Are these uncertain times keeping you up? The solution might be personal.

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You might want a story on quick tips for a good night’s sleep. On how to stop dwelling about this uneasy 2020 and make up for the nights ruined by those damned fireworks.

This is not that story. 

And, in a way, no stories are that story, says Lichuan Ye, an associate professor of nursing at Northeastern who studies health and sleep disorders.

Other than common methods for better sleep, such as reducing screen time in bed or avoiding large meals late at night, Ye doesn’t share tips for improved sleep.

Portrait of Lichuan Ye

Lichuan Ye is an associate professor of nursing in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Giving such advice is oddly difficult, she says, because there isn’t a single, all-encompassing remedy to help everyone relax and get a good night’s sleep. 

“A yoga practitioner might say that the best way to control anxieties is through yoga and meditation,” Ye says. “For someone who loves reading, it might be quiet reading time.”

Instead, each person should address their own circumstances, and accept that there are certain kinds of anxieties that will be harder to address, she says.

“Most times we forget that we should give compassion to ourselves,” Ye says, adding that her anxieties and frustrations initially came from juggling different aspects of her work with things that are now out of her control, such as helping her two children with remote learning. “Once I found myself being able to accept the fact that none of this is ideal, mentally, I was able to adjust.”

In recent years, Ye has been working to promote health through better sleep and management of sleep disorders. She focuses on helping hospital patients sleep better.

“People joke and say, ‘if you come to the hospital, you are not coming for a good night’s sleep,’” she says. “But one of the biggest complaints patients have is that they don’t get sleep—and sleep is so important for healing.”

The effect of sleep deprivation on our bodies is profound. It affects our immunity, our cardiovascular system, our metabolism, and other important physiological processes that our bodies need to function. In other words, Ye says, sleep is an essential necessity for life—right up there with food. 

“Usually, you could see that animals can die with complete sleep deprivation, even in a shorter time compared to complete starving,” Ye says, referring to early studies conducted by sleep scientists. 

The biomechanisms that our bodies turn on when we go to sleep also depend on the circadian rhythm, the natural cycle the body follows during a 24-hour period. Often called the body’s internal sleep and wake clock, the circadian rhythm can be seriously disrupted not just by how we sleep, but also when we sleep. And that can influence our body temperature, our blood pressure, our digestion, and hormones, Ye says. 

“Mechanism-wise, we are trying to tackle why that happens in our bodies, and why it contributes to different health consequences.”

That’s why Ye says many of us should think twice before taking a daytime nap to compensate for the lost hours of sleep at night. Because the sleeping schedule changes, we would still be disrupting the body’s internal clock, which means disturbing other biomechanisms within. 

Napping for over 30 minutes might be necessary for you. But Ye says taking longer naps, or napping later in the day, goes against the recommendations.

The duration of a person’s sleep also varies. And the time it will take for someone to experience the detrimental health consequences of sleep deprivation depends on how severe the deprivation is, Ye says, along with the age and other health conditions. 

“If you ask me to sleep only between zero to three hours per night, maybe I will faint or I will collapse in a couple of days,” Ye says. “If I sleep for four or five hours, it might be less extreme, but still less than my ideal sleep duration. And you could see the chronic negative consequences on my health, such as hypertension, maybe after three months.” 

Studies suggest that prolonged sleep deprivation is linked to depression and anxiety, as well as such conditions as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Studies also have linked poor sleep with chronic inflammation, which has serious implications for the entire body. 

Still, what constitutes a good night isn’t an easy question to answer. For that, scientists need to consider the baseline status of a person’s sleeping patterns to fully understand the severity of sleep loss, Ye says.

“A lot of things, when we get down to the individual, are also based on genetics,” she says, adding that her son always needed much less sleep compared to her daughter and other children. 

Even more uncertainties come to light when you start to factor in other unique characteristics of a person. Culture is one of those wildcards, Ye says. She grew up in Chongqing, in southwest China, where naps are the norm. 

“As a school-aged child,” she says. “We were forced to nap.” 

That means an entire culture of sleeping habits being surrounded by, and adapting to, a particular way of life.

“My friends in China take a lunch break, and some people have the habit to take a nap that can go for at least or more than one hour,” Ye says. “I just laugh and say, ‘oh, that’s against the recommendation.’” 

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