Previous research has found that sustained media exposure guides health-related decisions on topics such as breastfeeding, diet and, most pertinently, infant sleep position.
A few studies have analyzed sleep-related images of infants used in magazines and advertisements. The findings aren't terribly consistent but suggest that at least 16 percent, and as much as 65 percent, of media images flout safe-sleep guidelines. Researchers behind the current study wondered if media outlets are depicting babies sleeping improperly because of a "dearth of available appropriate images." And where does the media find generic photos of babies in repose? Stock photo sites. So, researchers decided to dig in.
They searched the top three stock sites, Fotolia, Shutterstock and Getty, for photos of babies sleeping and analyzed the resulting images based on seven criteria: sleep position, sleep location, sharing of sleep surface (with another person who's asleep), presence of bedding, presence of stuffed animals, head covering and pacifier use.
Researchers ended up with 1233 photos of babies sleeping (not in someone's arms or positioned sitting up) to analyze. Only 39 percent, they found, showed infants sleeping in the proper position (on their backs). Photos were even less likely to depict safe sleeping environments; more than 90 percent failed on at least one criterion.
In all, only 5 percent of the photos met all seven safe-sleep criteria. The photos were most likely to violate recommendations about bedding: Verboten soft bedding, loose sheets and soft sleep surfaces appeared in more than 70 percent of photos. Bedding recommendations are commonly violated in real life, too, even though the use of soft bedding is associated with a 5-fold increased risk of SIDS. Studies suggest this ill-advised practice is most often driven by parental concerns over comfort and warmth.
Slightly more than 20 percent of photos that featured cribs also featured crib bumpers, which have been implicated in a series of accidental deaths.
The photos were most successful when it came to bed-sharing; only 10 percent of photos depicted infants sharing a sleep surface. But, researchers noted, it's concerning that a sizeable chunk of photos still showed adults sleeping with infants on a couch, which greatly increases an infant's risk of SIDS.
Overall, the findings suggest that unsafe infant sleep practices are widely depicted on stock photo sites. And, while we may not consciously look to stock photos to guide our decisions, their omnipresence makes them more influential than we might realize.
"Consistent imaging is a critical component of the national effort to promote infant sleep safety," researchers wrote. "Safe sleep advocates and public health officials need to work together with photographers, stock photography companies, advertisers and the media to develop and promote culturally congruent images of infants in safe sleep environments."
It's a safe bet that, when hurricanes hit, sleep health is not a top priority for residents in affected regions. But sleep disturbances are one of the most common health issues reported during and after catastrophic events. And, in research on natural disasters, including Superstorm Sandy, Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, and the 2011 Japanese earthquake (often referred to as the Great East Japan Earthquake in Japan), sleep quality has emerged as both a meaningful reflection and predictor of mental and physical well-being.
Good sleep in the wake of natural disasters has been linked to psychological resilience and positive health outcomes, while sleep disturbances appear to play a role in the development of PTSD, depression and poor immune function. By taking measures to promote sleep, we can help minimize the long-term health consequences of natural disasters. And, by paying attention to how survivors are sleeping in the aftermath of disasters, we can target people who may have a pronounced need for healthcare during times when services are likely to be stretched thin.
Surviving any type of disaster, natural or man-made, can, and often does, lead to trauma-related sleep problems and scary dreams. But, with natural disasters, physical displacement often creates additional barriers to a good night's sleep. "If your bedroom has been flooded, and you have to go to a shelter, the unfamiliar and uncomfortable environment can additionally impact your sleep," said Thomas Mellman, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinical and Translational Research and Stress and Sleep Studies Programs at the Howard University College of Medicine.
Are there any policies in place that enable survivors to get sleep during natural disasters? Well, FEMA guidelines stipulate that emergency shelters housing evacuees for longer than 24 hours have quiet, dimly lit sleeping areas and provide a minimum of 5.6 square meters — about 60 feet — of floor space per person. If shelters house evacuees for less than 24 hours, then sleeping areas aren't required.
