Sleep Health | Sleep Review
UArizona News spoke to Dr. Sairam Parthasarathy, professor at the university or the Arizona Department of Medicine and a member of the university’s BIO5 institute, on the state of sleep health today and how UArizona researchers are contributing to a future of better sleep.
Parthasarathy is the Medical Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and the Director of the UArizona Health Sciences Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences.
Q: How are Americans asleep today?
A: Today’s research into insomnia and sleep apnea began decades ago, and since then both diseases have become increasingly common. Now pandemic fear is mounting and as a result there is a new term – “coronasomnia” – for the inability to sleep caused by pandemic stress. Sleep apnea is also on the rise, as people are more likely to gain weight from not eating right and being more sedentary in the past year.
Q: Why is good sleep so important?
A: Sleep apnea (a disorder where breathing stops and starts repeatedly while you sleep) increases blood pressure and increases your risk of heart attack and stroke by two to three times. One thing our lab does is try to get people to stick to CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) use. We are testing what is known as peer-driven intervention, in which patients with sleep apnea who stick to CPAP therapy share their experiences with people who do not participate in CPAP therapy. The peer-to-peer support encourages them to stick to CPAP therapy and ultimately both patients experience significant improvements in health-related quality of life over the course of their interactions.
Insomnia can also lead to inflammation, which increases the risk of heart attacks. Dr. Daniel Taylor of the UArizona Department of Psychology and I are part of a group of five universities funded with a $ 5 million grant from the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to enroll rural insomnia patients. Potential insomnia participants receive recommendations for their sleep through a well-researched internet-based software program, SHUTi, which enables them to change their sleep patterns and other aspects of their sleep, thereby improving their insomnia. Alternatively, prospective participants can receive Ambien, which was prescribed by their doctor in this study, while others can receive both interventions. We are preparing to enroll participants and we want to work with family doctors to help rural residents with insomnia. The study aims to enroll over 2,000 students, making it one of the largest clinical studies on sleep research.
Sleep apnea and insomnia aside, sleep encompasses so many aspects of our health and affects every organ system and cell in the body. When your brain and body are asleep, your cells are in a different state than when they are awake. For example, skin cells multiply more at night than during the day. When my daughters say, “I need to get my beauty sleep,” there is actually science behind it. If the skin cells multiply during the day, the DNA can be damaged because it is exposed to a higher degree of inflammation and, under experimental conditions, can potentially lead to mutations and consequently to skin cancer. In order to protect these cells from such a cancerous transformation, it is conceivable that they multiply during sleep at night.
[RELATED: UA Awarded $1.4M Grant for Program that Supports Sleep Apnea Patients]
Q: What is the state of sleep research today?
A: Compared to other areas like cardiovascular or cancer research, sleep research is the new kid on the block. Sleep became a major area of research with sleep laboratories and clinics popping up across the county because people were interested in receiving treatments for sleep apnea and insomnia. We are still learning a lot about these two sleep disorders, but more questions have emerged. For example, we can now study what sleep is, how it works, what connections there are with circadian rhythms, and how the body reacts to sleep when we are awake.
Q: What is the University of Arizona doing to care for patients and research sleep?
A: The University of Arizona has two sleep centers that deal with many different aspects of sleep science. The Center for Insomnia at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, which has its clinical mission, sees patients with insomnia. The UArizona Health Sciences Center for Sleep and Day Sciences is handling the research mission.
Q: You are also studying how astronauts can sleep in the unique conditions of space. Why is that important?
A: Many people are interested in the effects of space travel on the human body. The International Space Station spins the globe every few hours, which means astronauts go through day and night cycles every few hours. Imagine what that does with your daily rhythm. During the missions to Mars, astronauts don’t even have light and darkness. You may just have one dark cycle. How will humanity fare? As long as you live on earth your body has a rhythm called the circadian rhythm, but once you leave the earth you are alone. We need to figure out what we can do to maintain sleep health and circadian rhythms for the long journey.
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