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Sleep science

Who is most at risk of insomnia?

It’s funny how a lot of people that have insomnia feel like they are very unique. They think there might not be a lot of people that understand what they’re going through. But the reality is in clinic I see so many different types of people. From entrepreneurs to doctors, nurses, surgeons, and all sorts of different medical people. From teachers and security guards to mums, dads, and different family members. It doesn’t matter who you are, how healthy you are, how good you are at meditation, or how fit you are – it does not matter. We still can get plagued by sleep problems… Even astronauts can have disrupted sleep!

What I learnt from working with NASA

The reason I mention astronauts is because part of my experience was in chronobiology. Chronobiology is the timing and genetics of sleep. When I worked at Harvard Medical School as a circadian technician we did sleep research for NASA. They wanted to understand how an astronaut might adapt their natural sleep/wake cycle e.g., to a Mars day which is longer than an Earth day. This research taught me that manipulating our sleep/wake cycle is all to do with timings and things that influence your natural chronobiology or circadian rhythms. That is, any kind of process that changes over a 24-hour period. As it has a 24-hour pattern to it we found it quite hard to manipulate the circadian rhythm to allow us to live on a Mars day. Though this was a long time ago so research has progressed since.

But it raises an interesting point. A lot of us who specialized in different fields of sleep medicine and went on to be insomnia specialists have studied chronobiology quite a bit. By understanding genetics and that certain things influence the timing of sleep, you’re one step closer to manipulating or shifting it e.g., onto a different time pattern or time zone. It was particularly hard for the astronauts with the Mars day, but that’s because we were dealing with a completely different cycle. On this planet have our own earth cycles which are about 24 hours or a little bit less in most people. We’ve got much more research in understanding how to manipulate our circadian rhythms and what can influence them. For example, light and melatonin are two key things that can help your circadian rhythm shift to where it’s supposed to be. That kind of knowledge is very helpful as I see lots of different types of insomnia patients and people with circadian rhythm disorders (problems with the timings of their sleep) as well.