Better Sleep May Mean Longer Life

Better Sleep May Mean Longer Life
Research suggests that those who sleep well may have a survival advantage
By Dr. Edward R. Rosick

t is interesting to observe that, as we grow from childhood to adulthood, our perceptions of what we absolutely “need” in order to live become more complex. However, when we strip away all the assumed needs in our lives (such as cell phones, computers, and at least two cars), it turns out that we, like our children, have only four essential requirements for life: air, food, water, and . . . sleep.

That’s right, sleep. Most people will think of the first three almost automatically, but sleep? Actually, it’s pretty obvious when you think about it: just imagine trying to go without sleep for more than a few days straight (the known record under laboratory conditions is 11 days, with few ill effects). Your body would protest so strenuously that you would eventually . . . zzzzzz. So sleep must be essential for life.

Sleep Deprivation Can Be Dangerous

Fortunately, sleep deprivation for more than a few days is rare, but some occupations do require people to stay awake for an entire day or two at a stretch, e.g., medical students, physicians, police officers, firefighters, and military personnel. For such people, sleep deprivation could be more than just a nuisance, it could be deadly—not from the lack of sleep per se, but from the accidents it can cause. People who do not get adequate sleep (about 8 hours per night for most, although individual needs vary widely) typically experience impairment of concentration, reflexes, judgment, manual dexterity, and learning ability; they may also suffer from depressed mood and, in extreme cases, hallucinations and delusions.

Age-Related Insomnia May Be Related to Reduced Melatonin Levels

Growing older poses many challenges, one of which is getting a good night’s sleep. As we age, our sleep patterns change, and usually not for the better. In children and young adults, only about 5% of sleep is in the lightest, or stage 1, phase, when waking up is very easy. In people over the age of 50, that figure increases to 15%, and studies have also shown that 30% of people over 50 suffer from insomnia.1

In 30 elderly patients with
insomnia, melatonin decreased
sleep latency (the time it takes
to fall asleep) and
increased sleep efficiency.

No definite cause of this high incidence of insomnia has been discovered, although it’s thought that decreasing levels of melatonin (a hormone produced in the brain’s pineal gland), as well as an increase in certain stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, may play a significant role.

Good Sleep Correlates with Longer Life

Recent research by Dr. Mary Amanda Dew and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh has shown that getting a good night’s sleep may not just make you feel better in the morning, it may actually increase your lifespan.2 Dr. Dew based her work on studies showing that people who have sleeping difficulties suffer from more health problems and die earlier than people who sleep well. The new study followed 184 elderly adults who did not suffer any health problems that are known to affect sleep, over an average period of 12 years. During that time, the researchers recorded the subjects’ brain-wave patterns when they were in bed.

The results were striking: people who had a hard time falling asleep (taking longer than 30 minutes) were approximately twice as likely to die within the average 12-year follow-up period as people who fell asleep easily. In addition, people who had poor sleep efficiency (trouble in initiating and maintaining sleep) or who had either unusually high or low levels of REM sleep (rapid-eye-movement sleep, when dreams occur) also had an increased risk of dying during the study period.

Although the researchers did not produce any definitive answers on why aberrations in certain sleep parameters contribute to an early death, they did conclude by saying, “. . . one could hypothesize that interventions that optimize and/or protect sleep initiation and sleep quality in old age might not only add quality to life but prolong life as well.”

Melatonin Improves Sleep

As we age, our ability to fall asleep and sleep soundly decreases, and, as the Dew study shows, this could significantly affect our lifespan. It therefore seems prudent for people who suffer from insomnia to consider taking safe and natural sleep-enhancing supplements.

Rhodiola rosea can modulate the
body’s production of stress-related
hormones, as well as helping to
keep other hormones in a
state of equilibrium.

One such supplement that is already well known is melatonin. A recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study on 30 elderly patients with insomnia showed that 0.3 mg of melatonin given at bedtime significantly improved their sleep.1 Even more importantly, in light of the Dew study, melatonin decreased sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep, i.e., the period between full wakefulness and the first moment of sleep) and increased sleep efficiency. (For another benefit attributed to melatonin, see the sidebar “Melatonin May Reduce Stroke Damage” on page 6.)

Melatonin May Reduce Stroke Damage
Although much is known about the origin of strokes, we still know little, unfortunately, about how to prevent the irreversible damage to brain tissue that they produce. It’s now thought that some of this damage is due to the overproduction of oxidative free radicals, which are destructive to brain cells.

Scientists at the University of Hong Kong investigated the possibility that melatonin, which is a potent antioxidant, could protect the brain from stroke-induced damage—at least in rats—if given after a stroke (it was already known that melatonin did this if given before an artificially induced stroke).1 They surgically blocked the blood flow in the middle cerebral artery of anesthetized rats for 3 hours to mimic the effects of a stroke. They then injected either a melatonin solution or a saline solution (for the control rats) at various intervals after the artery was occluded. The results showed that when melatonin was given immediately after or within 2 hours of the onset of the “stroke,” the treated rats’ brains showed significantly less damage than those of the control rats.