The US Agency for International Development, which is responsible for providing civilian disaster relief in low-income nations, also mandates that shelters provide sleeping accommodations for evacuees. "Shelters are places of refuge and must not result in disaster to the occupants," states the USAID Shelter Management Guide. "Care must be taken to minimize overcrowding and occurrences of unhealthy environments." But USAID imposes a lower minimum floor-space requirement, allotting 40 square feet per person.
In practice, however, a shortage of shelter space can make guidelines hard to follow. After Harvey hit, Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center held more than 9,000 evacuees, nearly two times its capacity. As a result, personal space and cots were on short supply. As USA Today reported, regarding an 18-year-old evacuee:
"Last night I slept on the hard floor and used a towel as a pillow,” he said, pointing to cardboard that’s his bed. “They said there are no cots. Since last night we’ve been asking for a crib for the baby and we still don’t have one."
The difficulty of sleeping in over-crowded shelters is backed up by research. For both practical and ethical reasons, it's tough to perform studies during crises. But a team of researchers from Japan managed to collect data from more than 9,000 evacuees living in 30 emergency shelters after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Researchers obtained information about evacuees' sleep from medical clinics set up in the shelters. Their findings, published last year, showed a higher daily incidence of disturbed sleep in crowded shelters, compared to roomier ones. Researchers determined that evacuees faced a heightened risk of disturbed sleep if they had any less than 5 square meters of personal space, a conclusion that lends credence to the FEMA guidelines.
"This novel finding," researchers wrote, "would assist public health authorities in establishing appropriate evacuation plans and facilities to prevent the incidence of sleep disturbance among evacuees ... crowding at the shelter is potentially a modifiable factor that can be avoided by appropriate evacuation planning."
A downward spiral
It's reasonable to wonder, however, how much it really matters if people get less-than-stellar sleep in the immediate aftermath of a storm. After all, humans are wired to function in crisis mode. And, if there's a hierarchy of disaster-time needs, a full night's sleep ranks somewhere below escaping two-story-high floods and finding shelter.
But, there are also good reasons for public-health authorities and relief organizations to help disaster evacuees get sleep: In the aftermath of a traumatic event, sleep disturbances alone are thought to play a role in the onset of PTSD and other afflictions. That means that, not only do sleep problems reflect a survivor's state of health, they can also be part of the reason that a survivor develops a mental disorder down the line. And, as the authors of the shelter-crowding study wrote the emergence of new, longterm mental-health problems "might result in significant burdens on the health care organizations at disaster-affected areas, which are typically already suffering from a shortage of medical resources."
In one study on Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 storm that ravaged Florida in 1992, Mellman and colleagues gathered data on sleep and mental health during the recovery phase (meaning 6-12 months after the storm). By this point, most survivors had left shelters. But they were dealing with plenty of other storm-related stressors, such as compromised sleep environments, lack of electricity, generator noise and safety-related fears, that left them with sleep problems.
Mellman's team found a bidirectional relationship between sleep and disaster-related psychiatric symptoms: People with a pre-storm history of poor sleep and scary dreams were more likely than other survivors to struggle with symptoms of PTSD and depression after Andrew. And, going the other way, people with a history of psychiatric symptoms were especially likely to face post-Andrew sleep problems. Researchers concluded that a tendency to experience poor sleep and nightmares marked a vulnerability to developing PTSD following a disaster.
In attempting to explain the association between PTSD symptoms and impaired immunity, researchers found one link: the onset of new sleep problems.
It's worth noting that sleep problems become more likely after natural disasters for both adults and children. More than two years after Hurricane Katrina, one study found, about half of children (in a group of 191 who'd endured the storm) reported sleep disturbances. That's a considerably higher incidence of sleep problems than you'd expect to find in children, according to Carl Weems, a researcher at Iowa State University who co-authored the study with Mellman.
