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Interactive website helps fill education void on sleep

January 31, 2008

BOSTON, Mass. (Jan. 31, 2008) — Aristotle argued that sleep is the direct result of warm vapors rising from the stomach during digestion. Though modern sleep research eclipses the musings of the Greek philosopher, the public and many physicians remain trapped in a bygone age, ignorant of what constitutes healthy sleep as well as sleep deficits and disorders and the toll they take on society. In 2006, an Institute of Medicine committee called for a well-coordinated strategy to correct this problem.

Now, Harvard Medical School’s (HMS’s) Division of Sleep Medicine has launched a “Healthy Sleep” website in collaboration with WGBH Educational Foundation to help the general public understand sleep. Through videos, essays and interactive features, visitors learn about the science of sleep, why sleep matters, and how to get the sleep they need. The initial web pages will serve as a springboard for future modules, laying the foundation for more advanced topics such as sleep disorder specifics.

“The site presents information in layers, allowing individuals to explore sleep in as little or great depth as they wish,” says Stuart Quan, interim editor-in-chief of the site and a visiting professor in the Division of Sleep Medicine.

“Although sleep is a biological necessity, consuming about one-third of our lives, there’s little education about it, even during medical school,” says Steven Shea, who is editor of the first module of the site. Shea—an HMS Associate Professor in the Division of Sleep Medicine and Director of the Sleep Disorders Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital—adds, “Researchers have made some major discoveries about sleep over the last few decades and it’s important to bring these to the doctors and the public.”

Studies show, for example, that sleep deprivation interferes with immune function, metabolism and other key processes in ways that could trigger disease. Division of Sleep Medicine faculty present these connections and acknowledge where research is ongoing in video clips and essays. They also highlight some of the burdens society bears when individuals don’t get enough sleep. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown and the Exxon Valdez oil spill both occurred at night, when crews were working with little sleep, and drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes in the United States each year, according to an estimate by the National Highway Traffic Administration.

The experts also dispense advice to people suffering from sleep problems, including a video case study in which viewers can actually observe a doctor providing a successful strategy to overcome lifelong insomnia in a particular patient. Site visitors who suspect they have a sleeping disorder can take a survey to determine if they too should seek treatment.

Also included are cultural and historical perspectives on sleep, going as far back as Homer’s reference in the Odyssey to the segmented sleep pattern that was commonplace for centuries.

"Adequate sleep is important to our overall health, safety, and performance, just like diet and exercise. While medicine has many tools to help maintain health, people need to know what they can do for themselves," says Michael Twery, Ph.D., Director of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute's National Center on Sleep Disorders Research. "The Healthy Sleep Website developed by Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation makes an important contribution as a public resource that can help people understand why sleep is important, recognize sleep problems, and discuss sleep-related health problems with their physicians."

Funding for this website was provided by Cephalon, Sanofi-Aventis, Sepracor and Takeda Pharmaceuticals of North America. Strict editorial ethics and compliance standards, which can be found at, ensure that a ‘firewall’ is maintained between these funders and site content. A committee composed of experts from outside Harvard Medical School reviews all content to ensure that it is accurate and free of bias.

Written by Alyssa Kneller

Harvard Medical School has more than 7,500 full-time faculty working in 11 academic departments located at the School's Boston campus or in one of 47 hospital-based clinical departments at 17 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutes. Those affiliates include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Cambridge Health Alliance, Children's Hospital Boston, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Forsyth Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Joslin Diabetes Center, Judge Baker Children's Center, Immune Disease Institute, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital, Schepens Eye Research Institute, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, and VA Boston Healthcare System.

Related Links
Link to "Healthy Sleep" web site
Division of Sleep Medicine web site launch announcement
More information about the Sleep and Health Education Program

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