It’s important, of course, to keep in mind that what works in rats may not work in humans. Nonetheless, the researchers concluded that melatonin may be an important cerebroprotective agent and that “. . . the possibility of high-risk patients, who are willing to keep melatonin pills or patches, being treated immediately with melatonin after any signs of stroke should be considered.”

  1. Pei Z et al. Administration of melatonin after onset of ischemia reduces the volume of cerebral infarction in a rat middle cerebral artery occlusion stroke model. Stroke 2003;34:770-5.

Rhodiola rosea—Nature’s Gift for Stressful Times

Acute illnesses, stress, anxiety, depression—the list of problems that can contribute to insomnia is long. For people who desire a supplement that can help them combat the stress of living in the fast-paced twenty-first century and perhaps help them sleep better, the answer could be in the form of a high-altitude herb called Rhodiola rosea.

Rhodiola rosea has been used for centuries as a traditional medicine in Asia and Europe. It is claimed to increase physical endurance and longevity, as well as to treat fatigue, depression, and even impotence.3 For the past 35 years, it has been extensively studied in Russia and Scandinavia, and multiple studies have shown that some of its traditional uses are based on scientific fact.

The positive effects of Rhodiola rosea are thought to be mediated by certain chemical compounds found in the herb’s roots. These compounds apparently account for its actions as an adaptogen, i.e., a substance that can help one maintain a healthy level of functioning despite significant amounts of stress. (For more on this, see the sidebar “What Is an Adaptogen?” on page 7.) Two recent studies have shown that R. rosea reduced general fatigue and increased perceptive and cognitive functioning when given to physicians or medical students who were under severe stress due to long hours or working multiple night shifts.4,5

What Is an Adaptogen?

Considerable research has shown that certain herbs, such as Rhodiola rosea, Korean ginseng, and Siberian ginseng, can be classified as adaptogens. An adaptogen is a substance that can enable one to react in a physiologically positive way to stressors, be they physical, mental, or emotional. The term was coined in 1947 by the Russian scientist Nikolai Lazarev, and in 1969, three specific criteria were adopted for this term. An adaptogen is a substance that:

  1. Produces a nonspecific response and should increase the resistance of an individual to a wide range of deleterious stimuli.
  2. Produces a normalizing response in an individual when subjected to physiological, emotional, or mental stressors.
  3. Is nontoxic and does not cause substantial changes in the physiological, mental, or emotional state in a nonstressed individual.

In short, an adaptogen is a substance that helps a person adapt in a more positive way to various stressors encountered in daily life, yet does not exert any overt changes when the person is not stressed. The way in which R. rosea and other herbs that meet the strict definition of an adaptogen are thought to work is through their ability to modulate the levels and activities of hormones and brain neurochemicals that affect everything from cardiac activity to pain perception to . . . you guessed it, sleep.1

  1. Brown RP et al. Rhodiola rosea: a phytomedicinal overview. J Am Botan Council 2002;56:40-52.

Can Rhodiola rosea Help Ease Sleep Problems?

The claims made for R. rosea may seem excessive to the scientifically knowledgeable. With some people touting its use for everything from headaches to cancer, it is prudent to wait until such claims are scientifically verified (or debunked) before using R. rosea for conditions that are not known to be helped by adaptogens.

Insomnia, however, is a condition for which an adaptogen such as R. rosea might conceivably be useful. Studies have shown that it can modulate the body’s production of stress-related hormones, as well as helping to keep other hormones in a state of equilibrium. Since other studies have shown that the elderly have higher nighttime levels of the stress-related hormones that may interfere with sleep, an adaptogen such as R. rosea might be useful in helping people to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.

We Should All Sleep Like Children

The last thing in the world a child worries about is sleep. As we grow into adulthood, however, getting a good night’s sleep is just one more thing that can put a burden on our already stressful lives. Fortunately, some of that stress can be eased by the use of R. rosea, a safe, nontoxic herb that can help us deal with life’s myriad stressors, and, in doing so, perhaps help us get a restful and healthy night’s sleep.


  1. Zhdanova IV et al. Melatonin treatment for age-related insomnia. J Clin Endo Metab 2001;86(10):4727-30.
  2. Dew MA et al. Healthy older adults’ sleep predicts all-cause mortality at 4 to 19 years of follow-up. Psychosomatic Med 2003;65: 63-73.
  3. Brown RP et al. Rhodiola rosea: a phytomedicinal overview. J Am Botan Council 2002;56: 40-52.
  4. Darbinyan V et al. Rhodiola rosea in stress-induced fatigue—a double-blind cross-over study of a standardized extract SHR-5 with a repeated low-dose regimen on the mental performance of healthy physicians during night duty. Phytomedicine 2000;7(5):365-71.
  5. Spasov AA et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of the stimulating and adaptogenic effect of Rhodiola rosea SHR-5 extract on the fatigue of students caused by stress during an examination period with a repeated low-dose regimen. Phytomedicine 2000;7(2):85-9.

Dr. Rosick is an attending physician and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Pennsylvania State University, where he specializes in preventive and alternative medicine. He also holds a master’s degree in healthcare administration.

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