On the Merits of Sleep

Sharon November 27th, 2011

It is a dark time of year now, and it makes me drowsy.

Americans carry enormous sleep debt – if you put the average American in an extended sleep study, exposed to natural light and allowed to sleep as much as their bodies demand, they will sleep 14 hours a day for the better part of a month, until they catch up and naturally begin to average out around 8 hours. We spend a lot of our lives ignoring our natural sleep patterns, and at some real cost to ourselves. 10,000 car accidents a year occur as a result of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is associated with depression, anxiety and the development of hypoglycemia and even diabetes. Because of sleep deprivation, we consume enormous quantities of caffeine, with negative effects on the gestation of our children, our blood pressure and our ability to sleep…which causes us to spend almost a billion dollars each year on medical sleep aids which in turn….

While there certainly are intractable and medical sleep issues out there (as a parent of an autistic son with sleep issues, that’s something important to remember), the evidence suggests that the solution to most sleep related medical problems for MOST people  is simple. Turn off the artificial lights as much as possible. Go to bed at the same time each night. Get as much rest as you really need.  Move your body more during the day.

Now for some of us, this isn’t realistic. There are people who have to work nights. New parents are probably never going to get as much sleep as they’d like. There are some people whose bodies really do seem to be implacably on a late night cycle. But most of us aren’t – sleep studies show that even “night owls” when exposed to enough natural light and darkness tend to move their cycles back towards everyone else’s.

Now if we were to obey that advice, what would the environmental consequences be? What would they be, for example, if pretty much everyone in the US turned off their lights at 10 pm and actually went to sleep for 8 or 9 hours?  If instead of pushing harder, we went to bed earlier when days get short and nights are long?   If we all turned down our heat, flicked off the power strips and otherwise simply did what their bodies were telling them. What if we unplugged the coffee pot?”

Trust me, I am not innocent here at all – I have a tea habit of my own, and the tendency to burn the candle at both ends.  One thing, however, that years of chronic child-related sleep deprivation have taught me, however, is that few things are worth more to me than some sleep, and that I’m happier if I go to bed rather than playing late with the computer or trying to make myself as productive at night as I am in the day.

These are small things, of course, but they are significant. And think about what kind of *people* we’d be if we were getting enough rest. We’d be less grumpy with each other, maybe a little better at making community. We’d be better able to face the physical burdens of a human powered economy. We’d be less prone to illness, saving ourselves a great deal of money, discomfort and lost wages. We’d be better able to face change – tired, grumpy, overwhelmed people never look on difference as a good idea. Would it change the world? Probably not. Would it save energy and improve our lives in a host of ways? It just might.

When the nights get long, my first impulse is to put on the lights and push hard – admitting that the change of seasons changes my body and my needs can be difficult.  The rewards, however, of sleep are great, and I’ve learned over the years to appreciate the long nights and the time to rest.

Naps are good too, but that’s another post.

Sharon

11 Responses to “On the Merits of Sleep”

  1. Frogdancer says:

    A nanna nap in the afternoon is worth a thousand dollars. In the school holidays I’ll often take one… just because I can.

  2. Rachel says:

    Do you have the citations for those studies? I’d be interested to read them.

  3. Matriarchy says:

    For many people in mainstream jobs and schools, our sleep is often taken out of our control, no matter the season. Children get on buses for school long before dawn. Workers head off for long commutes and required overtime. Involvement in sports, community groups, or volunteering eats into the evening hours.

    My children homeschooled for a time, and the thing they both most complained about after returning to public high school was the lack of sleep – 8 hours for school/bussing and then hours of homework. Teens actually need more sleep than adults.

    I work at home caring for my mother, but I also suffer from a chronic sleep deficit – my schedule is dictated by the need to drive my partner to the bus station at 5:30am, get my daughter on that 6:45 school bus, and then get things done (like showering) before my mother begins her day of restless dementia. She may not agree to go to sleep until after 10pm. It’s temporary, but I feel the physical and mental effects. I used to wake up refreshed and ready to go – now it takes a good hour to shake off the sleep. I often wish I could still tolerate caffeine.

  4. Suze says:

    Like Matriarchy I care for my father who has dementia and my mother who sleeps in fits and starts. Add in meeting the needs of my family I am in total agreement with you.

    Tonight I am going to be in bed and hopefully asleep before 11. I hope that dad sleeps beyond the 4.15 ish sunrise. He has always woken with the first splash of sun. I struggle with the mornings as I always want to crawl back to bed.

