Archive for November 27th, 2011

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.