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Massage Today
December, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 12

The Importance of Sleep

By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT

Let's be honest, when was the last time you heard someone say, "I got such a good night's sleep. I feel so energetic and refreshed!"? In my opinion, we should not even need to tell each other we are tired.

I believe we have reached the point where being tired is considered normal. When we consider the implications of this fact, we should all be frightened. Missing a couple of hours of sleep here and there throughout the month is nothing to worry about, as long as we make up those hours in the future.

What is happening, and what is cause for alarm, is what researchers call "chronic sleep restriction" or "chronic partial sleep deprivation." These terms refer to people consistently getting less than seven hours of sleep per night, and people suffering from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or insomnia. The fact that these conditions have become so normal is what makes it hard for people to recognize that sleep may be impacting their lives in a negative way. According to the Institute of Medicine, 50-70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. There also is a relationship between long-term cumulative effects of sleep deprivation and increased risk for hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and stroke. Especially for practitioners who devote their careers to the wellness of others, it is important to educate yourself on the role sleep plays on your physical and emotional well-being.

couple sleeping - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Sleep scientists could agree that children might have it right when it comes to the typical response to bedtime: "Why do we have to go to bed? I don't want to go to sleep." The truth is, no one can explain why we need sleep and what exactly sleep does to us. We know that it is necessary for people to function - a human being can go longer without food than it can without sleep - but research has yet to explain exactly what the purpose of sleep is. The field of sleep research is relatively new but even in the short time it has been around it has proven that without sleep, we suffer physically, emotionally and mentally. Some recent studies are shedding new light on what the brain might be doing while we are sleeping. Unlike previous assumptions that sleep is a time for the brain to rest and recover, it appears that the brain is very much active during sleep.

A small group of neuroscientists have been researching the effect of sleep on learning and memory in both animals and humans. Their findings support the theory that sleep plays an important role in helping someone remember new information, from learning new words to mastering a back flip. An article in The New York Times discusses how REM sleep (rapid eye movement), also known as "deep sleep," seems to improve pattern recognition, and the memorization of facts.

On the flip side of this is what scientists are learning about stage two sleep, which usually occurs as people are coming out of deep sleep early in the morning. Dr. Carlyle Smith of Trent University in Canada has found a strong association between improved learning of motor skills and the amount of stage two sleep a person gets. For example, musicians struggling with a particular piece of music performed it better when they were allowed uninterrupted stage two sleep (not waking up earlier than normal). Based on these findings, Dr. Smith believes it is more beneficial to stay up late practicing and sleep in the following morning, when trying to learn motor skills; which, unfortunately, contradicts the training schedule of most sports programs that have athletes rising early to practice.

As massage therapists, this means that when taking continuing education courses or practicing on clients for your licensure exam, you will better remember techniques if you practice in the evening and get a good night's rest the following day, rather than if you were to get up early to start practicing. Likewise, if you have a client who is a musician, designer or athlete that mentions they are struggling with a gross or fine motor skill, sharing this information with them might help them out.

Now that we are beginning to understand the role sleep might play in learning and memory, what can we do about it if we are sleep deprived? I think the first step is to try and get more sleep in your life, whether that is sleeping more at night or adding a nap. I know it is hard with our hectic schedules to guarantee seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but it is truly worth it. Not only will it help your capacity to learn, but it will also diminish your risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression, among other things. It will also improve your technique and give you more energy to see more clients or do something fun during the day. On its website, The National Sleep Foundation has a "white paper" on the ten best things one can do to improve sleep. I have combined and paraphrased these tips for you below. Please feel free to consult the website for all ten tips, as well as any more information you are interested in regarding sleep and sleep disorders. I hope you find this information as useful as I did. Sweet Dreams!

Maintain A Regular Schedule

If you struggle with falling asleep at night or getting up in the morning, one of the most beneficial changes you can make is to wake up at a consistent time every day, regardless of what day it is. Sleeping-in on days off is one of the worst things one can do to help with sleep issues. Our sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a "circadian clock" in our brain and the body's need to balance both sleep time and awake time. A regular waking time in the morning strengthens the circadian function and can help with sleep onset at night.

Create A Sleep-Conducive Environment

One of the most universal indicators for alertness is the presence of light. Adjustments in light have an immediate effect on circadian rhythms, so diminishing the amount of light around you at bedtime naturally induces a more sleepy state. Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep - cool, quiet, dark, comfortable and free of interruptions. Use your bedroom for only sleep and sex. The stimulating effects of TVs and computers in the bedroom hinder sleepiness. Make sure you have a mattress and pillows that are comfortable. If you have a sleeping partner whose sleep needs differ from yours, work together to create an environment that is as conducive as possible to your differing needs. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, ear plugs, "white noise," humidifiers, fans and other devices.

Avoid Alcohol, Nicotine, Caffeine And Eating Close To Bedtime

Contrary to popular belief, alcohol actually disrupts your natural sleep patterns. Nicotine and caffeine are both stimulants, which means they make you feel alert. Obviously, this does not help when trying to fall asleep, so refrain from nicotine and caffeine use three to five hours before bedtime. People who are especially sensitive to caffeine can feel the effects for 12 hours after ingesting it, so if you are one of those people, beware of caffeine! Eating and drinking close to bedtime can cause excessive nightime urination, which disrupts sleep. It can also cause heartburn, gas or physical discomfort, so it is best not to eat a substantial amount of food within two hours of going to sleep.


  1. Institute of Medicine. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation. Washington: National Academies, 2006, 4-5.
  2. Principles and Implications of Sleep Medicine: Paul McCracken Bourdillon, Global Scholars Project, 4/23/2009.
  3. The New York Times, October 23, 2007. "An Active, Purposeful Machine That Comes Out at Night to Play" By Benedict Carey
  4. The New York Times, October 23, 2007. "An Active, Purposeful Machine That Comes Out at Night to Play" By Benedict Carey
  5. Healthy Sleep Tips. National Sleep Foundation,
  6. Principles and Implications of Sleep Medicine: Paul McCracken Bourdillon, Global Scholars Project, 4/23/2009.

Click here for more information about Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT.


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