In a different study, sleep problems following Andrew were also linked to impaired immune function. In this case, researchers collected questionnaires and blood samples from residents of neighborhoods damaged by Andrew between 1-4 months after the storm hit. They found a significant association between PTSD symptoms and lower counts of natural killer cells. These immune cells play an important role in helping us fight infection and developing adaptive immune responses to new environments. Low NKC counts have been linked to cancer.
In attempting to explain the association between PTSD symptoms and impaired immunity, researchers found one link: the onset of new sleep problems. They assumed that other, undetermined factors (aside from sleep) played a role in the PTSD-immunity link, too.
The flip side
The relationship between post-storm sleep disturbances and subsequent health issues, however, is only half of the story. Sleeping well in the wake of a natural disaster, according to a 2017 study, appears to have a protective effect on health. Following the Japan Earthquake, researchers from Fukushima Medical University surveyed more than 30,000 people living in evacuation zones about their socioeconomic status and health, as well as several lifestyle factors, such as sleep habits, alcohol consumption, exercise and community engagement.
They focused on socioeconomic changes because it's common, and often unavoidable, for disaster survivors to lose jobs and change living situations. And these types of disaster-induced changes have been linked to poor health. So, in this study, researchers wanted to see if there were any lifestyle factors that protected survivors against the health decline associated with socioeconomic hardship.
Sleep, it turned out, made a difference. Both income loss and changes in living conditions were linked to poor health. But, across the board, people who were satisfied with their sleep reported being in better states of health. So, in some way, people who slept well withstood the deterioration of health that typically accompanies the loss of jobs and homes. Improving sleep, researchers reasoned, may help ward off the undesirable health consequences of enduring a natural disaster.
Taken together, these studies show that, as Mellman put it, "healthy sleep contributes in important ways to positive adaptation, whereas disruptive sleep, or avoidance of sleep, can increase the likelihood that someone will have trouble with post-traumatic stress or depression, or even the physical health consequences of a disaster."
Researchers brought up the concept of "perceived benefit," in which people who believe they've somehow benefitted from a disaster have an easier time recovering from it than those who don't perceive any benefit from the experience.
It might also make sense to consider how survivors sleep before natural disasters. Survivors' pre-storm sleep habits, according to a 2015 study, predict their levels of psychological resilience to the storm-related stressors they'll later encounter. Researchers from institutions including The University of Connecticut Health Center and Texas Health Care System examined the sleep quality, mental health and emotional stability of young, low-income women who'd survived Hurricane Ike, which hit Texas in 2008. They surveyed the women several times, from before Ike hit through a year afterwards.
During the storm recovery period, good sleepers (based on pre-Ike assessments) were considerably less stressed than poor sleepers — and even less stressed than they'd been before the storm. To explain this finding, researchers brought up the concept of "perceived benefit," in which people who believe they've somehow benefitted from a disaster have an easier time recovering from it than those who don't perceive any benefit from the experience. The worse the disaster is, the greater the perceived-benefit effect is.
It's possible that sleeping well sets people up for the perceived-benefit effect, either by modulating their negative emotional responses to stress or by maximizing their ability to use effective coping strategies to deal with it. In their analysis, researchers accounted for the impact of hardship and property damage on study participants' sleep. In other words, as researchers explained, survivors' sleep quality "was not simply an acute state reflecting the trauma of Ike. Sleep quality, even after the hurricane, seems to primarily reflect women's long-term experiences."
Screening for sleep problems
Across the board, studies on sleep and natural disasters urge the inclusion of sleep questions in medical screenings for survivors and, in some cases, for workers dispatched to relief efforts. Back in 1995, for instance, Mellman and colleagues wrote in their Hurricane Andrew study that "assessing for sleep complaints could provide a practical focus for screening populations exposed to traumatic events."
Public-health authorities have not heeded their recommendations.
