Special report: The science of sleep - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

Special report: The science of sleep


The average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep per night in order to be properly rested, according to data from the National Sleep Foundation.

But not getting an adequate amount of rest could have a greater impact on your health than just making you feel tired.

That's where the work of sleep researchers comes to play. They strive to diagnose and treat the more than 60 known sleep disorders ranging from insomnia and sleep apnea to restless leg syndrome.

"I think sleep is like a vital sign. It's just as important to assess how people are sleeping as their height, weight, blood pressure or their temperature," Dr. Ruth Benca told Newsline 9.

Benca oversees Wisconsin Sleep. That's the sleep clinic and laboratory associated with the University of Wisconsin--Madison.

"The UW sleep center is really considered to be one of the foremost sleep centers not just in the country, but in the world," Benca said.

Data for sleep researchers like Benca to analyze comes from one of the center's multiple rooms that look akin to a hybrid between luxury hotel and high tech hospital. The rooms bear the appearance of a hotel room, except they include tools like cameras and microphones to visually and audibly monitor a patient when asleep.

Included in the center's arsenal of tools to monitor sleep includes a rare instrument called high resolution EEG. It bears the appearance of a net of sensors engulfing a person's head, offering valuable insight on what's happening inside the patient's brain.

"We can put up to 256 channels of EEG over the surface of someone's head and basically what we do is take a picture of brain activity all night long," Benca said.

It's inside the brain where the journey to understand the science of sleep goes next.

"The fundamental question we are trying to address is exactly why we sleep. Why we need sleep," Dr. Chiara Cirelli said.

Cirelli is a native of Italy, who's resume on sleep research includes revelations her colleagues call "groundbreaking."

Speaking at the Wisconsin Sleep center in Madison, Cirelli offered insight into her research and professional pursuit in discovering the reasons people need sleep.

"The general idea is that when we are awake we are always learning something," Cirelli said. "We are always changing the connections among brain cells in our brain because that's the way we learn," she continued.

The brain is a complex organ that in very general terms holds things called neurons. Neurons connect with each other through a process called synapse, a process that takes place abundantly while we are awake in a changing environment.

"Learning occurs through what we call synaptic strengthening, meaning the connections among the brain cells get stronger. That's how we learn," Cirelli said.

This is why researchers think sleep is good for the body, offering it the chance to "down regulate and downscale" the synaptic connections. Something that can only happen when we sleep.

Depriving your body and brain of adequate sleep has consequences that become apparent often.

For instance, in 2000 researchers from the University of South Wales in Australia published findings that linked being awake more than 17 hours to a sizable drop in response time. The drop was greater than that of another group being studied that had consumed alcohol.

According to the study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, people awake between 17 and 19 hours without sleeping performed "equivalent or worse" than subjects with a blood alcohol content level of 0.05%.

Notable historic events have also been linked to sleep issues. In 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board cited sleep deprivation as a factor in the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The spill dumped millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska during the spring of 1989.

According to the NTSB safety recommendation dated Sept. 18, 1990, the third mate involved "could have had as little as 5 or 6 hours of sleep in the previous 24 hours."

Last year researchers with the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom published the findings of their study revealing people getting inadequate sleep for just one week were altering genes inside the body.

In the study, inadequate sleep was defined as getting less than six hours of sleep per night for one week.

The genes being altered numbered more than 700 including ones lined "to controlling inflammation, immunity, and the response to stress."

Seeing a connection between sleep issues and health doesn't surprise medical professionals.

"If we don't get good sleep we're irritable, we can't concentrate as well. People who have sleep apnea are prone to other health care problems like strokes, heart attacks, high blood pressure," nurse practitioner Lynn Von Ruden said.

Von Ruden works with Marshfield Clinic in Wausau. Her professional speciality is in neurology through studying the brain. But says when people are having trouble sleeping, other organs besides the brain feel it.

"When we quit breathing when we're sleeping, our heart has to work harder and faster," Von Ruden said. That's a common side effect of sleep apnea.

Von Ruden says if people are experiencing sleep issues for more than a few months, they should seek medical council with their doctor.

But beyond pursuing a sleep study in a clinical setting there are other actions people can take to assist in sleeping. Many of them tie in with maintaining good general health.

Von Ruden says she advises her patients of what she calls "good sleep hygiene." That involves trying to arrange set bedtimes and making sleep a routine part of your day.

Health professionals say the food you eat can play a role in the quality and amount of sleep you get as well.

"The recommendation for a good night's sleep is to eat supper at least three hours before you got to bed," Theresa Murphy said.

Murphy is a registered dietitian working at Marshfield Clinic in Wausau.

Her suggestion for people experiencing sleep issues is to examine their diet. That involves avoiding foods with loads of sugar, especially in the hours leading up to when you go to bed.

"That can cause your blood sugar to go high, but then during the night it can plummet and that can wake you up," Murphy said.

Murphy says avoiding processed foods can be a helpful step, as can incorporating other foods into diet.  

Murphy cites foods like bananas, nuts, oatmeal, whole grain breads and milk in that category of foods that can help you getting some rest.

"Milk has an amino acid called tryptophan, that's a protein that induces our sleepy hormones in our brain," Murphy said.

Identifying sleep disorders and working to overcome their health impacts is a journey, and not one that can be fixed overnight. Yet seeking the medical attention sleep-related issues require can make a difference toward making a healthier and more rested individual.



Wisconsin Sleep: 608-232-3333 or 877-53-SLEEP, 6001 Research Park Blvd, Madison, WI, 53719. Website: http://www.wisconsinsleep.org/index.html

"Mini-Med School" from the University of Wisconsin-Madison: (Online video where sleep researchers discuss sleep-related studies). Website: https://videos.med.wisc.edu/videos/47966

Marshfield Clinic Sleep Medicine Center: 1-800-782-8581 ext. 1-6001, 1000 North Oak Ave, Marshfield, WI, 54449. Website: http://www3.marshfieldclinic.org/proxy///mc-ch-sleeplab.1.pdf

Center for Sleep and Consciousness, University of Wisconsin--Madison. Website: http://tononi.psychiatry.wisc.edu/index.php

Aspirus Regional Sleep Disorder Center: 715-847-2302 or 1-800-817-2363. 425 Pine Ridge Blvd, Wausau, WI, 54401. Website: http://www.aspirus.org/ourServices/index.cfm?catID=1&subCatID=13&pageID=308

The Sleep Wellness Institute, Inc.: 414-336-3000, 2356 South 102nd St., West Allis, WI, 53227. Website: http://www.sleepwellandlive.com/

St. Mary's Hospital Sleep Center: 608-258-5266. 2844 Index Rd., Fitchburg, WI, 53713. Website: http://www.stmarysmadison.com/Services/Pages/SleepCenter.aspx

Howard Young Medical Center, Ministry Health Care: 715-356-8411, Woodruff, WI. Website: http://ministryhealth.org/HYMC/News/HowardYoungMedicalCenterSleepLaboffersEEGservices.nws

Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center: 866-588-2264, 9500 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH, 44195. Website: http://my.clevelandclinic.org/neurological_institute/sleep-disorders-center/default.aspx

University Hospitals Case Medical Center Sleep Center: 216-844-1000, 11100 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH, 44106. Website: http://www.uhhospitals.org/case/services/sleep-center

National Sleep Foundation: Website: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/

American Sleep Foundation: http://www.sleepassociation.org/


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