  5. BoysMom says:

    I haven’t posted in quite a while, but I’m still around. (I should change my handle–I’m nursing baby girl while I type.)
    I searched your archives but couldn’t find what I hoped to: some sort of guidelines for things to address when combining households. Is there such a thing here. or can anyone recommend a resource?
    My father is failing faster: falling, becoming disoriented as to days, thinking he’s taken his meds (diabetes, cardiac) when he hasn’t. My mother is still working full-time and, honestly, Dad’s a grump and I can’t blame her for wanting to be out of the house and away from him part of every day. Dad has a fall detector, but this weekend he got confused as to what day it was and called the sheriff thinking Mom should be home when she wasn’t due home yet. He needs to stop driving but thinks he’s fine.
    My husband’s employer thinks they will have an opening in my parents’ home town in the next few months: he mentioned to a coworker in passing that his in-laws live there and HR called him over a couple days later and said, hey, if you want to be closer to your wife’s family let us know and it’s yours.
    My folks have about 3500 square feet and 8-ish acres partly fenced and a water right. We’re looking at the daylight basement, maybe 1500 sq ft, for our quarters, which is partially finished and about half full of horde (we cleared out the other half a couple years ago–about 75% trash). There are some remnants of my 4-H days that could easily be returned to chicken and rabbit housing: it would take maybe a day’s labor, and the gardens are still in use.
    The household composition would be my parents–Mom will live to a hundred in good health if her family’s anything to go by, my husband and I, four boys (9, 7, 5, and 3) and baby girl (2 months). Boys are home schooled. Husband’s parents live overseas. We’re renting–and we’ve always planned on this, my parents are somewhat resistant because this is not how their generation did it, but they’re coming around because the other option looks pretty bad.

  6. Sharon Astyk says:

    BoysMom, first of all, Mazel tov on your daughter – how wonderful. And while I may have stuff in my archives, I’d like to do a post on this subject – is it ok if I quote your comment?

    Sharon

  7. Margaret says:

    I work nights, sometimes a single night, sometimes a run of three or four. Two years ago, almost to the day I worked a night shift and came home to nap on the sofa. I wasn’t going to work that night, why waste time in bed? So, when my friend came to the house and asked for me I went with him, rather than missing his call by being in bed. Within an hour I was on the ground with a double fracture of my leg resulting in 4 nights in hospital, major surgery and 5 1/2 months off work. Thank God for the National Health Service!

    Before the accident I would do ‘command and control’ from the sofa after my last night. After the accident I always go to bed. Before I behaved as though sleep was for wimps, even though I wouldn’t have said that I believed it.

    Now I have some more respect for my body. I still don’t get enough sleep but at least I give it a chance.

  8. BoysMom says:

    Thank you, Sharon, and absolutely you may quote me. If I weren’t comfortable with the information I posted being in a public space I wouldn’t have posted it in the first place! I should probably also mention that I am an only child, but I’m sure other people looking at combining households have sibling dynamics to consider as well.

  9. EngineerChic says:

    BoysMom – is there any chance you could have a small trailer on their property? I ask because as much as grandparents love grandchildren … 5 of them can be pretty noisy and if your parents struggle to get sleep now then if/when kids wake up in the middle of the night (loudly) it could disturb their sleep – which might be tenuous already.

    It sounds as though your dad needs someone there during the day & early evening, but by 6 or 7pm when your mom is home you could go back to your own space. The reason I suggest a trailer (mobile home) is that they are often available used for not a lot of money & it would probably be a temporary situation. In 5-10 years you may need to stay in the house with your parents, but this would be an intermediate step to that place.

    I think having separate quarters VERY close to your parents would be just enough space that everyone would feel the right mix of independence and closeness. Something to think about – it worked well for my grandmother & her adult son before she was too frail to live alone.

  10. Wendy says:

    I like naps ;) . I’ve been known to just drop what I’m doing and go lie down somewhere, doze off for a couple of minutes, and then, hop up, refreshed and ready to continue my day ;) . Personally, I think an afternoon siesta should be strongly encouraged in our culture and worked into our every day lives – especially with regard to the workplace.

    I work from home, and I’m very thankful for that fact, because the result has been the opportunity to listen to my body’s needs. So, when I get sleepy, instead of plying myself with more caffeine or continuing to feel run-down and disoriented (and potentially making errors in my work), I can take fifteen minutes to close my eyes and rest.

    I don’t know where it comes from, but it seems like our culture has developed a strong anti-sleep stance – like needing sleep is an admission of weakness. In spite of all of the evidence showing how important sleep is and the higher productivity in people who’ve gotten adequate rest, we still seem to be pushing the notion that “sleep is overrated.” It’s too bad, because as I said, I like naps, and I’m very thankful for a lifestyle that allows me to rest when I need it :) .

  11. BoysMom says:

    I appreciate the suggestion, EngineerChic. A small trailer would not work, as the only place to put a trailer is on their drain field. They own a fair bit of creek bottom, lovely lush land (bearing in mind an 11″ average annual precipitation) but likely to flood, and a good deal of steep rocky hillside. Their septic is grandfathered in–too close to the creek for modern law–and I don’t know if we could tie in or not without breaking the grandfathering protection.
    Sleep, I think, is not a problem in that sense. Once Dad puts his CPAP on and Mom her noise canceling headphones, they don’t hear anything. (Dad takes sleeping pills as well, I don’t know how often.) The dog has to lick my mom to get her to wake up to take her out: whining doesn’t cut it. It’s never been an issue with kid noise at night when we’ve visited, during the day it’s outside with the horde and then they can yell as much as they like.
    Their layout isn’t too bad for this: the space in the basement that is most likely to become bedrooms (partially walled already) is at the opposite side from where their bedroom is upstairs. There’s a separate downstairs entrance, though I doubt we’d use it much: no mudroom.
    I, however, am very sleep deprived today: my baby thought she’d stay up til 2. Her brothers went to sleep and got up at the usual times.

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