Education Matters

Q&A with a Sunnybrook sleep expert

A big Sunnybrook welcome to all the students who are joining us this September! Let’s face it – we know it’ll be hectic. But we’ll try to offer some tips to help you make it through your placement!

First up: Sleep.

We all know sleep is important. But seriously, how can we find the time? And, when we do get to bed, how can we be sure it’s a good sleep without interruptions?

We caught up with Dr. Andrew Lim, clinician scientist in the Division of Neurology and associate professor at the University of Toronto, who answered some of our questions about how to get more sleep and why we should make it a mission to do so.

How important is sleep for our ability to learn and function at school/work?

Sleep is critical to maintaining normal cognitive function and vigilance.  Studies have shown that in the context of sleep deprivation, physicians are more likely to make medical errors, and are more likely to be involved in car accidents on their way home from work. Similar findings with regard to errors and accidents have been found in other fields as well, from manufacturing to mining.

Getting the recommended 6-8 hours of sleep is hard sometimes when things get busy. Is it OK if I get just 4 hours per night? Why or not?

The average sleep need required for optimal cognitive performance is just under 8 hours of sleep per night, even in healthy college-age volunteers (although this varies from individual to individual, with some individuals needing as little as 6.5 hours and some needing as many as 10). Chronic partial sleep restriction to levels below this are associated with corresponding decreases in cognitive functioning.  Indeed, in some tests of attention, restriction of habitual 8-hour sleepers to 6 hours of sleep per night is associated with reductions in vigilance similar to 24 hours of acute total sleep deprivation.

I’m starting a career with shift work. Will I ever get used to it? Do you have any tips to help me adjust?

This depends on the shift schedule.  From a purely biological perspective, optimal shift schedules are those where workers work the same shifts (e.g. all nights) for long periods of time (e.g a week or more) before shifting to a new schedule (e.g. all evenings) for at least a week or more. Also, several days off should be allowed between changes to allow workers to habituate. Of course, what is biologically optimal may not always be achievable because of staffing needs and workers’ social and family commitments. In general, it is biologically optimal to keep the same sleep schedule on working and non-working days. So if you are on a run of night shifts, then on your off days continue to sleep during the day and be awake at night. Also, keeping carefully chosen exposure to light and darkness and regular mealtimes is helpful.  If you are ever concerned about your sleep or alertness or are having difficulty coping with shift work talk to your regular physician who may consider a referral to the sleep clinic here at Sunnybrook.

Sometimes I get nervous for the next day of work and so I wake up a lot in the night. Do you have any tips for coping with this?

Try and keep a regular sleep schedule and pre-sleep routine, and avoid too much exposure to light at night. Sleep in a quiet and dark room. Avoid alcohol or caffeine in the afternoon or night. If you wake up and are awake in bed for more than 15 minutes, get up, go to another room and read by dim light or listen to the radio until you feel sleepy enough to fall aback asleep. Then go back to bed.

Thank you, Dr. Lim!

About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.