Sleep 101: How Are You Sleeping?
Until the early 1950’s, sleep was a largely unstudied field. But in 1953, Nathaniel Kleitman, known as the “father of modern sleep research” and his students discovered the phenomonon of “Rapid Eye Movement” or REM sleep. Later they discovered that sleep occurred in “stages” throughout the course of the night—the science of sleep was launched.
New technologies have made it easier to evaluate how someone is sleeping. These technologies have spawned 1000’s of sleep centers where both children and adults sleep overnight, hooked up to a wide range of electronic gear which help sleep physicians assess the quality, depth, and structure of their sleep. We have come a long way since 1953. But Elizabeth Kolbert, in the March 11th issue of The New Yorker wonders—“If this is sleep research’s golden age, then why are we all so tired?”
A 2011 poll found that more that half of Americans between the age of 13 and 64 experience a sleep problem almost every night! Nearly two-thirds complain that they are not getting enough rest on a weekly basis. The National Academy of Science notes that between 50-70 million Americans have significant sleep problems. Chronic sleep deprivation is both distressing to the sufferer and dangerous too. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that D.W.D (Driving While Drowsy) causes 40,000 injuries per year! Help!
Getting a good night’s sleep is getting harder. Interestingly, sleep scientist, David Randall, found that adults sleep better when they are sleeping alone. They evaluated couples sleeping together and then sleeping independently. They slept 30 minutes more a night in the deeper stages of sleep when they were apart. This is probably one reason why some married couples sleep in separate bedrooms despite having a loving relationship. Snoring is another problem that keeps some adults up. The current epidemic of obesity has increased in the incidence of snoring, and the number of adults that suffer from “obstructive sleep apnea”, a medical condition characterized by numerous arousals during a night’s sleep. Individuals with sleep apnea stop breathing for a few seconds all night long! It keeps them from entering the deeper, more restful stages of sleep.
Some anthropologists think that part of the problem is the very idea that we should have 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Over 100 years ago, Americans and others around the world, slept in two or more periods throughout the night. They went to bed shortly after the sun went down, slept for 4-5 hours, and then woke from their “first sleep”. They spent a couple of hours knocking around the house, and then went back to bed for their “second sleep”. The need to “consolidate” sleep first started during the industrial revolution, when the industrial workday shrank from 12 to 10 to 8 hours a day. While modern life demands a single session of sleep, our bodies may have a different idea.
There are other ways that our sleep cycles may not correspond to daily life. Some of us, Kolbert points out, are “larks”—we are early to bed and early to rise. Other’s are “owls”—up late and sleep late. But, if we are an owl with a job that starts at 8 a.m. we may become chronically sleep deprived! We see this daily if we have teens in the house. These night owls stay up late texting their buddies and have to get up to go to high school at 6 a.m. No wonder they sleep until noon on the weekends!
I have often felt that we have created a way of life and a world that we cannot comfortably live in.
Perhaps an alternative view of having a “good night” of sleep is to feel “rested and vital” during our day. (Of course some people work at night and sleep during the day. They often have even bigger sleep problems!) This requires living a life that is in balance of which sleep is only one component. When mind and body are in equilibrium, everything works better—our digestion, our mood, our muscles (lower back pain is big reason why adults visit their physician), our joints, our circulation, our energy, and yes, our sleep.
This is what I call wellbeing. If we look at “fixing” just one aspect of this whole, we will still find ourselves out of whack.
How is your sleep? How do you feel during the day? How is your wellbeing?