The CDC provides guidelines for crisis-related medical screenings. The "Natural Disaster Morbidity Surveillance Individual Form," for instance, is intended for use in acute care facilities, meaning hospitals and shelters with medical staff, to gather information about evacuees' health conditions. The form, which includes questions on physical and mental health symptoms, does not mention sleep once.
... identify those who need further medical attention, not necessarily to definitively diagnose or treat based only on information provided through the screening ... Through screening, adverse effects in individuals can be recognized in a timely way to provide intervention for the individual, while identifying potential risks to others in the same population.
We reached out to the CDC for comment and will update this story if they respond.
Some fact-sheets and online resources geared toward natural-disaster survivors do, however, bring up sleep. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for instance, mentions sleep in tip-sheets aimed at survivors of traumatic events and disaster first-responders, respectively. "Maintain a healthy diet and get adequate sleep," for instance, are listed as responder self-care techniques. And the National Institute of Mental Health mentions sleep in its overview of coping with traumatic events. But you won't find more than a bullet point devoted to sleep health anywhere in the sphere of .gov resources for disaster survivors.
And, for now, Mellman doesn't think sleep will become a healthcare priority during natural disasters. "I think it's important that we seek to provide comfortable sleep environments to the extent that it's possible. But, realistically, I don’t think we have the mental health resources to provide counseling or therapy to everyone affected by a natural disaster who has some disruption of their sleep."
So survivors may need to take it upon themselves to know when sleep problems merit medical attention. "If a person continues to have disturbed sleep in the aftermath of a disaster, even as, structurally, things are getting back to normal," said Mellman, "then I would advise some type of intervention involving medical or mental-health services. But even just talking about things that are disturbing that they tend to push back out of their minds, but then show up in dreams, tends to be helpful, whether that’s with a friend, a professional or a relative."
In an Ohio State University study on marital interactions and health, the most hostile married couples were also most likely to be under-slept. While all 43 couples in the study fought with each other, they didn't all fight in the same way. Some couples aired grievances constructively. Others resorted to nastiness. And the factor that differentiated the fair fighters from their negative counterparts was sleep: Hostility became likely when both partners were averaging less than seven hours of sleep per night. [New York Times]
Who's that doggy in the bedroom?
... a doggy belonging to someone who read this study that says it's A-OK to share a sleep environment with your furry best friend. In fact, researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that participants (middle-aged women who slept with or in the same room as one, and only one, dog) got the best shuteye when their dogs dozed in their bedrooms, compared to somewhere else in the house or, and this is kind of a let-down, in their beds. [Van Winkle's]
Growing up doesn't mean outgrowing stuffed animals
Nearly half of American adults still sleep with, or right next to, stuffed animals. This factoid comes courtesy of the highly reputable research institution Build-a-Bear, which commissioned a survey of 2,000 people in order to gain more insight into the public opinion on plush toys. [CBS News]
Here's another op-ed calling for later school start times
Teens — who are wired to be night owls — shouldn't have to start school before 8:30am. Giving them more time to sleep in the morning, as well as sparing them the misery of finding the limit before 8am, is good for their health, cognitive and emotional development and academic performance. And it's good for our collective safety and economic interests.
