Alarm Clock

Mental Health Benefits of Sleep – Not Equally Distributed

I came across this article about an MIT study on the benefits of some extra sleep that had a bit of a surprising result:

Subjectively, getting more sleep seems to provide big benefits: Many people find it gives them increased energy, emotional control, and an improved sense of well-being. But a new study co-authored by MIT economists complicates this picture, suggesting that more sleep, by itself, isn’t necessarily sufficient to bring about those kinds of appealing improvements.

The study is based on a distinctive field experiment of low-income workers in Chennai, India, where the researchers studied residents at home during their normal everyday routines — and managed to increase participants’ sleep by about half an hour per night, a very substantial gain. And yet, sleeping more at night did not improve people’s work productivity, earnings, financial choices, sense of well-being, or even their blood pressure. The only thing it did, apparently, was to lower the number of hours they worked.

The interesting thing about this study was that it was conducted on a population we don’t typically get a lot of studies on, those living in poverty. What the researchers discovered was that getting a little extra sleep at night wasn’t really providing much benefit. (Though they did see a benefit to those who could take a nap during the day.) As they dug into the details of the lives of their subjects, they discovered many of them with less-than-ideal conditions at home for sleeping. Noisy neighborhoods, oppressive heat, crowded with multiple people into small sleeping areas, etc.

They began to wonder if it’s not enough to simply get a little extra sleep, but to get better quality sleep, something that is not easy to do when your environment doesn’t provide the conditions to do that.

You can read the details at the link but I find it interesting for two reasons.

  1. The results underscore the fact that much of our research in the US, and other countries, is done at universities and thus often uses the subjects that are available, college students. That can sometimes lead to conclusions that are valid for that population, but not necessarily everyone. I’m glad to see that this study targeted a population that wouldn’t normally get included in a sleep study.
  2. We can clearly see the impact of the environment and living conditions on the results. It’s tempting to tell people struggling with anxiety to get more sleep, eat healthier, and get more exercise, but have we addressed the conditions that make simple changes like that harder for some people? In this case, a little more sleep that is disturbed and not restorative doesn’t help. What is needed are better conditions for restorative sleep. Similar to the need for affordable and available local healthy food options, safe public areas to get that exercise, etc.

It’s an easy copout for the mental health community to suggest self-care items that will help with mental health without acknowledging the reality for many. Telling people to do things like create more space for sleep, or make healthier food choices while still not making a wage that would pay for those things is just mean. What we do as a society matters when it comes to the mental health of all of our members. We can’t hide from that fact.

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