Studying 'science of sleep' helps students build healthy habits

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Dec. 13, 2018

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How important is sleep? Students in Emory’s “Science of Sleep” class spent the semester analyzing research that suggests inadequate sleep may hinder their cognition and memory for finals, affect their mood and, over time, could create significant health problems.

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‘Tis the season for final exams, holiday parties, travel and all manner of food and drink — any one of which can play havoc on your sleep.

One group of Emory College of Arts and Sciences students is not likely to fall into the tired trap. Their class has spent the semester analyzing research that suggests inadequate sleep may hinder their cognition and memory for finals, affect their mood and, over time, could create significant health problems.

“The Science of Sleep” course is part of the Human Health program, which integrates Emory College’s liberal arts focus on critical thinking and evidence with the renowned research Emory is known for across the health sciences.

Sleep is often an aspect of health that students express the most surprise about in Health 100, the foundational course required of every first-year Emory College student.

“It’s definitely romanticized, that everyone at college is pulling all-nighters and getting all this work done,” says Emmerynn Wheelan, a senior human health major. “I tried that my first year and quickly realized it doesn’t work for me. I need my sleep to be able to function. It makes so much sense when you realize how active you are during sleep.”

Exactly why we sleep is unclear, says Amanda Freeman, a senior lecturer in human health who designed the course.

But there is little doubt to the power of missing it: fruit flies die within days without sleep. Rats die in a few weeks, faster than going without food.

“If you think food is key for health, that really drives an appreciation for sleep,” says Freeman, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on how the brain regulates sleep.

While sleep may be considered a time for rest, cellular functions in the brain and throughout the body continue to be active through the three stages of non-REM sleep — the time between falling asleep and deep sleep — and REM sleep. Cell repair occurs during sleep, as does the release of growth hormones during deep sleep, which strengthen the neural connections that aid in cognition.

All the biological processes that take advantage of sleep are not known, but research shows that the brain has an easier time flushing out proteins associated with degenerative diseases when you sleep.

And even short-term sleep deprivation can have lasting effects. Freeman points to one study that shows that just two nights getting four hours of sleep instead of the recommended eight translates into just 50 more calories burned while awake – and 550 more calories consumed.

“Most people are congratulatory that I always get eight hours of sleep, especially the week before a race, and maybe nine hours the night before,” says Egan Kattenberg, a sophomore human health major and member of Emory’s cross-country team.

“I always tried to have good sleep habits: dimming the lights before bed, reading or folding laundry, some kind of repetition that calms my brain down,” Kattenberg adds. “Now that I’ve taken the class, I know the importance of that schedule.”

Habits that promote sleeping well regularly are known as sleep hygiene. And the Emory Sleep Center, an interdisciplinary facility focused on sleep medicine, sees sleep hygiene issues so often that sometimes they are the sleep disorder in question, says Dr. Nancy Collop, the center’s director.

College, like the holidays, can be a time when people change their schedules, ignoring sleep in a bid to get more done, she says. Add in heavy food and alcohol that can fragment sleep and the importance of a schedule is clear.

“You want to preserve your sleep to deal with the stress,” says Collop, who is also a professor of medicine and neurology. “Whether you’re on vacation or working, your body wants a schedule.”

Because sleep occurs when you’re not paying attention to it is no excuse.

“If you think about it,” Freeman adds, “you would want to develop good habits for something you spend a third of your life doing.”