Can’t Get a Full Night’s Rest? Worry Not

It’s the middle of the night and you are completely awake. Any distraction will do: checking your phone, staring at the ceiling, turning and unturning on the bed, rehashing the entire day, etc. All the while the thought of getting the proper eight hours of sleep is running through your head. It’s a number you can hardly reach, and a number, you suspect, that is holding you from your potential. You have your own number though, maybe it’s four or six, that you can compare with others. “That’s too low,” your friends say. “How is yours so high?” you wonder. As a recent column by David Randall in the New York Times suggests, it’s time to rethink sleep.

According to the data in Randall’s article, nearly 43 million (one-third of adult) Americans only get six hours of sleep a night. And this affliction of sleep deprivation affects all classes and all workers equally. Less sleep leads to lower productivity, diet issues, and sometimes depression among other problems. The long assumed fix for the deprived sleeper has been hammered home for the last decade: get eight hours of sleep, even if that means going to bed earlier.

Randall claims this might not be the most productive solution and finds evidence for two-phase sleep through geography and history citing both the common practice of Chinese workers napping after lunch and the periods of daytime napping common in India and Spain. Randall therefore concludes the eight-hour sleep cycle is a modern amendment without standing and looks to the 1990s research of A. Roger Ekirch, a history professor at Virginia Tech, to find his evidence.

A character in the “Canterbury Tales,” for instance, decides to go back to bed after her “first sleep.” A doctor in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for study and reflection. And one 16th-century French physician concluded that laborers were able to conceive more children because they waited until after their “first sleep” to make love. Professor Ekirch soon learned that he wasn’t the only one who was on to the historical existence of alternate sleep cycles. In a fluke of history, Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist then working at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., was conducting an experiment in which subjects were deprived of artificial light. Without the illumination and distraction from light bulbs, televisions or computers, the subjects slept through the night, at least at first. But, after a while, Dr. Wehr noticed that subjects began to wake up a little after midnight, lie awake for a couple of hours, and then drift back to sleep again, in the same pattern of segmented sleep that Professor Ekirch saw referenced in historical records and early works of literature.

Chauncer’s Canterbury Tales were written in the 14th century giving us a span of 700 years wherein sleep patterns have gradually pushed from first and second sleeps to a consecutive sleeping chunk. This makes sense with the rise of agricultural and industrial societies that needed sunlight to carry out work. This behavior was likely then reinforced over time and supported by the inability of the human eye to see in low-light conditions. An “it’s dark, I might as well sleep” mentality gripped society.

But now with televisions and ever connected mobile devices, it’s not so dark at night. For better or worse, we’re spending more time awake in the middle of the night making the eight-hour sleep nearly impossible to achieve. Yet, the idea of interrupted sleep is seen as problematic or unhealthy. Sleeping aides are designed to get you through the night. And often when you wake up in the middle of the night, the dominant thoughts drift to something along the lines of, “I need to get back to sleep; otherwise, I’m going to be so tired.” This creates the tricky and messy situation of sleep anxiety, which ultimately has debilitating effects.

Just because you can’t get a full eight hours in at once doesn’t mean you should forego sleep entirely. “Any deep sleep — whether in an eight-hour block or a 30-minute nap — primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately,” writes Randall. Taking short naps during the day is a reasonable and healthy way to supplement the amount of sleep you get at night. Randall cites Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in supporting claims that the brain is sorting through levels of memories and decides what to keep and what to toss when we are sleeping.

At progressive companies like Google, there is now a tolerance for employees taking naps during they day on the assumption that the downtime will help them solve more conceptually demanding problems and performing high-level tasks. Thomas Balkin, a researcher at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, anticipates a point in the future where all soldiers’ sleep cycles are tracked so they can be ordered to take a nap before a mission if need be.

The science of understanding sleep is continually evolving and proving previous assumptions about sleep completely wrong. It’s possible to get less than eight hours of sleep each night and still live a healthy, well-rested life.


David K. Randall, “Rethinking Sleep,” New York Times

Image: “Sleep” by Salvador Dali

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