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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: Do you think you get enough good sleep?

I can across an article a while back that mentioned sleep as a “lifestyle” topic: you know, on a par with fashion and cooking and the like. And that notion initially struck me as silly. How could a basic biological function become a “lifestyle” issue. But then it occurred to me that our basic needs to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves have become fraught with other issues concerning how we should these things and what it means when we do these things in certain ways… and that these aren’t merely matters of class and status, as they were before the Industrial Revolution, but are also now wrapped up in concerns that have come about because of the Industrial Revolution. (Is it moral to wear clothing that was sewn in a sweatshop? How dangerous is high fructose corn syrup?)

You’re probably already familiar with the idea that artificial light was the first disruption of our natural sleep cycles, and that the disruption has gotten worse in our era of shift work, longer working hours for everyone, shops open 24 hours, the capability the Internet gives us to follow stock markets around the world or to do almost anything at any time… that kind of thing. A very long and very interesting piece on AlterNet by Mary Sykes Wylie titled “The High Price We Pay for Treating a Good Night’s Sleep Like It’s Optional” covers much of this, as well the subsequent development of a bevy of pharmaceuticals to treat the sleep disruptions that our culture forces upon us.

But then it comes to something I’ve never heard of before. (This excerpt seems kinda long, but the article itself is very long, so this really is a tiny percentage of it.)

[I]t turns out, we’ve long been insulting our natural wake-sleep cycle—for well over a century anyway—simply by expecting ourselves to fall asleep precisely at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., sleep solidly the entire night, and wake promptly at 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. There’s now accumulating scientific and historical evidence that human beings, like many of our mammalian cousins, weren’t meant to follow what we consider a “normal” wake-sleep pattern of two strictly segregated blocks of time—16 uninterrupted hours awake, 8 uninterrupted hours asleep.

In studies conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health during the ’90s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr and colleagues found that when research subjects were deprived of artificial light and restricted to a dark room for 14 hours a day (closely approximating the natural light-dark conditions of winter) for several weeks, their entire sleep pattern shifted dramatically. They didn’t sleep solidly for 8 or 10 or 14 hours, but first lay quietly in bed for two hours, then slept in two sessions of about four to five hours each, separated by one to three hours of calm, reflective, wakefulness. Instead of having the stress hormone cortisol streaming through their bodies—like insomniacs have when they can’t sleep—these subjects exhibited heightened levels of prolactin, the pituitary hormone that stimulates lactation in mothers and permits chickens to brood contentedly on their eggs, during their periods of nighttime wakefulness. Their brain-wave measurements at these times resembled a state of meditation.This bimodal sleep pattern now appears to have been the normal way human beings slept throughout preindustrial history, before the invention of electrical light put an end to it. It’s still the norm among some premodern tribes in Africa and Pakistan. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, historian A. Roger Ekirch demonstrates, through a wealth of written evidence (diaries, philosophical treatises, religious tracts, plays, legal depositions, medical books, and the like), that before the 19th century, people in Western Europe frequently wrote of sleep intervals “as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration.” During this time awake, people might get up and do chores, smoke a pipe, engage in prayer or reading, converse, visit neighbors, make love, or simply lie there in contemplation and fantasy. It was, by many accounts, an uncommonly peaceful, even pleasurable, time of night. Ekirch quotes 17th-century poet and moralist Francis Quarles, “Let the end of thy first sleep raise thee from repose: then hath thy body the best temper; then hath thy soule the least incumbrance; then no noyse shall disturbe thine ear; no object shall divert thine eye.”

I love learning new stuff and I can’t believe I’d never stumbled across this concept before. But it also startles me, because it suggests that we’re even more screwed up than I thought.

So, in light of all this: Do you think you get enough good sleep?

I know what I’ve learned for myself. I can either take enough time for the right amount of sleep (as well as the time to get enough exercise and eat right, the latter of which takes more time than not eating right), or I can get done all the work I have to do to not end up on the street (and even that’s iffy sometimes). I can’t do both. So most of the time, I’m running at full bore until I collapse, and then, while I don’t often have trouble falling asleep, in those minutes before I do drop off, I’m both exhausted and keyed up at the same time. I know this isn’t healthy, but it doesn’t really seem as if I have much choice.

Your turn…

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • Nina

    I’ve been an insomniac for over 30 years. I hate sleep aids ’cause they leave me groggy so I always have a book or 2 on the bedside table. Getting the TV out of my bedroom 2years ago made a dramatic difference; the quality of my sleep is much better.

    …..of course the other night, I just had to watch my newly acquired DVD of Spooks, series 5. That blast of adrenaline kept me up, but it was worth it!

  • Magess

    Nope. Not enough good sleep, which has nothing to do with lengthy hours of sleep, either. Sometimes, 5 hours is enough, and I wake up feeling rested. Sometimes 8 hours isn’t enough.

    Computers are part of it, and lights. But also just plain comfort. I’m at university with a terrible mattress so that I always have a back ache, no matter how I sleep. The birds in Scotland never sleep, because there’s almost no night time I guess, so they’re always squawking.