The increased cost of pushing back start times would be about $150 per kid per year, plus $110,000 per school, according to the Brookings Institution. But the economic benefits of later start times would more than offset these expenses. Because, according to the Rand corporation, later start times would amount to an $83 billion economic boost, on account of tired teen drivers causing fewer deaths and alert, engaged students going on to have more lucrative careers. [New York Times]
Money on the Mind
About half of Americans — 56 percent of men and 48 percent of women — wake up thinking about either work or money, according to a survey by the mattress company Amerisleep. These career-and/or-cash-minded risers were less likely than other survey participants to hit snooze and most likely to hold jobs in government or public administration. And the trend bore out across all generations; slightly more than half of millennials and Gen-Xers, and slightly less than half of boomers and Gen-Zers, reported starting their mornings with job-or-money-related thoughts. [NBC News]
It's all relative in REM
A dream about a dog has no universal meaning. All sorts of people report dreaming about the same scenarios and topics. And, as the founder of the dream interpretation app UDreamed has found, dreams about the same things can hold wildly different meanings, depending on who the dreamer is and what associations they have with whatever's occupying their subconscious thoughts. Harvard Medical School psychologist Deirdre Barrett backs up this notion. But dreams don't need to have universal meanings to be meaningful. By analyzing both common and rare dreams, researchers are learning about how dreams are shaped by the world around us. [New York magazine]
We asked three experts to weigh in on one reader's sleep problem. Here's what a neuroscientist and two psychologists had to say about losing sleep after losing a pet.
Sarah, a 31-year-old attorney in Brooklyn, asks:
My cat Reggie died a few months ago. He was 20 years old, so it wasn't unexpected. But, even though I was somewhat prepared for his loss, I've had a really hard time dealing with it, and haven't been able to sleep well since he passed away. Reggie was a fixture in my life starting at age 11. And, especially towards the end of his life, he became intertwined in my bedtime and sleep routines. Every night, I got ready for bed, gave Reggie his meds, and fell asleep with him curled up next to me (and my now-husband). In Reggie's absence, I've tried to create new bedtime routines, such as diffusing an aromatherapy spray, to replace the routines that centered around him. But nothing's worked. Falling asleep remains a nightly challenge. Any suggestions?
1. Rebecca Spencer, a neuroscientist who studies sleep and memory, says:
I’m sorry for your loss of Reggie. You are possibly correct that his role in your bedtime routine is causing your insomnia after his loss. Creating new sleep routines, as habitual as you may be making them, nonetheless takes time to establish. So keep it up. I advise that aromatherapy doesn’t work for everyone, so perhaps replace odor cues with sound cues, such as low volume white noise, instead.
However, also consider that it isn’t the loss of a critical player in your routine that has left you sleepless. Perhaps you are still paying an emotional toll for losing what has been with you for 20 of your 31 years on this planet! It is understandable if you are depressed. You might feel fine during the day when you’re busy and distracted, but his absence becomes notable at bedtime, which brings out symptoms of depression leading to this insomnia. Seek help from a therapist or physician. Insomnia for a few months should be addressed. A brief clinical intervention may be necessary to get you back on track.
2. Cori Bussolari, a psychologist whose research and clinical work focus on bereavement, chronic illness, the human-animal bond and positive coping, says:
First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. Even when we expect and prepare for our pet's death because of their advanced age, it quite often can still feel incredibly difficult and disrupting.
You stated that Reggie became "intertwined" with your bedtime rituals and, as he got older, how your sleep has been impacted by this loss. This is absolutely normal. He was part of your life, for what seems to be, for over half your life. We also have such a physical relationship with our pets. That is, we pick them up, hold them, and like Reggie, they curl up next to us. Our bodies sense their loss, even when we are not consciously thinking about it. Here are some suggestions to help with sleep:
Our bodies can experience trauma from a profound loss, which can definitely affect sleep. It might be helpful to try to get some exercise in during the day, whenever possible, even if it is just a walk around the block a few times.
Try to do some type of relaxation before bed, such as stretching, having a quiet cup of hot herbal tea, or even yoga. There are many good phone apps, such as Digipill, that specifically help with relaxation.
Stop engaging with electronic devices, including television, at least one hour before you go to sleep. Also, if you are reading, do that somewhere other than your bed. When you get tired enough, then you can move into your room. Sometimes people say that reading keeps them up, especially if it is work related. If this is the case, adult coloring books can work really well.
Keep a Grief Journal, if that works for you, next to your bed. If you find yourself not sleeping because you are having feelings and thinking about Reggie, see if sitting up and writing in the journal for a bit helps. Sometimes, putting our thoughts on paper gives them less power and control.
