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To Sleep, Perchance to dream

In The Woman's Book of Sleep, Professor Amy Wolfson brings cutting-edge research and practical tips to women-and men-of all ages.

By Patricia Moreis-Stiles '87

Amy R. WolfsonIn one of those peculiar ironies of life, I received a copy of The Woman's Book of Sleep on a morning that had started for me long before dawn. I had gotten up with one or the other of my two children-ages 3 years and 9 months-when finally, at 4 a.m., it seemed as if my day had already begun. Like many women, I often feel that I can't get enough sleep, so I was anxious to read this book-hoping, of course, to uncover the "real" secret to a good night's sleep.

The Woman's Book of Sleep; A Complete Resource Guide, was written by Amy R. Wolfson, associate professor of psychology and former director of the Women's Studies Concentration at Holy Cross. A member of the Sleep Research Society and the National Sleep Foundation, she is also the immediate past co-chair of the Women in Sleep and Rhythm Research of the Sleep Research Society.

In the book's introduction, Wolfson traces the evolution of women's health, which historically focused on maternal health as it related to childbearing. She notes that, in the past, it was not uncommon for medical research to exclude women from important clinical trials, leaving significant gaps in understanding their health issues. Then, in 1991, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a campaign to expand the involvement of women and minorities in clinical trials and initiated clinical research on women's mid-life health concerns- osteoporosis, menopause and hormone replacement therapy. Women's health today has become a national priority, and many women have finally become advocates for their own health needs.

After extensive research, Wolfson wrote her book with the hope that it would draw much needed attention to the important role that sleep plays in a woman's physical and mental health. 

"A number of years ago," Wolfson explains, "I became concerned that we needed to get the word out about the importance of sleep to our general well-being. Sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise throughout a women's life, but it is often overlooked by health-care providers and women themselves. I hope that the book will be a resource for women to assist them and their health-care providers in asking the right questions when their physical or mental health has been disrupted." 

Wolfson mentions three goals she wanted to accomplish in writing this book. First, that it would include cutting-edge research on the topic of women and sleep. Second, that it would provide practical tips for women on ways to improve their sleep habits. Third, and most important, that it would provide validation for millions of women who were concerned that their sleep disruptions were different from men.

Written in an engaging conversational tone, The Woman's Book of Sleep traces physiological experiences unique to women, including their menstrual cycle, pregnancy, child rearing and menopause, and highlights how each of these life stages can have a dramatic effect on a woman's sleep patterns. The book is unique in its style, in that it can be read cover to cover, or used as a resource to decipher the significant role that sleep plays in a woman's health. Readers will also enjoy the Sleep-Smart Strategies listed at the end of each chapter.

Although the book is written for women, in her foreword for the book, Kathryn A. Lee, professor of Family Health Care Nursing at the University of California, respectfully disagrees with such a notion. "What struck me most about this book, its contents, and the way in which it is written, is that it is definitely not just for women. Although women do suffer from sleep problems more often than men, men would also benefit greatly from the information contained in this book-not just to understand their mothers, wives, or daughters, but to understand their own personal sleep-related health."

The statistics related to women and sleep illustrate why Wolfson's book is long overdue. Eighty-six percent of working women complain of fatigue and exhaustion, and 64 percent report that they have trouble sleeping. Researchers have also found that women suffer from sleep disorders more than 1.5-to-2 times the rate of men.

If you're like me, you want to know two things about sleep: How much sleep should I get each day and how can I improve my sleep habits? According to sleep researchers, 7.5-to-8.4 hours of sleep per night is the optimal amount for the average adult. While eight hours is an average amount, sleep requirements vary from woman to woman and from one developmental stage to another. But Wolfson cautions that, while it is important to get the appropriate amount of sleep each day, the quality of sleep can be as important as the quantity. In addition, Wolfson warns against what she calls "binge sleeping," which may be defined as getting less than desired amounts of sleep during the week, then trying to "catch up" on weekends. Confessing that I am one of those people who looks forward to a few extra hours of sleep on weekend mornings, Wolfson chuckles. She points out that sleeping a little extra can be beneficial, but if you throw off your regular weekday routine by more than a few hours, this "binge sleeping" can alter your biological clock.

In response to the question, "How do I improve my sleep habits?" Wolfson offers a number of practical tips throughout her book that men and women can use to improve their sleep. Some of these tips include regular exercise, healthy eating, cutting caffeine and alcohol consumption, as well as developing a bedtime ritual that works best for you. 

