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Quick Checkup | What’s new on the health beat Summer stress can lead to sleeplessness

  • Published Monday, July 7, 2014, at 12 a.m.

Summer is supposed to be a carefree time of year, with long, sunny days and breezy, sit-on-the-front-porch evenings. Maybe not. In an online article in Prevention magazine, Shannon Rosenberg reports on a survey in which one-third of Americans described themselves as under more stress during summer than at any other time of year. Apparently, trying to have too much fun kept them up at night.

“People associate summer with recuperating and having more time on their hands,” Uli Gal-Oz, chief executive of SleepRate, a company based in California and Israel whose smartphone app offers help to the sleepless, says in the article. But, he says, “because the days are longer, people try to do more and sleep less.”

The online SleepRate survey found that nearly half of the respondents said summer social events kept them so busy that they lost sleep time. Many – 69 percent – said they often scheduled three social occasions a week in the summer.

And of course parents have added burdens, with summer interrupting school and day-care schedules, requiring ever more inventive planning. Hot weather can also affect sleep, with 80 percent saying they sleep better in cool weather. And don’t get us started on vacations that bring on jet lag.

Prevention passes on this advice from Gal-Oz: Settle on a regular morning wake-up time, seven days a week year-round, giving your body some consistency.

Placebo effect

The placebo effect – the idea that a treatment works because a patient believes it does – has long been a footnote to the work of finding ways to counteract disease. Some physicians have dismissed placebos as mere hokum, a trick of the mind. But researchers have found that in some people, placebos elicit similar responses in the brain to actual drug treatments. In one experiment, researchers using a PET scanner found that the brain activity in test subjects who received placebos and reported less pain mirrored that of those who received actual treatment for their pain.

As Erik Vance writes in “Why Nothing Works,” published in the July/August 2014 issue of Discover magazine, the work suggests we possess an “inner pharmacy” of some sort that, if harnessed correctly, could be used as a complement to traditional treatments.

But as Vance’s overview of recent research on the topic shows, it’s complicated. A placebo’s impact is not universal. Certain individuals – and certain conditions (pain and depression, for example) – seem to respond better than others to placebos. Researchers think that something in a person’s physiological makeup makes him more sensitive to placebos, while others feel little or no impact.

There are ethical considerations, too, since it’s considered wrong to mislead volunteers participating in a study. But there are ways to navigate this thicket. In one small study, researchers gave placebos to a group of people with irritable bowel syndrome – after telling them that the pills were just placebos; a second group received no treatment. Surprisingly, many more of those who received the placebos reported improvements in their symptoms than did people in the no-treatment group.

Patient, heal thyself? For some, it may be a real possibility.

Washington Post

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