Health & Fitness

Sleep time; autism risk from prenatal exposure to banned chemicals

Q: I’m not a big sleeper, just four to five hours a night. Been that way for the past 40 years, and it doesn’t cause me any trouble. So, why does everyone insist that you have to get seven to nine hours? -- Terrance G., Minneapolis

A: Around 30 percent of working adults get six or fewer hours of sleep nightly, and while a minuscule fraction of those folks may be able to stay healthy and alert on less sleep than recommended, almost all short-duration sleepers who deny that it causes them any dysfunction are more exhausted than they realize.

In fact, according a study by University of Utah researchers, functional MRIs of those short sleepers’ brains show they have cerebral functioning similar to someone who’s been drinking. The study says they demonstrate: “diminished wakefulness, potentially indicating inaccurate perception of functionality.” And this reinforces an earlier study that characterized short-duration sleepers as having “subclinical hypomanic symptoms.”

Another drawback: When short-duration sleepers are in low-stimulation environments (driving on an empty road, sitting alone in a quiet work cubicle), they often find it difficult to stay awake. That may be why, say the researchers, those folks crave relentless stimulation.

Our advice: Increase your daily exercise. It will dispel stress and increase sleepiness. Then gradually increase your sleep time (it may take several months). Head to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier than usual; keep all blue light and digital screens out of the bedroom, and keep the room dark and quiet.

Once you can sleep 30 minutes longer than usual, repeat for a couple weeks. Then head for bed another 15 minutes earlier. Once that becomes habit, you should notice a difference in how you feel during the day: less restless, more focused, more patient. See if you can get to seven hours a night over time. Your body and brain will thank you!

Q: My sister has a 6-year-old son who’s on the autism spectrum. When she was pregnant she ate right, took prenatal vitamins, exercised and never went near alcohol. So how did this happen? -- Adele F., Fresno, California

A: Having a child with autism spectrum disorder can be very challenging. Fortunately, early intervention can make a huge difference in how the child develops, but timely treatment doesn’t change the confusion families feel when they try to figure out WHY this happened to their child.

So what’s the cause? We do know it’s not because of vaccines, despite the mistaken adherence to that theory by celebrities and politicians. But evidence is accumulating that environmental triggers play a huge role.

Drexel University researchers recently investigated whether prenatal exposure to two banned chemicals, DDT (the pesticide) and polychlorinated biphenyl or PCB (a compound once widely used in electronics and in heat-transfer fluids), are responsible for the huge spike in autism, from one in 150 children in 2000, to one in 68 in 2010.

The researchers found that out of 1,144 children born in Southern California between 2000 and 2003 to moms who’d been exposed to PCBs and DDT (second trimester blood tests showed that), 545 were diagnosed with autism and 181 had intellectual disabilities!

But how did the moms get exposed to chemicals that were banned in the 1970s? Seems the chemicals are still widespread in water and soil and bioaccumulate in the food chain. And, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Currently, the primary source of exposure to the general population is through the consumption of fatty foods. Levels are still measurable in blood samples today, including those from pregnant women, as well as in breast milk samples.”

Another great reason to go veggie strong and avoid red meats! And, we’d like to add: Only about 1 percent of the 85,000 chemicals in use today, including GMO-friendly pesticides and fracking chemicals, have been verified as safe! So write to your representatives; ask for legislation that would protect future generations from the mistakes we may be making today.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen at