Poor sleep is epidemic
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report that 1 in 24 drivers admits to falling asleep while driving, and up to 33% of fatal traffic accidents may involve a drowsy driver.
Although frightening, this statistic is hardly news to those of us, myself included, who suffer from chronic sleeplessness. We can just add “death by fiery car crash” to the ever-expanding list of risks related to sleep deprivation, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, dementia and cancer.
Such stories invariably conclude with the advice “health officials recommend getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.”
Why didn’t I think of that?
I know all about sleep hygiene. Most news stories, books and websites parade out the same bundle of tips for improving quantity and quality of sleep. But they don’t always work.
Sleep maintenance insomnia is the common condition where you wake up during the night and can’t fall back asleep. It’s two o’clock in the morning. You’re wide awake. Counting sheep is useless. In fact, you want to kill the damn sheep! You’re going to be a mess tomorrow!
If you suffer from this type of insomnia, you know the story. The more anxious you become, the more elusive sleep becomes. Thus begins a relentless cycle of sleeplessness and anxiety.
I recently read a book by another restless sleeper, journalist David K. Randall, that explores the interesting concept of first sleep and second sleep. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, Randall describes the work of sleep researcher Thomas Wehr, who kept his subjects away from artificial light for 30 days.
By the end of the month, his subjects, living by natural light alone, fell into similar sleep patterns of going to bed shortly after dusk, sleeping for 4 hours, waking for 1-2 hours, and then falling asleep for another 4 hours. He published his results in the Journal of Sleep Research in 1992.
Historians have also discovered references to first sleep and second sleep in pre-20th century writings. Once the use of artificial light became commonplace, however, and darkness was no longer a barrier to nightlife, the habit of dividing sleep into two equal halves seems to have disappeared.
Randall proposes the human body is hard wired to prefer a segmented sleep pattern, but:
Almost two decades after Wehr’s study was published in a medical journal, many sleep researchers—not to mention your average physician—have never heard of it. When patients complain about waking up at roughly the same time in the middle of the night, many physicians will reach for a pen and write a prescription for a sleeping pill.
In 2011, Americans filled more than 60 million prescriptions for sleeping pills.
Related story in The Wall Street Journal: Dawn of a new sleep drug?
What did our medieval ancestors do in that wakeful hour? They read, wrote, prayed, contemplated their dreams or had sex—all preferable to taking a pill or mentally slaughtering sheep, don’t you think?