What We Get Wrong About Sleep

Joey and Ross on Friends are cuddled on a couch napping

Our collective sleep quality and quantity is one of many things negatively affected by the pandemic. People who never had trouble sleeping now have bouts of insomnia. Add an incomprehensible war with 24/7 coverage and our ability to wind down is worsened. We have always talked a lot about sleep in this house. It’s probably third, after food and the cat. I slept like crap. I had a great sleep. What time did you get up? And so on.

I was obsessed with sleep during the decades I worked in morning radio. I judged everything against how it would affect my nap or my early bedtime. Was attending an event worth skipping a nap? And if it was, could I get to bed earlier that day? Feeling like a zombie and operating on half a brain become normal.

This isn’t exclusive to my former career. In fact, I was grateful that my shift was steady. Even way back when I did an overnight shift, it went on for months. It was ugly for a personal life (what personal life?) but one adjusted to it.

Recently, some studies have challenged long-held beliefs that everyone needs X amount of sleep or their health will suffer. Seven or 8 hours is the general advice. I averaged six (before self-employment) and I still get about six hours per night, even when I can choose my wake-up time. Rarely do I sleep through the night without waking. But I still use a technique I wrote about a couple of years ago and it never fails to get me back to sleep. I’ve limited my coffee consumption (WAH!), increased exercise – I’ve read all the recommendations about gearing down and preparing to rest. When I was in radio, researching sleep was almost a hobby.

My husband often sleeps twice a day. He will wake in the middle of the night and read until he’s tired enough to fall back to sleep. Or, he’ll get up ridiculously early, naturally, and take a nap later in the day. And looking at how our ancestors slept, that’s not abnormal. Researchers found that humans used to sleep in two stages.

In the hunter-gatherer era, humans crawled onto their piles of grass and ash and called it a day about 3.5 hours after sunset. No television, radio, or smartphones likely had something to do with that. Not to mention, no electricity. You couldn’t hunt in the dark. So, you slept. Then, references to two sleeps appear in literature and medical texts from the Middle Ages. People had lot of chores. Parents found the middle of the night was the best time to, you know, become parents again.

Anthropologists have found evidence that during preindustrial Europe, bi-modal sleeping was considered the norm. Sleep onset was determined not by a set bedtime, but by whether there were things to do.

Science Alert

During the industrial revolution when factory work took folks off the farms and 12-hour shifts became routine, people stopped sleeping in stages. Heavy-handed bosses tended to frown on dozing on the job. That’s also when complaints about insomnia became more frequent, according to medical journals.

There are two types of two-stage sleep. The Middle Ages version, where all sleep happens in the dark. And the more modern version, which includes a daytime nap. When you think about how often you’ve heard about power naps and how often you’ve wanted to take one, it makes some sense. But it’s not practical for everyone. Remember George Costanza and the nap space he had built beneath his desk?

Jason Alexander as George Constanza under his desk on the phone to Jerry because he's trapped there while George Steinbrenner and his grandchildren use the room.

Some companies have embraced the nap. Employees at Ben & Jerry’s, Facebook, and Uber have nap rooms to go to for a refreshing snooze. I’m so grateful that if I really feel the need to day-sleep, I can do it. It’s a perk of being my own boss. Some cultures have naps built-in. The siesta used to be the norm in many countries, including Mexico, Spain, and rural Norway. However, the siesta also lengthened the workday, meaning time away from family. Times change. The siesta isn’t as popular as it once was.

More and more, scientists are challenging our long-held beliefs about sleep and good health. Obviously, it’s not beneficial to have brain-fog while driving a car. But it’s also not helpful to worry if you sleep poorly once in a while. In this long thesis, Alexey Guzey makes a comparison between eating and sleeping: if you never feel hungry, you’re probably eating too much. So, feeling hungry once in a while is normal. He maintains it’s the same with sleep. Some sleepiness is no big deal. Just get on with things. And with the pace of the world, poor work/life balance and – oh yeah – a pandemic and a war, it’s no wonder we have sleep disruptions.

When I’d get overtired from getting up at 3 am every day, I’d try to think of the parent of a new baby. Or the nurse or PSW on rotating shifts. They had it much worse. My routine was fairly predictable. While I never liked leaving my warm bed in the middle of the night, or making the first tire tracks in fallen snow, it was part of the deal. Still, study after study claimed I was irreparably harming my health. But human history proves there are other ways of looking at sleep deprivation. Maybe it’s more about what you tell yourself when you miss some sleep. Worrying that you’re harming your health is more harmful than being a little tired.

1 thought on “What We Get Wrong About Sleep”

  1. Agreed! I’m fortunate to have never really had my sleep challenged. I have adhered to the wind down before sleep & it works for me. And when I didn’t have a dog 10 min power naps after work were common for me. Great article! Best information ever! 😴 💤 🌙 🌟

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