According to a recent study, getting enough sleep each night may be as easy as believing you got enough. Although the biological effects of believing in having enough sleep were not discussed in the study, the results clearly illustrate a marked improvement in cognitive functioning due solely to a placebo effect.
Sleeping is Believing
The authors of the study make it clear that the placebo effect can be found working its magic in all aspects of life and health, including getting enough sleep. This study, however, is the first that shows a clear placebo effect influencing the cognition of participants in a sleep experiment.
The overall study was split into two studies involving 164 participants. The participants were required to report their previous night’s sleep quality. Researchers then secretly and randomly assigned an additional sleep quality to each person. Each participant was told their sleep was of “above average,” or “below average,” quality. Some participants were placed into a control group instead.
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Those in the “above average” group were told they received more than enough sleep with 28.7% of their sleep time spent in the regenerative state of REM sleep. The “below average” group was told they did not receive enough regenerative sleep with only 16.2% of their time in REM sleep. Interestingly, the assigned sleep quality, rather than the perceived sleep quality, had a major influence on the cognitive functions of participants, even after accounting for experimental variables and the control group.
According to the researchers,
Assigned sleep quality but not self-reported sleep quality significantly predicted participants’ scores on the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test and Controlled Oral Word Association Task. Assigned sleep quality did not predict participants’ scores on the Digit Span task, as expected, nor did it predict scores on the Symbol Digit Modalities Test, which was unexpected. The control conditions showed that the findings were not due to demand characteristics from the experimental protocol.
This study is a clear example of how incredibly powerful of an effect our mindsets have on our lives. The placebo effect is well documented in humans. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, 1 out of 3 people are greatly affected by placebo. The opposite of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect. Instead of feeling better, the nocebo effect makes people experience negative symptoms despite no biological or psychological changes taking place within them.
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News that the placebo effect can be used to impact whether we get enough sleep or not is especially welcome in light of another recent study linking sleep and cancer. According to the study, a fragmented and/or inadequate amount of sleep accelerates cancer growth.
When Sleeping is Cancerous
Although the results were seen in mice, the observed effects of fragmented sleep on cancer growth were so strong as to be alarming.
According to the study published in the journal Cancer Research on January 21, 2014, fragmented sleep negatively impacts the immune system, leading to alterations in the way it deal with cancerous tumors. The director of the study David Gozal, MD, chairman of pediatrics at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital explained that,
It’s not the tumor, it’s the immune system. Fragmented sleep changes how the immune system deals with cancer in ways that make the disease more aggressive.
Multiple types of tumors in mice with fragmented sleep were found to be more than twice as large as tumors in mice sleeping without interruption. Not only were the tumors larger, they were also more aggressive.
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It’s of the utmost importance that we get enough sleep. I know the first study might sound like a loophole to sleeping, but unless you are a 19 year old athlete, convincing ourselves we’ve had enough sleep the previous night can only work for so long. At some point we need to give our bodies and minds the sleep coma they deserve.
How Much Sleep is Enough Sleep?
The answer to “are we getting enough sleep” varies with age, health, genes, and a whole other assortment of differences. However, a simple answer is provided by the National Sleep Foundation.
The key to getting enough sleep is to experiment and figure out how many hours you actually need. So many of us sleep too little, or too much, without being aware of how we feel when we wake up. Keep a sleep diary. Record when you lay down to go to sleep and when you wake up. Try to vary the amounts to get a better idea of what works best for you. Record how you feel as well, including emotions, wakefulness, and mood. After a month, look back at your sleep diary and figure out the magic number that will give you just enough sleep.
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It would also be a good idea to try to time your sleep in 90 minute to 120 minute intervals. The reason for this is that sleep consists of 4 major stages that repeat every 90 -120 minutes. There is a natural rhythm to our sleep, and the key to getting enough sleep while still feeling revitalized is mastering that rhythm. Ever notice how sometimes you wake up feeling like Tyler Durden ready to seize the day, while other mornings you feel like torching existence for forcing you out of your slumber? On the bad days it’s likely you were woken up in the middle of deep sleep (stage 3), and on the good days you likely woke up after REM (stage 4) and at the beginning of stage 1.
I’ve been experimenting with sleep for over a decade. Most of the time my optimal amount of sleep is between 7 hours and 38 minutes and 7 hours and 44 minutes. Any more or any less and I’m at least a bit grumpy. My girlfriend on the other hand needs at least 9 hours to feel refreshed and ready for the day. Keep in mind that everyone is different.
Experiment with yourself, and remember to be always growing.
Rapid Eye Movement Sleep: Regulation and Function