Why Don’t Black People Talk About Sleep Health?

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How often do you take your sleep into account when thinking about your health? Conversations about sleep health aren’t typical dinner discussions among Black people, but they should be. Sleep is a vital component to a person’s well-being, and it can be affected by so much of your surroundings. 

The narrative around the importance of sleep in the Black community is almost nonexistent, but the disparities are loud and clear.

According to recent studies, Black people have shown disproportionately higher rates of sleep disorders than any other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. These disorders include sleep apnea, insomnia, more light and less deep sleep, delayed onset, more daytime sleepiness, shorter sleep duration and many others. 

Unfortunately, the disparities are also in the numbers. Experts say a lack of diversity in clinical trials makes it hard to come up with macro-level solutions to solve the disparities in sleep health.

Sleep has never been something that has come easily to Black people. Historical and environmental factors like racism, structural biases, and living conditions have drastic impacts on sleep quality, but the conversation needs reshaping. 

This starts with learning not only about the importance of sleep for overall health but also leveraging technology to effectively track and monitor your sleep. By monitoring various sleep metrics such as REM cycles and deep sleep stages, individuals can better understand their own patterns and make informed adjustments.

NewsOne sat down with Dr. Ivor Horn, Google’s Chief Health Equity Officer (and Spelman College alum), to discuss the importance of sleep health, racial disparities, and how the intersection of technology can guide us in creating better sleep habits and living a healthier life. She also talked about the importance of tracking your sleep and how utilizing tech like the Pixel Watch 2 can give you a deeper understanding of sleep impacts on your overall health. With features like Sleep Data, Sleep Insights, Sleep Stages and Sleep Score, users can spot irregularities in their sleep patterns and facilitate discussions with healthcare providers to enhance sleep quality and overall wellness.

Check out the interview below:

Shot of a young couple cuddling while sleeping in bed together at home

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NewsOne: Studies have shown that Black people have disproportionately higher rates of sleep disorders. What do you believe are the reasons for these disparities?

Dr. Ivor Horn: There are so many reasons. There are historical reasons and there are environmental factors that play into this as well. So, when you think about, particularly for the black community, when we look at where we live, the environments that we live in, the air quality; because here in the US, when we think about where black and brown communities were allowed to live because of redlining, we also know that the things that were built in those areas: the noise pollution, the air pollution, light pollution, impacts sleep.

We also know that for black and brown communities, and black people in particular, when we think about the impact of racism and structural racism and structural biases, those are something that leads to ongoing chronic stressors.

Those things add up, and it leads to something called weathering. Our bodies go into a fight-or-flight response.

That fight-or-flight response ultimately leads to us having increased elevated blood pressure, as elevated blood pressures lead to the release of hormones like cortisol, which leads to an increased risk of diabetes.

And so all of those factors play into how we connect between our lived experience, the lives and the things that we experience every day, to how that leads to chronic conditions.

We also have these things called sleep extremes. So we’re either getting not enough sleep or we’re getting too much sleep. And both of those can have negative impacts on our health outcomes.

Sleep health isn’t something regularly talked about in Black families. Or even known for that matter. Why do you think that is and why is sleep so important?

We don’t talk about this very much, but we don’t realize how important sleep is to health. Sleep is a part of understanding, getting enough sleep, getting enough quality sleep in making sure that because our bodies need time to rest and recover, and if our bodies don’t have time to rest and recover, then we don’t have that time to recycle and say, “okay, my body’s ready for the next day.” And when we don’t do that, that leads to consequences on our health and our health outcomes.

When doing my research for this interview I noticed a disparity in sleep studies, in both diagnosis and treatment, related to Black people. What are some contributing factors to this and how do we get better data on Black people and sleep?

Yeah, I think it’s so important. We’ve sort of made these assumptions in our community. It’s like, “oh, man, they’re snoring. They’re getting some good sleep.” Well, actually, that’s not good sleep. It means that there’s something that’s not going well.

And so it’s really important for us to begin to reshape the narrative around sleep. It’s like, you know, in the past, there was this expectation that black people needed less sleep. Well, we know that that’s not true. So all of these things come into play, and I think now we know and we have the ability to use technology to actually track our sleep more effectively.

We didn’t have things like a Pixel watch. We didn’t have these tools. I like to say these tools in our toolbox that better understand our sleep and to track our sleep. So, for me, I very much pay attention to my sleep cycles. I want to know and get insights about how am I sleeping. And not just how long am I sleeping, but how well am I sleeping, how much REM sleep do I get?

Rapid eye movement sleep is really important for dreaming and thinking, and the amount of time that we get for that matters. How much deep sleep are we getting? In the nighttime and those wakefulness moments, how fast we can go to sleep, how fast we get back to sleep. All of those things come into play in what adds up to a good night’s rest and an opportunity for your body to recover.

We didn’t have technology that would allow us to measure those things unless we were in some hospital or clinical setting where they had probes. But now we can do some of those things with our Pixel watch.

Talk about how your lifestyle can factor into your sleep quality. Do things such as diet, exercise and work schedules affect sleep quality?

I definitely pay attention to my sleep score that incorporates all of those things. I look at my profile, and I’m like, “oh, did I exercise today?” I didn’t sleep so well last night because I didn’t exercise yesterday. Or even things like, “oh, did I have a cup of coffee too late and did that impact my sleep?”

The ability for us to have that information and leverage those things and use those tools is really important for not just how you and I think about it, but one of the things that’s really great for me is I can put a watch on my mother in law, and she’ll gladly wear her watch, and I can better understand how she’s doing, you know, how she’s sleeping so that I can take better care of her and that generation, which is important to us as it relates to community.

How are you able to create positive habits and integrate them into your everyday life when it comes to doing something like tracking sleep?

I’m a physician by training, but I’m also a researcher, so I’m a little bit of a data geek when it comes to that. So for me, I recognize, as seasons of life come, that I wasn’t sleeping as well. I was really curious as to why and what things were contributing to my sleep. It was like it mattered to my mental health.

So I started paying attention to when I fell asleep getting a routine getting a time and a schedule, trying to stay on that schedule, looking at when I travel and how different time zones impacted my sleep. Then I started digging a little deeper.

And we know this from data, like, how cold or hot it is in a room matters, how much light comes into the room matters. And I discovered that light, like ambient light, really made a difference, because in those wakeful moments, if there was light, I stayed up, I was awake. So I ended up using an eye patch because it would get rid of those things. So I think it’s almost a little bit of a trial and error. Everyone gets to better understand themselves. But it also comes from having that information, because I’m wearing my watch and I’m like, “okay, I need to figure this out.”

I needed to understand because it’s impacting how I show up during the day and how I show up for people, how attentive I am.

Tell us about the Pixel Watch 2’s advanced sleep-monitoring features and how technology (if used properly) could help erase racial disparities in sleep health.

Android Ecosystem

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I’m a data geek, but what the watch does is it really streamlines the experience, and it makes it simple for not just you to get the information, but for you to understand and identify the important things that you need to know, and what is the impact of these things so that you can understand that. And then it connects it to the Fitbit app. So it’s connecting into those exercises and those other activities.

And this one is really important for folks like me who want that deeper insight into how my sleep is connected to my activities, how it’s connected to my mood and all of those things. So those are moments where I’m like, “okay, today was a stressful day.”

One of the new features that I think is really cool because it’s not something that I particularly thought about before, is now we have this feature that’s a skin temperature sensor. And we know that if you’re too hot or you’re too cold, that skin temperature sensor also gives you this idea of, like, how your skin temperature is doing, how the room is, how you’re feeling.

And that leads to more questions like did I have a rough night’s sleep because it was too hot or because I was too cold? Those are real opportunities to learn

There are a ton of features in this watch.

And like I said, I’m going to geek out on the watch and all the things that we do, but those are the things that are really important to begin to provide people with information and provide it in a way that makes it easier for people to understand.

It’s like, you can have a lot of stuff, but if it’s not presented in a way that I can understand, but also in a way the way that I can share it with my 80-something-year-old mother-in-law so she can understand it as well.

You’re a Spelman grad, we love giving flowers to our HBCU grads.

Aww, thank you very much!

If there was something you wish you knew about sleep as a college student what would that be?

Wow, that’s a tough one. I think what I wish I knew about sleep was the connection, the connection between sleeping and performance.

The importance of making sure that you got a good night’s sleep before you had an exam and making sure that, you know, it’s probably not a good idea to go out and hang out super late before you have a busy week.

And I think also, if I had known then what I know now, I probably would have had more conversations with my parents about sleep. It’s not just important for me, but important for them as well. 


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