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6 takeaways: Answering your questions about the good, bad and ugly side of sleep

What are the latest advances in sleep research? On Thursday, "St. Louis on the Air" tackles the subject.
Jon Huss | Flickr
What are the latest advances in sleep research? On Thursday, "St. Louis on the Air" tackles the subject.

Love it, hate it, don’t get enough of it — we can all agree that a healthy relationship with sleep is integral to a successful life.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the latest in sleep research and answered your questions about sleep with Paul Shaw, an associate professor of neuroscience with Washington University’s School of Medicine.

Shaw’s research focuses on fruit flies and using sleep to aid flies in recovering from illnesses that mimic the issues humans face, like Alzheimer’s. He’s found that sleep has restorative power and is able to heal what other medications cannot.

He also refers to himself as a “sleep evangelist.” We put him to the test with a barrage of questions about the latest findings about sleep, answering questions listeners asked us about the sleep issues they face. 

Here are the seven most interesting takeaways from the conversation:

1. How much sleep does a person really need?

“If you sleep and you wake up in the morning and you’re not tired and you can make it through the day without falling asleep: you’re getting enough sleep,” Shaw said. “Some people need more, some people need 7 or 8, but if you are tired when you wake up and you fall asleep watching TV, something is wrong.”

Paul Shaw, assistant professor of neuroscience with Washington University Medical School.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Paul Shaw, assistant professor of neuroscience with Washington University Medical School.

2. What happens if you consistently don’t get enough sleep?

“I tell my students, if you don’t get enough sleep you get ugly, stupid and fat,” Shaw said. “Your metabolism goes out of whack, you gain weight and crave high-fat foods and become pre-diabetic.  A little bit of sleep loss has negative impacts on metabolism, brain, etcetera, etcetera.”

3. What’s the difference between “light” and “deep” sleep?

“Deep sleep” is what happens when a person sleeps, undisrupted, for a prolonged period of time. You can tell you’re getting deep sleep when you wake up feeling restored. “Light sleep,” punctuated by tossing and turning is not as restorative as deep sleep. Those tosses and turns impact your ability to get to deep sleep stages.

As a person ages, it becomes harder and harder to achieve deep sleep. Here’s a little bit more explanation of such concepts.

4. If you’ve identified you are having trouble sleeping, how do you get better sleep?

Shaw advocates for what he calls practicing good “sleep hygiene.” That means going to bed at the same time every night, eradicating light from the room you’re sleeping in (especially alarm clocks), not drinking coffee in the late afternoon and staying away from alcoholic beverages right before sleep.

“If you’re stressed out and you think a little bit of scotch will help you, it’s not, it will help you go to sleep faster but it will disrupt your sleep,” Shaw said.

If you continually have problems sleeping, Shaw recommends going to a sleep doctors. Your general practitioner can recommend one to you. The most common sleeping disorder that Shaw sees diagnosed is sleep apnea, a disorder where a person’s airways close while sleeping. That means the person wakes up ever 10-15 seconds gasping for air, impacting the heart and cardiovascular, and leaving the person badly rested.

5. Is napping good for you?

A large amount of data suggests that, yes, napping can be good for you, Shaw said. The key is to nap in the right amount, about 30 minutes at a time. Any more than that can result in dysphoria that leaves you feeling bewildered instead of refreshed after a nap.

6. Is melatonin helpful in aiding sleep?

No, said Shaw, though he admits that this is his personal opinion and a view not shared by some other physicians. The problem, as he sees it, is that melatonin doses and qualities you’d pick up at a normal drug store are inconsistent and often not the purest strength available.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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