A lamp being turned off

q&a

July 1, 2015

Your Questions About Sleep, Answered

Photo by Kuzma/iStock

Americans live in a “chronically sleep-deprived society.” That's according to RAND's Wendy Troxel, an expert on sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees, calling sleep deprivation a “public health epidemic.”

Just how important is sleep? And how can you improve your sleep health? To answer such questions, Troxel, who recently completed an extensive study of sleep policies and programs in the U.S. military and appeared in National Geographic's Sleepless in America, hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session (AMA) on Reddit last week. Here's an edited selection.

Wendy Troxel

Photo by Pete Wilmoth/RAND Corporation

What are some of your big tips for better sleep?

Schedule a nightly wind-down routine before bed, something relaxing and in low-light conditions. Remove all technology from the bedroom and “disconnect” at least one hour before bedtime. Keep the bedroom for sleep and sex only. (Avoid engaging in other behaviors, such as work and watching TV.) Maintain a consistent wake-up time. This is even more important than the time you go to bed for ensuring a healthy night of sleep. That's because wake-up time helps set your biological clock.

I have difficulty waking up in the morning. I feel like that “extra 30 minutes” will make a difference. What can I do about this?

You're not alone. Waking up is difficult for a lot of us. If you're getting seven or eight hours of sleep per night, then getting more in the morning isn't going to make things any easier. Here's what will: When the alarm goes off, immediately throw your feet on the floor. This forces you to get the wake-up process going. It's like ripping a bandage off, instead of slowly, painfully peeling it away. Usually, by the time you get to the shower, the intense need to hit the snooze button is gone. But all this assumes you've gotten a reasonable amount of sleep.

There are famous examples of people who only needed a few hours of sleep per night. Is there a way to train ourselves to need less sleep?

If only! As a society, we suffer when we aspire to be like exceptional people who survived on little sleep. Research indicates that we think, behave, function, and feel better when we get adequate sleep.

What is the purpose of sleep?

This is truly the most elusive question in sleep research. We know that sleep is critical to our survival and every aspect of health and functioning. It's also a nearly universal phenomenon across species. But we still can't pinpoint a single reason why we do it. That's likely because sleep serves so many purposes.

The prevailing theories that I find most interesting focus on sleep's role in the body's recovery and rejuvenation, as well as in helping the brain clear out “debris” that builds up during the day. For instance, a paper in Science showed that, during sleep, the brain gets rid of amyloid beta, which is linked to Alzheimer's disease, even faster than during wakefulness.

As a sleep researcher, what challenges do you face?

There are many challenges to studying sleep, but it's so fascinating that it's worth it. I'm always struggling to study sleep as it actually occurs in people's real-life environments. For instance, much of my work involves studying sleep in couples. (The majority of adults share a bed with a partner.) This is interesting and exciting, but the data can be challenging to work with. It also involves intensive methodologies to ensure that I'm measuring people's typical sleep and that the measurement itself doesn't interfere with their sleep patterns.

My girlfriend likes to cuddle at night. She's like a space heater. It's making it difficult for me to sleep, but I want her to feel loved. What do I do?

When it comes to sleep, couples should discuss what is and is not working in an open, nonjudgmental way. Your girlfriend may enjoy the closeness of cuddling with you, but you're overheating. Maybe you can compromise. Spend some time cuddling while you're awake, then agree to “separate” when it's time for sleep.

My husband's snoring is so loud that I sometimes sleep on the couch. Is killing him for this reason a crime of passion?

I don't think that will hold up in court! But the snoring may be “killing” him by increasing his risk for major chronic health problems, such as heart disease. Snoring isn't just a nuisance for those awake to hear it. It's often a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder with many negative consequences, including increased risk for heart disease. I suggest encouraging your husband to see a doctor so that he can determine if apnea is the culprit.

Look out for more AMAs with RAND experts in the future.

Pete Wilmoth


This blog post was also published in Newsweek on July 3, 2015.