If a routine isn't working, do something different. It is okay to try many different things until you find one that works. So, if aroma therapy isn't helping, use a different scent or stop it completely.
Most importantly, be kind and gentle with yourself. Sleep is the number one thing affected by grief. Know that you are grieving, this is normal, and that you will get through this.
3. Doug Symons, a clinical psychologist who's studied pet bereavement, says:
There are two literatures on pet bereavement rooted in attachment theory. [Ed. note: Attachment theory explains how people handle interpersonal relationships when they feel hurt, become separated from their loved ones, perceive threats to their relationships or manage distress in general.]
The first comes from research on pet attachment security, which essentially says the relationships we have with our pets can be structured in the same way as those with other human attachment figures, such as mother, father, intimate partner and best friend. The researchers who have done much of this work argue that pets can meet many of the same needs as other attachment figures.
The second has to do with pet loss. Attachment theory proposes that depression and complicated grief can arise in response to the loss of attachment figures, and the same thing can happen in response to the loss of a pet. [Ed. note: Complicated grief is that which impairs normal functioning beyond a six-month bereavement period.] Our own research found that attachment anxiety towards a pet relationship in fact was related to symptoms of complicated grief towards the loss. There are additional factors to this relationship, [such as] how important the pet relationship is to the person and whether the person has experienced other losses. In our study, we did not find differences between cat owners and dog owners, or between different circumstances of death (e.g., sudden, tragic, predictable from old age).
So how does all this relate to sleep? Complicated grief can be related to a form of depression, and one of the symptoms of depression is sleep disruption. This could be through ruminative thinking about the loss in the night. If you google symptoms of complicated grief, there are some examples of ruminative thinking such as guilt, bitterness, and non-acceptance. Finally, whereas we have attachment relationships with pets, we also have another one — that of a caregiver, as we meet the needs of pets. Your vignette reflects this very well.
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Please note that the information provided in this article is not intended to replace professional help. If sleep issues are causing you mental or physical distress, or inhibiting your ability to function in any way, reach out to a doctor, therapist or other licensed health provider.
Vulfpeck, an LA-based funk jam-band, is currently traveling around the world on a mostly sold-out tour. But, while the band is becoming known for their distinct sound, it was actually the sounds of silence that first put Vulfpeck on the map: In 2014, the quartet uploaded an album called "Sleepify" to Spotify. It featured 10 entirely silent tracks, cheekily titled "Z" through "Zzzzzzzzzz."
Fans streamed "Sleepify" enough times — primarily during the night — to fund a free tour. Spotify, however, wasn't quite so charmed by Vulfpeck's subversive take on bedtime music. The streaming service ended up pulling the album (but not before Vulfpeck exposed a loophole in Spotify's royalties model).
Since releasing the "most silent album ever recorded," Vulfpeck has returned to their roots in audible noise. Their third album, "Mr. Finish Line," is set to be released in November. Does the band ever play "Sleepify" when they need shuteye assistance? Nope, but Jack Stratton, the keyboardist and drummer, has a few tips for nodding off — although he's not sure they're worth following. "I'm not a great sleeper, so don't take my advice," Stratton told Van Winkle's. "But I am a good musician, so people value my opinion on any subject for no reason."
Stratton says that using the "calm" iPhone app, which requires keeping a bedtime gratitude journal, has helped him a lot with sleep. He also credits his diet for nights of solid rest, explaining that "becoming a regular bean eater (regularbeaneater.com) has stabilized my sleep more than any blackout curtain could."
And, when it comes to his bedtime playlist, Stratton prefers not to mix artists. Instead, he listens to the collected works of Claude Debussy, the French impressionist composer. "This album is fully mind blowing," said Stratton. "It's Debussy playing into a highly advanced player piano, and they re-recorded it recently so you can actually hear Debussy playing in high fidelity."
