sleep study

Sleep Study Stirs International Frenzy

Christine Spadola, Ph.D., who researches ways to improve health, recently looked at the intersection of healthy sleep and social justice. She did not expect that work to become catnip for global media.

But that’s what happened recently after the assistant professor in FAU’s Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work, published an article in the journal Sleep. Spadola and her co-authors studied more than 5,000 nights of data collected from wrist-worn accelerometers and sleep diaries, and found that alcohol and nicotine consumed within four hours before bedtime negatively impacted sleep. They did not find this association with caffeine. “And then the headlines were ‘It’s OK to drink coffee before bed,’” she says ruefully, adding that research suggests individual variation surrounding caffeine sensitivity and tolerance, which could account for the null caffeine findings.

But nuance often gets lost when a scientific study makes a splash in the mainstream media. The story was picked up by more than 850 media outlets around the world, on four continents.

Her next project, with Danielle Groton, Ph.D., also an assistant professor at FAU’s School of Social Work, is funded by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine Foundation. Spadola and Groton are developing an online learning module for social work students to educate their clients about sleep health.

“Poor sleep is an important factor in one’s overall mental health; research is beginning to suggest a causal relationship between inadequate sleep and the later development of mental health challenges,” she said, adding that people may lose sleep because they are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, but if someone is sleep-deprived, they may also be more likely to later develop anxiety and depression. Thus, sleep health can play an important role in mental health.

It might seem incongruous, but Spadola’s background is in counseling and social work, not medicine or public health. However, she said she feels a particular stake in a social justice approach to sleep. Individuals of low socioeconomic position are more likely to struggle with sleep, because of contributing factors like shift work, neighborhood noise or lights or chaotic lifestyles.

Awareness around the importance of adequate sleep for physical and mental health has risen in recent years, so that “we all know we should get enough sleep and eat well and exercise,” Spadola said. “But the behaviors that help us sleep well are a lot easier than eating well or exercising, in my opinion. Sleep is almost like a free healthcare clinic.”

Good habits to develop, she said, include following a regular sleep schedule, avoiding electronic devices for an hour before bed, and a relaxing pre-bedtime routine. Spadola said she is a big fan of nighttime yoga. In fact, she has studied the impact of a sleep hygiene and yoga intervention conducted in affordable housing communities, as well as perceptions of yoga and how to engage individuals with yoga. “If a neighborhood is too dangerous to go for a walk, a person can still do yoga inside. Some of our initial work was how to get the message out that yoga is for everyone, and that you don’t need to purchase $100 Lululemons.” But whether she’s talking about sleep or yoga or something else, she avoids lecturing. “The client you’re working with is the expert in their own life,” she said. “It is all about what they want to prioritize and what works for them.”

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