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The Sleep Whisperer

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Interview with Dr. Allison Siebern, PHD

If anyone knows the importance of sleep, it is Dr. Allison Siebern, PHD. As an adjunct clinical assistant professor in sleep at the pioneering Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, it’s her business to know how and why we sleep or, more often, why we don’t. It’s her job to study and help treat sleep disorders but you won’t find Ambien in her office. “My expertise is in non-pharmacological treatments such as cognitive-behavioral treatment for insomnia,” she says, “and I am studying the impacts of various non-medication treatments for sleep health such as neurological focused acupuncture and biofeedback mechanisms as sleep modulators.”

Her interest in sleep began when she worked in animal research. “I became fascinated by the difference in nocturnal and diurnal biological clocks thanks to the animal subjects and have not stopped studying sleep science since,” she remembers. Her 15 years of experience is now at the forefront of what many are saying is a sleep revolution. We, as a wellness-obsessed culture, have turned our attention to sleep. A good night’s sleep is the white whale of our generation and Dr. Siebern is our Captain Ahab. To help us all achieve the goal of quality shut eye, she brought her expertise to Proper, a new sleep wellness company, for whom she designed their unique sleep coaching program, a network that provides customers with individualized advice and one-on-one coaching to help improve both quantity and quality of sleep, no lab visit or clinical test required.

But before you can start to improve your sleep, it’s helpful to know exactly why sleep is important. “There are many physiological processes going on when the body is in a sleep state,” says Dr. Siebern. One of them is immune function - our bodies are able to fight inflammation and illness while we’re sleeping. There are mental benefits as well, she says. Memory storage takes place during sleep as well as a clearing out of a protein called beta-amyloid in our brain, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease if built-up.

It’s not just all physical either. Dr. Siebern notes that there is a “bidirectional relationship between sleep and mood” that has not been fully uncovered. “The old way of thinking was if someone had depression the objective was to focus on treating the depression and the sleep issue would resolve,” she says. “With current research, we now know that if someone has depression and insomnia that both should be treated because leaving one untreated puts the person at risk for the redevelopment of the other issue.” Anyone who’s pulled consecutive all-nighters or suffered from chronic insomnia knows the intimate relationship between your mood and sleep (or, more specifically, lack thereof).

In order for our bodies to get the most benefits from sleep, it’s recommended that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. There are four stages of sleep - from light sleep to deep REM sleep - in which our body temperature drops and our muscles relax. Ideally, we need to cycle through all four stages 4-6 times a night, says Dr. Siebern, with little to no periods of prolonged awakening.

The thing is that one third of American adults don’t get enough good sleep, according to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So if sleep is so important to how we function, why do so many people find it difficult? There are a variety of factors at play according to Dr. Siebern, but a big one is stress. “High levels of stress can disrupt sleep because the body goes into high sympathetic activation mode for survival,” she says, meaning that when stress is high, it’s harder for both our bodies and brains to calm down enough to sleep.

You may feel like you can function without much sleep here and there, but chronic sleep deprivation has serious effects. There is increased irritability, depression, and anxiety associated with sleep deprivation as well as fewer emotional resources to deal with stress (something Dr. Siebern calls “emotional resilience”). There are physical health problems, too, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and decreased immune function.

“To be clear, being sleep deprived and having sleep disruption are two different issues,” she notes, but both can present serious challenges. Sleep deprivation means you’re actually allotting less time for sleep than you need, like if you stay up late working on a regular basis. Sleep disruption, on the other hand, is when you allow enough time for sleep but don’t end up sleeping the full time, like if you frequently wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep.

But anyone with sleep issues knows that getting enough sleep is not always as simple as just going to bed earlier. You can’t force yourself to go to sleep and telling yourself you need to fall asleep is just going to stress yourself out more. That’s where sleep hygiene comes into play - behaviors that can make it easier to fall asleep and stay that way through the night. You may have heard about sleep hygiene before - things like turning off your phone and not looking at screens before bed, getting blackout curtains to block light pollution, and dropping the temperature of your bedrooms your body can adjust to sleeping more easily. Understanding what sleep hygiene practices work for you takes a lot of trial and error and, for many people, can feel just as overwhelming as not getting enough sleep in the first place.

To help understand the individual nature of sleep and sleep hygiene, Dr. Siebern helped to create the sleep coaching program for Proper. Clients work one-on-one with a sleep expert to help develop a sleep hygiene program that works best for them. “Everyone’s situations and circumstances vary,” she says. “The client is the expert on their lives and the coach works with them to create a specific measurable, realistic action-oriented sleep action plan that is tailored to them.” It’s like having a personal trainer for your sleep - there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, but with individualized help, the coach can help develop a program that helps their client achieve their goals.

But just like no one becomes sleep deprived overnight, no one creates the perfect sleep routine in the blink of an eye. Like all things worthwhile, developing an effective sleep hygiene routine, and finally getting quality sleep, is a process - and one that Dr. Siebern is doing her best to bring to as many people as possible. It might not be as easy as counting sheep, but with a little help, you may be able to do it with your eyes closed.