Patricia Bizzell, chair of the College's English department, describes The Woman's Book of Sleep this way, "I think Amy Wolfson's book is important as much for the way it is written as for the important information it conveys about women and sleep. Wolfson has combined scholarly credibility, documenting every claim subtly but thoroughly, with an engaging approach to a more general audience, illustrated with personal anecdotes that would never be acceptable in an academic journal but that make the information that much more accessible to many women. She has, in short, given us a wonderful example of the new types of intellectual writing being generated by women's studies and other post-modern disciplines, in which the traditional academic discourse conventions can be blended with other, more personal modes of writing."

In addition to her book, Wolfson has published significant studies in other areas of sleep research and has received recognition as a national leader in the area of adolescent sleep patterns.

Her colleague, Mary A. Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University Medical School, says, "I have known Amy Wolfson for nearly a decade and have witnessed the flowering of her professional academic and research career. Her work on adolescent sleep patterns has been important, producing significant insights about the particular ways in which sleep puts young people at risk. Her independent research on sleep patterns in women has also been outstanding, and was, I am sure, at least part of the inspiration for her book."

Christine A. Marco, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Worcester State College says, "Although sleep is an extremely important topic, relatively few psychologists in the U.S. study sleep processes. Wolfson is at the cutting edge of research on sleep. Her work encompasses understanding the sleep needs of many different groups of people: children, adolescents and women. I think that Wolfson is an outstanding researcher, and that Holy Cross is fortunate to have such an active and distinguished researcher as a member of its faculty."

Amy and her brother, Adam, also a Ph.D., grew up in a close-knit family. Her mother, Judith Wolfson, now deceased, was a mental health administrator. Her father, Nicholas Wolfson, is a lawyer and a retired professor of law at the University of Connecticut. According to Wolfson, hers was an idyllic childhood. "My parents were very supportive of both my brother and me. They were very invested in us and provided us with the motivation to succeed in our lives."

She credits her parents with encouraging her to stand up for what she believed and to fight for her own ideas. She recounts a story about her mother, Judith, who, at one time, fought planned cuts in state mental health funding even though she was working at the time as an appointee of the governor of Connecticut who supported such cuts. Rather than backing down on her position, Judith Wolfson chose to resign. In 1998, Judith lost her battle with cancer at the age of 62. It is in her memory that the book is dedicated. 

Graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1982, Wolfson then moved to St.Louis where she completed her master's degree and Ph.D. at Washington University. It was there that she met husband, Andy Futterman, also an associate professor of psychology at Holy Cross. Together they have one son, Noah, age 10.

This spring Wolfson was one of four faculty members to receive the Arthur J. O'Leary Faculty Recognition Award, presented in recognition of their outstanding work and special contribution to Holy Cross through their teaching, scholarship and/or service.

Sharing her own experiences with her students has been a trademark for Wolfson. She and her husband, who are both Jewish, occasionally invite students to their home to share in the lighting of Shabbat candles. She has also mentored a number of students, one of whom illustrates the role that Wolfson has played in her life. "Amy sparked my interest in research and has been the best mentor I could ask for. Her strength has been working with students and giving them the necessary guidance, but also knowing when to step back and let them take their own direction," says Amy Gorin '94, assistant professor at Brown University Medical School.

In addition to her position at Holy Cross, Wolfson has been very involved with the local Jewish community. She is a representative of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass and has been a board member, as well as chair, at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Worcester. As part of her community efforts, she went on a Solidarity Mission to Israel this past February.

Currently on sabbatical, Wolfson is collaborating with her colleagues on two projects that will evaluate and promote healthy sleep/wake habits in adolescents. One of the projects involves working with teachers, faculty and administrators at a middle school in Worcester. 

Wolfson describes her fondness for the Holy Cross community this way, "I like teaching at a place where students feel strongly about ethical and moral issues and try to live their lives in a way that includes hard disciplined work, but also allows for friendship and relationship-building with faculty. For example, when I lost my mother, my students were so there for me in a way that was qualitatively different than other places that I have worked. I felt comfortable sharing my struggle with them. For my own students I try to do what I know best-I share and I teach."

Patricia Moreis-Stiles '87 is a free-lance writer from Springfield, Va. 

 

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