This weekend’s change to daylight saving time means an extra hour of light in the evening. The shift is a milestone on the way to barbecues and beach trips, but adjusting to the loss of an hour’s sleep can be difficult, especially because so many of us don’t get enough rest in the first place.
Jeanne Duffy is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a sleep researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She took a break from a study exploring how sleep and metabolism interact — inadequate sleep has been tied to obesity and diabetes — to shed light on the growing body of research linking our sleep habits and our health, and to offer suggestions on the best way to bounce back from losing an hour when we “spring ahead.”
GAZETTE: I’ve heard health called a three-legged stool, with the first two legs being diet and exercise and the third being sleep. What has science shown us about the importance of getting adequate sleep?
DUFFY: We used to think that sleep just made you feel better mentally — you’re better able to pay attention or to focus. But as more and more research has been done on sleep, we now recognize that it’s important for many aspects of both physical health and mental health. And whether you have a sleep disorder or you’re not getting enough sleep because of lifestyle choices, a lack of sufficient quality sleep can eventually cause you to have medical problems. Insufficient sleep has even been shown to lead to psychological problems.
GAZETTE: Does a lack of sleep only make underlying conditions worse, or can it have direct health effects on its own, regardless of whether there’s an underlying condition?
DUFFY: There’s some evidence that lack of sleep may cause you to take longer to recover from a particular medical problem that you may already have. But there’s also a lot of evidence now that lack of sleep can directly cause certain medical conditions. For example, if you’re chronically not getting enough sleep or not getting quality sleep, that can lead to obesity and metabolic problems like diabetes. It can lead to cardiovascular disease. There are some sleep disorders that are very strongly related to people developing cardiac disorders, such as heart attacks or strokes. And getting inadequate sleep makes your immune system less efficient. So if you’re exposed to a virus, you’re more likely to catch that virus, to catch a cold or the flu.