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How much sleep is enough?

Tony Alter

Getting a good night's sleep is easier for some people than others. But research has shown it's essential for everyone. Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show Take Care, recently spoke with Dr. Orfeu Buxton, a neuroscientist and sleep researcher from Harvard, about the health issues a lack of sleep can cause.

Lorraine Rapp: Can you tell us what role does sleep play in our overall health?

Dr. Orfeu Buxton: Sleep is a tremendous source of restoration; a time for growth and repair, and also one of psychological and physiologic resilience. It allows us to recover, and it allows us to be ready for the next day.

Lorraine Rapp: What are the short and long term consequences of being sleep deprived, because so many people are not getting enough sleep, or the quality and quantity of sleep that they need.

Buxton: In the short term, just after a night or two of not enough sleep, sleepiness obviously increases, our mood changes, we have difficulty concentrating. All aspects of memory formation, consolidation and processing are attenuated. Our appetite increases and our food preferences change to those that are less healthy choices. Our energy levels drops, among many other things. In the long term, and depending on the degree of sleep deficiency, can result in further degraded cognitive performance, a yet further worsening of mood and essentially all hormones in the body become imbalanced or altered by sleep restriction. Spontaneous pain increases, immune system suppression kicks in. And then my primary research area is on metabolism. We find that glucose metabolism is altered in ways that increase obesity and diabetes risk.

Linda Lowen: What is considered normal, or healthy, sleep for optimal functioning in midlife?

Buxton: Well our amount of sleep that we need changes across our life, obviously. Younger kids, with growing brains and bodies, need a lot more sleep. Infants may need well over twelve hours in a day. As we get to adulthood though, we arrive at our number. Sleep is very individual; different people need different amounts. And so, whatever your number is—you can tell what that is. If you pay off your sleep debt and get plenty of extra sleep for a few weeks, you’ll arrive at a number that’s about how much you’ll need, and that number of hours of sleep that you get really doesn’t change a lot. It goes down slightly through midlife, and as we get older. You can tell if you’re getting enough sleep by going to sleep and getting up at about the same time each day without an alarm clock, and if you feel refreshed, that’s enough sleep for you.

Lorraine Rapp: Can you make up lost sleep on weekends?

Buxton: Catching up on the weekend is possible. The metric I would use is try not to dig too deep a hole. So, if you have this as a lifestyle, you go for a month and then want to catch up on a weekend, you can see that as probably not working out too well. Another way to think of it is if you want to manage your weight, would you say “well I don’t want to get more than ten or fifteen pounds over the weight I want to be and then I’ll just lose it.” That doesn’t ring as a very solid strategy to most people, and I think the same idea would work for sleep. Try not to dig too deep a hole.

That was neuroscientist Orfeo Buxton speaking with Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen. More of this interview can be heard on Take Care, WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.