    I remember one of the things I used to like about going camping was going to sleep just based on the light. Even waking up at 5am wasn’t bad, because there was no struggle to do it. It just happened, same with falling asleep at 8 cause it was dark and boring.

    I’ve heard the sleeping in intervals thing before and find it interesting but don’t know if you could willfully recreate it.

  • amanohyo

    Mark my words, before the end of this century, we will develop products that allow us to comtrol (with a terrifyingly specificity) the content of our remembered dreams. Then, it’s only a short time before advertisers will literally invade our sleep.

    I get at least eight hours of sleep a day along with one hour of exercise (lapping senior citizens on the morning mall walking circuit… I’m glad they don’t ever get a blue shell), but I literally have no social life other than talking to my wife, and we have no children. I don’t know how people who watch television and hang out with friends and have kids and hobbies other than reading manage to squeeze in eight hours a night (I guess most of them don’t).

    That period of calm, reflective, wakefulness between sleeping sessions is sometimes called “The Watch.” Early English literature often mentions “fyrste slepe” as in the first period of sleep before the Watch, and Virgil and Homer also make references to an initial period of sleep which confused many people before this study came out.

    For people who are interested in sleep and consciousness, I strongly recommend The Head Trip by Jeff Warren, an entertaining guided tour through the various states of consciousness (there are 12 total in the book). Consciousness is a lot more complicated and interesting than the old binary model of either awake or asleep. Plus, there are tips on how to teach yourself to have lucid dreams for all you Waking Life fans.

  • Nadia

    I think I actually sleep too much, if I could I’d probably sleep 12 hours a day, I think I dream too much and I don’t sleep very deeply or something, I’m definitely not one of those persons that can sleep 6 hours and be perfectly ok, I need my 8 or 9 at least and if I don’t get them for two days in a row I’m exhausted. This sucks ,because I’m wating my life sleeping, but I really can’t help it.

  • i remember reading about sleep cycles in agrarian and/or feudal societies and how, in winter, most people slept much longer and stored energy… and wondering if the SAD syndrome really had less to do with lack of sunshine and more to do with being forced to wake up and function in the winter when our bodies craved more sleep for storing energy.

    i also think many of us are forced to fight our natural sleep rhythms — for instance, if left to my own devices for a few weeks, i naturally wake up about 10:00 a.m, get hungry around noon, start working on a project around 2:00 and work straight through (many times without a break) for 6 or seven hours. then i eat again, take a rest, and maybe pick up another few hours of work and then lay down around 2:00 a.m., rest for a while, then sleep.

    however, in *real* life now, i’m forcing myself out of bed at 7:00 a.m., run out the door to work, don’t eat until around 10:30, work in fits and starts all day (my job requires waiting for other people to give me projects to work on); work like a demon for a few hours, get home around 7:30 p.m., eat something, try to force myself to stay awake and do something until 11:30 or midnight, and then have trouble winding down and fall asleep, but have trouble *staying* asleep.

    good sleep? not a chance. but that’s life in our modern society — even your sleep pattern is regulated by outside corporate forces. i bet there are very few people who sleep their natural sleep cycles.

  • Boingo

    Great article (I’ll store tidbits of info away).

    I returned to surfing after a 10 year hiatus.
    All the paddling around made me take 30min.-1 hr. naps
    in the afternoon. I noticed the “quality” of the sleep
    surpassed some 5-6 hour (toss & turn) stretches.

    It’s that deep, deep sleep I find so psychologically

  • I_Sell_Books

    I’d heard of that for tribal/non-electrified societies before, but never really connected it with my own sleep patterns. During my formative years I grew up in the boonies in northern New England, and we didn’t have electricity or running water. I don’t recall waking up for that long during the night, but I was a kid, so maybe I did after all.

    Do I get enough sleep now? Well, not with a two year old who still sleeps with us. He definitely doesn’t get enough sleep at night, but he still takes a 1-2 hour nap in the afternoons. I generally get about 6-7 hours of sleep a night, more when it’s winter and cold and the dark, oh I love the dark!

    Having said all that, as an adult I’ve gone camping and been in my sleeping bag by 6pm, asleep by 7, and literally up at the crack of dawn. I’m definitely one of those who’s awake at first light, if not before. It’s hard now, though, as I stay up late to simply relax after my 85 jobs (baby, work, cooking cleaning baby entertainer website builder aaaaand unpublished author, y’know, being your basic working wife and mother). My husband, on the other leaf, can sleep any time, any where. He’s a night owl and can easily go for 12-15 hours a day. Easily.

    And speaking of work, I must get back to it.

  • Heh. At my last place of employment, someone posted an article on the breakroom bulletin board about a study done on a group of Filipino nurses who had started getting health problems after they started working 11-hour shifts.

    The reason it was taken was never quite stated but it did seem like an odd coincidence that most of the people who worked in that building–including myself–were already working 11-hour shifts.

    As it is, I spent years training myself to sleep during the day and work during the night. And now that I’m used to that, I have to readjust to being up during the day and asleep during the night.

    I like to think I’ve getting enough good sleep now but my schedule is fixing to change soon so we’ll see…

  • Ahem.