Check out the classical album that's become Stratton's sleep soundtrack, here:
Dogs live in about 36 percent of American households. And, of the dog-owning population, almost 65 percent of people consider their canine companions to be part of the family. While experts in the human and animal medical communities tend to discourage sharing beds with furry family members, limited evidence suggests that many pet-owners — perhaps about half — do it anyway. And the truth is, we don't really know much about the way pets-in-bed affects human sleep. But a new study, courtesy of the Mayo Clinic, offers some insight into the way four-legged bedfellows affect their owners' sleep, and vice versa.
The study involved 40 female, middle-aged pet owners and their dogs. Participating humans all slept with one dog (and no more) in the bedroom, but not necessarily in the bed. Participating dogs, who had to be at least six months old, represented a wide variety of breeds. Researchers collected seven nights of sleep data from both canines and humans by strapping activity-tracking bracelets on their wrists. Human participants also kept sleep diaries in which they recorded information about their bedtimes, use of sleep meds, sleep quality and bed partners, as well as where their dogs dozed.
Humans got the highest-quality and longest nights of sleep when their dogs slept in their bedrooms, as opposed to in their beds or somewhere else in the house. Dogs slept like babes pups their owners' beds, no matter where they curled up or how many human bed-partners they had. The data, per the study, "suggest that a single adult dog in the bedroom may not markedly disrupt sleep."
This is the first study, to the best of researchers' knowledge, to provide objective data about the sleep impact of sharing a bedroom with a dog. In the future, expanded research should include pets other than dogs and owners who drift off alongside multiple pets. But the findings still provide a much-needed glimpse into a very common and poorly understood practice.
As a different group of researchers wrote earlier this year, in a paper lamenting the exclusion of animals from the co-sleeping conversation: "Given that sleep accounts for a large portion of human and animal life, and that interspecies co-sleeping impacts humans, animals, interpersonal relations, and interspecies relations," researchers wrote, "there is an urgent need for researchers to truly contemplate “who’s been sleeping in your bed?”'
Good sleep habits correspond to academic success. The link between hitting the sack and scoring A's bears out in grade school, graduate school and everywhere in between. This general trend shouldn’t be surprising, given that the well-rested display a host of skills and behavioral tendencies relevant to classroom domination. Compared to sleep-starved people, they exhibit faster reaction times, sharper recollection, heightened focusing abilities and a higher threshold for working under stress. Here are seven interesting takeaways from research on students young and old(er).
1. For little kids, a little more sleep helps
A new McGill University study showed that kids age seven to 11 who increased their nightly rest by 18 minutes (on average) for five nights showed considerable improvements on their report cards. Why would seven-year-olds be underslept (given that they have few or no responsibilities and externally imposed bedtimes)? Well, even fun-sized humans undergo lifestyle changes. One 2014 study identified kindergarten as a sleep-health turning point. Kindergarten, and the loss of napping that comes with it, corresponded to less overall weekday sleep and earlier weekday bedtimes, particularly for kids who hadn’t gone to preschool. (Hey universal preschool.)
2. Snoring sets students back
A lot of research on younger students’ sleep concerns Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). The condition, marked by shallow breathing and resultant snoring, results in less, more-fragmented sleep. Children who have obesity and live in low-income households are at a considerably heightened risk for sleep-breathing disorders. And they tend to fare poorly in school, both during primary school and afterwards. Going back to 2001, a study found that 13-and-14-year-olds who struggled in school were more likely to have snored when they were younger. By extension, kids from lower-income families fall behind in school. Seems fair.
3. Early(ish) bedtimes yield higher GPAs
A large population survey in Norway showed that teens age 15 to 19 who went to bed between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. had the highest GPAs. Getting too little sleep increased students’ odds of having GPAs in the lowest quartile. It’s easy to use these sorts of findings to admonish teens for staying up too late. But teens are naturally night owls, at least according to the leading research. Because their circadian clocks are shifted, adolescents have an especially hard time keeping early hours.
