Powerful Medicine

To sleep perchance to restore

Headshot of Heidi Moawad
Heidi Moawad

When Heidi Moawad, MD, was a medical resident working 80- to 90-hour weeks, sleep deprivation was a constant. She learned to live with it, but she doesn’t think it’s ideal or healthy for students—or anyone else—to sacrifice sleep in pursuit of a goal.

Now a clinical assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Moawad (CWR ’91, MED ’95), also teaches a SAGES undergraduate course called “The Biology of Sleep and Dreams.”

She stays current on the latest sleep research—and has a front-row seat on student sleeping habits and what most intrigues them about this daily ritual.

“Unless there’s a serious underlying disease, a lot of treatment for sleep issues is around lifestyle,” Moawad said. “It’s something we’ve all suspected, but now science is really proving that getting enough rest is something you need to strive (for) rather than pushing through on not enough sleep.”

But she encourages anyone who tosses and turns for hours not to stress about it. “Just resting your body is beneficial,” Moawad said. “Let yourself chill in the dark; let your mind wander.”

What’s most heartening for Moawad is that her students seem to be prioritizing their sleep more these days. “I noticed a sharp and sudden change after COVID arrived, where students have become more aware of their health and healthy lifestyles,” she said.

Perhaps in classic CWRU fashion, “they know exactly how many minutes they’re in each phase of sleep each night,” she said. And one of their most popular research topics is the relationship between sleep and performance.

“Student athletes, for example, are interested in whether it’s better to sacrifice sleep to practice as much as possible,” Moawad said, “or if it’s better to practice a little less so they can get more rest.” The short answer: It depends, she said.

An illustration of a woman dreaming by the sea.IMAGE: ISTOCK.COM/AXLLLL

CWRU’s Heidi Moawad encourages students to maintain good sleep habits— but not obsess. Otherwise, they might get what Northwestern University researchers relatively recently dubbed, “orthosomnia,” that is, a perfectionist’s quest to achieve perfect sleep.