UCI study seeks links between unique stressors in AAPI communities and poor sleep health

The super blood wolf moon eclipse in 2019.
The D.R.E.A.M. Project study will be the first to record objective, scientific information about the sleep health of Asian Americans over an extended period of time, UC Irvine researcher Sunmin Lee said.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Sunmin Lee often found herself losing sleep after coming to the U.S. to further her education. That wasn’t just because of the long hours demanded by the rigorous program at the Harvard School of Public Health, where she earned a doctorate in social epidemiology.

She would either get up in the middle of the night or just lie awake, stressed out by the struggle of communicating in a language that was foreign to her and relating to people far from her native South Korea. It didn’t take long for her to learn she wasn’t alone.

She has frequently met immigrants to the U.S. who, like her, were kept up late by issues surrounding language barriers or fitting in. Some told her they tossed and turned, wondering if they were rejected for a job or promotion because of the way they looked or talked.

When Asian people became scapegoats for the spread of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, many would wake in a panic, wondering if they would become the next target in a reported surge of acts of hate, Lee said.

“I came here to study epidemiology,” Lee said. “But when I kept hearing these stories and seeing these issues, I knew I should be looking into this.”

She is leading a study with the D.R.E.A.M. Project at UC Irvine that is currently seeking Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese volunteers in Orange and Los Angeles counties. It will track the sleep habits of Asian Americans to determine what correlation might exist between stressors unique to Asian Americans and the prevalence of poor sleep health in AAPI communities.

Participants will undergo a detailed health examination and maintain a sleep diary, in which they will log how they slept and any factors that might have affected the quality of their rest. They will also be asked to wear a bracelet similar to a Fitbit for two weeks that will record their vital signs every 30 seconds, generating a wealth of data about volunteers’ stress levels, fitness and sleep habits. Then they will repeat this process three more times over the course of two years so researchers can see how their health changes over time.

A lack of sleep has been linked to a higher risk of type II diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, depression and other chronic conditions, according to the CDC. About a third of all American adults report they typically get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep each night.

More than 43% of Black Americans and 47% of native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who participated in a national survey in 2020 said they regularly had problems sleeping, compared to roughly 30% of white respondents and those of other Asian ethnicities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similar analysis conducted by the agency in 2016 found that U.S.-born Asian and Latino people were more likely to have difficulty getting enough rest each night than those who had immigrated.

But those figures are based on self-reported information, not empirical data, Lee said. That prevents most if not all existing research on the prevalence of sleep-related issues in the Asian American community from being accurate enough to count on.

The D.R.E.A.M. Project study will be the first to record objective, scientific information about the sleep health of Asian Americans over an extended period of time, Lee said. The details they collect will undergo sophisticated computer-assisted analysis that will take into account all the potential sources of stress experienced by volunteers.

Lee hopes their findings will show how common these issues actually are and lead to possible explanations for why they are so often reported in AAPI communities.

“There really isn’t any reliable data on this,” Lee said. “And when you look at all of us together, we look like a model minority, very healthy. But when you start to disaggregate the data, you see that’s not the case.”

Researchers hope to sign up a total of 750 U.S. and foreign-born people of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese descent. They will be given records of all the medical data collected from them, including detailed information about their sleep patterns, blood sugar and cholesterol, blood pressure and other markers of heart and diabetes risk. They will also receive $150 for their participation.

That’s a modest sum. But Lee believes the 60 or so who had agreed to take part in the study as of Monday didn’t sign on to receive an award.

“They’re there because they believe in the value of this research,” Lee said.

Those interested in being a part of the study should call (949) 232-0061 or send an email to

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