Torbjörn Åkerstedt

Torbjörn Åkerstedt is a professor at the Karolinska Institute and the Stress Research Institute, where he is also part of a research group focusing on stress, sleep and recovery, and especially on the role of sleep in fatigue control.

This includes preventive measures such as stress management, sleep counseling and alertness measures. Torbjörn’s research areas are mainly; sleep regulation, stress and sleep, sleep quality, working hours and health, sleepiness and safety, and the nature of sleepiness.

Torbjörn is also deputy director of the Stockholm Stress Center.

Questions and answers on sleep and sleeping problems

Do we need to sleep?
– Yes.

Why do we need to sleep?
– Because that´s when the biological recovery of the brain in particular occurs.

What kind of recovery is going on?
– The brain’s fuel supply is filled up, memory is consolidated and unnecessary memory is cleared. Undesirable byproducts from the brain’s energy metabolism are eliminated. Emotional balance is restored.

How long should you sleep?
– That´s individual, but a target point is 8.5 hours for 20-year-olds and 6 hours for 60-year-olds. However, there is some individual variation.

Is it dangerous to sleep poorly?
– A little, but if you get 5-6 hours of sleep, it’s enough for most people.

Is it dangerous to not sleep at all?
– Yes, our functional ability decreases dramatically after just a day or two, and in the long run, the consequences are serious.

Do we know if we sleep too little or too poorly?
-No, often we don´t. A person who sleeps poorly generally overestimates the problems. because the poor sleep makes us lose the ability to properly assess our sleep.

In most cases you sleep more than you think. As long as you´re reasonably energetic during the day, you probably get the sleep you need.

Is the sleep pattern hereditary?
– Yes, to a large extent, but it´s also affected by our life style and health.

Which part of sleep is most important?
– Deep sleep (N3) – it seems to contain the most recovery, but REM sleep (dream sleep) has begun to be considered important for memory and emotional balance.

Is sleep before midnight the most important?
– No, it’s the first half of sleep that’s most important. In the past, it occurred before midnight. Now bedtime has been considerably delayed.

Can you become crazy from not dreaming?
– No, it’s an old prejudice.

Do women sleep worse than men?
– No, not objectively speaking. However, women report more sleep disturbances. One explanation might be that men do not notice that they sleep as poorly as they do.

Do you sleep worse with old age?
– Yes, somewhat worse, but it seems that the need for sleep decreases, so older (healthy) people seem to get the sleep they need.

Do we get more tired the older we get?
– No, quite the opposite. The most tired of all adults are the 20-year-olds. The most alert are those around 60-70 years old.

What disturbs sleep the most?
– Stress and anxiety, then deviant working hours, and then the sleeping environment (noise, children, dogs, snoring people).

Why is snoring a problem?
– Because you wake up when your breathing passages are blocked and that fragments sleep, giving you a high amount of daytime sleepiness. In the long term, breathing disorders during sleep may lead to high blood pressure and multiple metabolic diseases.

Why do we snore?
– Because of relaxation during sleep. It causes the respiratory tract to collapse somewhat. If you then have narrow breathing paths, you can easily start to snore. Obesity, a large root of the tongue, excessive tissue in the palate, are causes to the respiratory tract becoming more severe.

The same goes for alcohol and tranquilizers, which both provide relaxation.

What measures can you take to sleep better?
– Black, cold and quiet bedroom. Physical activity, regular sleep times and avoiding stress (especially at night) are other important measures, as well as avoiding nicotine and alcohol.

What kind of treatment is there?
– Standard treatment is sleep hygiene (see question 18) or sedatives. The first choice, however, is cognitive behavioural science for insomnia, but the availability is relatively limited.

Do all animal species sleep?
– In principle, even single-cell organisms seem to have special rest periods that one, with a little good will, can call sleep.