4. Experts really, really support later school start times
The campaign for later school start times is heavily rooted in the misalignment between teens' biological clocks and their externally imposed schedules. The big idea? Let kids learn when they're best-equipped to soak up and retain knowledge. Not to mention, forcing teenage night owls to rise at dawn robs them of Zzzs that set them up for academic success, support their cognitive and emotional development and protect their mental and physical health. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that schools start no earlier than 8:30am. And, in general, experts are all in on pushing back start times.
The benefits of later start times aren't confined to teens: According to a recent report from the RAND Corporation, delaying the morning bell would save the US about $9 billion a year. These projected economic gains are primarily due to the impact of improved academic performance on future earnings and the reduction in car accidents caused by tired teens.
Researchers speculated that device use only further threw off teens’ circadian rhythms. Weird bodies, bad habits, can’t win.
But, despite the strong case for later start times, only about 15 percent of public schools across the country actually kick off the school day at or after 8:30, based on a 2016 survey of US principals. Why? Schools claim that postponing start times is too logistically difficult and expensive. And a study from The University of Michigan found that only about half of parents support later start times. But there are plenty of impassioned people involved in the campaign, so don't expect the conversation to fade into the background anytime soon.
5. Body clocks and bad habits are a dangerous pair
A number of studies have linked Delayed Sleep Phase (a preference for keeping especially late hours) to lower academic performance, but in several instances, researchers found another factor underlying the link. In one case, that factor was school attendance — students with DSP did worse in school, perhaps because they missed a lot of it. Would they show up if first period started later? Advocates for bumping back first period would probably say yes.
In other cases, research says low grades have more to do with teens' habits than their wonky bodies. The big culprits: Caffeine consumption and late-night electronic use. All other factors aside, coffee drinkers and bedtime Snapchatters got less sleep and lower grades in one 2015 study. Even students who said they used TV and music for the express purpose of falling asleep carried out the trend. Researchers speculated that device use only further threw off teens’ circadian rhythms. Weird bodies, bad habits, can’t win.
6. Sleeping efficiently helps students score well
We can assess sleep using a number of measures. One such measure is sleep efficiency, the proportion of time in bed that people actually spend sleeping. (To calculate sleep efficiency, divide hours in bed by hours slept.) In one 2015 Italian study, sleep efficiency emerged as a key predictor of exam grades for students in their final year of high school. Researchers did not find a significant relationship between exam grades and other sleep measures, including total duration of sleep (amount of sleep logged, efficiency notwithstanding) and sleep midpoint (also called mid-sleep time). Here’s the formula for calculating sleep midpoint:
Take the average number of hours you sleep each night and divide that number in half. Add that number to your average bedtime on free days (meaning days on which work or school do not define your schedule). That’s your midpoint. So, if I sleep seven hours, and I go to bed at midnight, my midpoint is: 3:30 a.m. (that's 3.5 + 12).
7. Med school students are hard to predict
But MDs-in-training still perform better when they have healthy sleep habits. One study from Munich found a link between sleep duration and final-exam performance. But, so long as students got enough sleep, they fared okay. Neither chronotype (i.e., morning lark or evening owl) nor self-reported sleep quality appeared to affect students’ scores.
Another study on Sudanese med students found a significant difference in duration and quality of sleep between excellent and merely satisfactory students. On average, snoring afflicted nine percent of the gunners, who averaged seven hours of sleep each night. By comparison, 28 percent of the hangers-on snored, and they only logged 6.3 hours of rest each night.
And a third study (med student sleep is well-documented) found, somewhat counter-intuitively, that “it is not the generally poor sleepers who perform worse in the medical board exams.” Students who slept poorly immediately before taking exams (during study periods) were most likely to choke, but those who struggled with sleep over the course of the semester still managed to crush it.
This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated since then.
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