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It's World Sleep Day. Co-founder Upstate’s Antonio Culebras, MD, says benefits of sleep not well understood

When it comes to sleep, Antonio Culebras, MD, says our grandmothers were right.  

“We remember our grandmothers telling us you have to sleep well so you can grow healthy and tall,” said Culebras, an Upstate professor of neurology and sleep medicine specialist. “It is absolutely true.”  
However, the benefits of sleep and the best practices for quality sleep are not well understood in our society, especially in the United States, due to a lack of awareness and education.   

That’s why Culebras and several other specialists from around the world created World Sleep Day in 2008. Scheduled this year for March 18, World Sleep Day aims to advocate for and raise awareness of just how important those Z’s are and to call attention to sleep disorders and treatments for them.  

Every living thing needs sleep and does sleep, even plants who can turn down their leaves at night.   

“There has been a bad philosophy surrounding sleep that it is a waste of time, and it is not,” Culebras said. “It is absolutely necessary to have a clear mind and a healthy body.” 

Sleep, which is generated by the brain, restores our physical and mental energies. Sleep deprivation impacts cognition, memory, attention, decision making and overall mental energy, and eventually impacts the body physically.  

During deep sleep, the first phase of sleep, the brain releases growth hormone, crucial to growth and development in children. Even after a person stops growing, growth hormone is responsible for healthy skin, teeth, hair, and organs. During REM sleep, when dreams occur, people consolidate memories.  

Studies have shown that subjects who are completely sleep-deprived for several nights can experience a swelling of their brains, loss of memory and poor judgement, among other side effects. 

Culebras said that he reviews research grants for the Department of Defense and that there is much interest in understanding the impacts of sleep deprivation, particularly as it relates to decision making, judgement and memory for soldiers who must make quick, life or death decisions.   

He said most adults should sleep seven to nine hours a night, and that sleep deprivation accumulates like a debt with interest to a bank, and it may take several nights sleep for a person to catch up. But many adults sacrifice sleep for work or screen time.  

“The only way to repay that debt is by sleeping,” he said. 

He said that other countries have programs that teach school children how to get good sleep and why it is so important. He calls it one of the three pillars of good health, along with a balanced diet and regular exercise. He said that while we teach children the first two pillars, we don’t impart the value of sleep, and we should.  

“We don’t have curriculum in school saying how to sleep,” he said. “They tell us how to eat, they tell us how to exercise, they tell us about history, but they never tell us or teach us how to sleep.”  

Beyond the true benefits of sleep, sleep disorders are also largely misunderstood. Culebras said 10 to 15 percent of the population suffers from sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. Your partner’s loud snores may not just be annoying, they could signal something deeper.   

People who suffer from sleep disorders may get enough hours of sleep, but they wake up not feeling rested because did not get quality sleep. Culebras said 80 percent of the patients he sees at the Sleep Center have sleep apnea. 

Culebras said people who are having difficulty sleeping at night or staying awake during the day should see their primary care provider, who may refer them to a specialist.  

“In the sleep program and clinic, we try to correct all the physical problems that affect nocturnal sleep so the person can have good quality sleep,” he said. “We may not cure, but we can alleviate and control many of the problems that affect sleep.” 

Additionally, the Covid pandemic has negatively impacted our collective sleep, Culebras said, whether people have suffered the physical toll of covid, which can impact the brain, or just the ebb and flow of constant worry.  

“When the brain doesn’t function well, sleep is disrupted. Many people had the psychological effects on top of the physical effects of covid,” he said. “So, it has been a major disruptive event in the sleep-wake cycles.” 

Short of diagnosing a sleep disorder, or navigating a pandemic, there are many ways to improve sleep quality. Culebras points to the Ten Commandments of Good Sleep. These include going to bed and waking up at the same time, limiting daytime naps to 20 minutes and avoiding caffeine (including soft drinks and chocolate), spicy, heavy, or sugary foods, alcohol, and exercise four to six hours before bed.  

In addition, to promote good sleep, use comfortable bedding, keep the room cool and well ventilated, block out noise and as much light as possible. And finally, use your bed only for sleep or sex. It’s not an office, workroom, movie theater or TV viewing venue.  

“Quite a few are common sense,” Culebras said,” but people don’t think about them.”  
On World Sleep Day March 18, Culebras and Dragos Manta, MD will present on insomnia, narcolepsy, REM sleep disorder, napping and shift work sleep at 1:30 p.m.  To join, visit: https://upstate.webex.com/meet/brisks