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Hrayr Attarian, MD, Addresses Common Sleep Myths

March 14, 2022

Humans need sleep to maintain a number of core physiological processes — in fact, we spend nearly one-third of our lives lying in bed. In observance of Sleep Awareness Week 2022, celebrated annually by the National Sleep Foundation, Hrayr Attarian, MD, busts some common myths about sleep. Attarian is a neurologist in the Sleep Division in the Ken & Ruth Davee Department of Neurology.

1. Do adults really need eight hours of sleep each night? 

No. Genetically determined sleep need is in a bell-shaped curve. The majority of adults need 7-7.5 hours. The range is 6-9 hours.

2. Can I catch up on sleep over the weekend?

In the short term, yes, but relying on "catch-up" sleep in the long term can lead to negative health consequences such as weight gain and associated illnesses.

3. I like to eat a big meal and then go to sleep; it feels great! Is this a healthful practice?

Not really. A short, 30-45 minute nap in the afternoon when our internal clocks undergo a minor dip in alertness is healthy. Eating a heavy meal before going to sleep is not. It increases risk of gastro-esophageal reflux.

4. My dreams tend to be really vivid — has modern science elaborated at all on the meaningfulness of dreams?

Dreams reflect our daily preoccupations and thoughts and synthesize them into imagery. They are the way our sleeping mind copes with our concerns. Of course, in people who have suffered trauma, dreams or nightmares can be sleep manifestation of those traumatic events.

5. My partner snores loudly; does this mean my partner is sleeping better than me?

No. Snoring does not mean they are sleeping better. Snoring can range from being insignificant symptom to being a harbinger of a serious medical condition called obstructive sleep apnea.

Finally, what is your sleep routine?

I sleep from 12:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. six days a week. On Thursdays, I get up at 6:30 a.m. because of departmental meetings. I only nap one day a week for about an hour.

Are there any findings from at any point in your career that surprised you about sleep?

I am surprised every day. I love what I do. I have been practicing for almost 23 years and learn new things about sleep every day. One of the most important things I have learned is that usually sleep textbook descriptions of certain disorders only apply to a narrow segment of the population. Other ethnicities or genders may have different symptomatology for the same conditions.

What area of study is considered the next frontier of sleep science?

Sleep and circadian rhythms and their relation to aging, as well as finding ways to optimize sleep and circadian rhythms to mitigate cognitive decline and promote healthy aging.

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