    The reason it was taken down was never quite stated but it did seem like an odd coincidence that most of the people who worked in that building–including myself–were already working 11-hour shifts.

    I wish I could blame that on a sleep deficit but no…

  • Lisa

    I never sleep well enough – I am always tired and walk around in a bit of a fog. It really does damage cognitive thought. I either can’t sleep at night or I just pass out and wake up real early. I feel physically tired but I don’t know where that it is coming from because I don’t exert myself enough in the day. My idea of paradise is a good night’s sleep.

    ^ I look at people with kids and think I don’t how they manage!

  • I_Sell_Books

    @Lisa –

    Try cutting down on your wheat consumption. Might be a yeast issue, too. Check out the Yeast Connection, or any books on gluten allergies. (I can’t help it, I sell books)

  • Isobel

    I get so bad tempered and slight woozy/dizzy if I don’t sleep, but I always wake up very early (usually around 5am, I’m usually out of bed at about 6, even on the weekends). The only way for me to catch up on sleep is to go to bed really early. I’m in bed by 9pm on Sundays, usually. I can’t nap in the afternoon either, I wake up feeling sick and with a blinding headache.

    I used to sleep like a log as a kid though. I even slept through the famous 1987 hurricane in England – my bedroom was at the back of the house above the conservatory and I woke up wondering why all the trees in the garden were lying down and the conservatory under my window was just a pile of shattered glass.

  • Muzz

    I’ve often thought this attitude was western-culture-wide but I’m not so sure after reading some of these accounts. Which is good.
    Still, we do seem to live in a world where there’s this somewhat macho love of heroic sacrifice and endurance in the name of productivity and duty. The only real measure of this (paradoxically; not productivity itself) is tiredness/sleep deprivation.

    This is across genders and classes (in fact, gets somewhat worse in middle-to-upper classes where the cost of being tired all the time is delayed and isn’t causing a small catastrophe by dropping something very heavy on yourself and your fellows. White collar managers feel no qualms about pushing people to give up everything for their job. You just crash your car when driving home, which comes under personal responsibility and not working conditions). And it gets to the point where its a sure fire sign of luxury or laziness to people that you are getting a proper amount of sleep. After all, they’re not, why should you?

    We’ve all been told the great people sacrificed everything. Alexander the Great to Ayn Rand to Margaret Thatcher only slept four hours a night (and whenever you hear that story, the person in question is usually barking mad, but that doesn’t bother us). Tiredness is the way to strength, respect and success. It’s a proper and honorable sign you’re doing everything a modern person is supposed to do.

    The article might go into this a bit, I haven’t read it all yet. But I definitely think the modern “work ethic” is as much to blame. Electricity and alarm clocks just permitted it.

  • Victor Plenty


    The promo video there provides grimly hilarious emphasis to everything said here.

  • markyd

    I know damn well how important sleep is, but I just can’t get myself to do it. I have to get up at 5:30am for work. I would have to go to bed at 9:30 to get a proper 8 hours.
    Heres the deal:
    The kid goes to bed at 8:30. The wife tends to go to bed around 9:30. Most nights I’m up until 11 so I can actually do some things I enjoy.
    If I went to bed at 9:30 every night(I do some nights, of course. *wink, wink*) I would have no time for Movies, shows, games, reading, etc. What the hell’s the point then?
    I’m well rested but miserable because I have no time for fun? I want a study on how happiness balances out sleep.

  • Fascinating. Not what I expected to find on a movie review site, but fascinating nonetheless. Especially as I’ve noticed, the last few times when I gave myself what I call a “hibernation vacation” and I was totally schedule free, I noticed that I slept when I was tired and woke up when I was rested and no other discernable pattern emerged. If I ever manage to retire, I expect that’s how I’ll be full time. Can hardly wait to find out.

  • e

    Late to this party but had to say I agree with most of the comments. I used to work overnights and daytime during my workweek, so my sleep schedule was all over the place. I got sick all the time, and the minute I had a more normal schedule I was much healthier.

    “Fascinating. Not what I expected to find on a movie review site, but fascinating nonetheless” I see this type of comment on sites, most often when a political post happens, and I don’t understand it. Most sites are in blog format, so you just skip over the post if its weird to you. I go to websites for the personalities as much as the content, and the model of the web where site x is for this type of thing and site y is for another is rapidly becoming outdated.

  • Lisa

    We are obssessed with it. At my work, it’s like a competition to see how slept the least.

    Thanks I_Sell_Books – I’m sure it’s partly diet related.

  • Paul

    Everyone thinks my sleep schedule is so weird that I lie about it half the time. Thing is, I was a paperboy for 7 years, so I was waking up at 4:30 or five am six days a week. I habitually wake up between five and six in the morning, period. I go to bed at 2 am, I still wake up at six without an alarm clock. So I habitually go to bed between nine and ten pm, which is before all the fun starts. Fortunately my academic job leaves me time to take a nap after lunch.

    I remember for awhile I my sleeping pattern kept waking me up a little earlier and a little earlier so I was going to bed a little earlier and a little earlier. It got to the point where I was waking up at 3 am and going to bed at 8 pm.

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