New Book Tackles America’s Sleep Problems
UCSC Professor Examines Why We Toss And Turn
“Chemical substances have become kind of innocuous in our daily age,” Wolf-Meyer notes. Our search for relief from a variety of sleep disorders has catapulted the sleep aid industry in the last 20 years from obscurity to the commonplace. Millions of Americans are prescribed Ambien or Lunestra to help them fall asleep and stay asleep, and then continue to medicate themselves throughout the day to stay awake.
Wolf-Meyer is careful to draw a line here. He explains that there are many people who suffer from material disorders like obstructive sleep apnea and narcolepsy for which drugs and therapies are greatly beneficial. There are also individuals who use pharmaceuticals to alleviate their disorderly sleep when an adjustment to their social obligations, like waking and sleeping outside of the “11 to 7” model, would be just as helpful.
Most of these drugs have only been around for 20 years or less, and scientists don’t know what the long-term effects will be.
“Ambien shouldn’t be prescribed for more than two weeks, but people end up using it forever. It’s referred to as ‘habit forming’ not ‘addictive.’ People end up taking higher and higher doses of these drugs for years, and no one knows what the long-term effects of these drugs are,” Wolf-Meyer says.
Of course, prescription drugs aren’t the most common way Americans cope with a lack of sleep. Wolf-Meyer cites most American’s mechanical grab for a cup of coffee in the morning and asks: Why are we that tired after we wake up? Why do we need to be that alert first thing in the morning?
“Our social obligations dictate our biological desires,” he says. “My need for coffee is not just my taste for coffee, it’s because my son requires me to be awake so we can watch Sesame Street together at 7 in the morning.”
In the afternoon, when we’re tempted to pour another, he believes we should just as easily be able to stroll to the nearest napping center as we do the nearest coffee shop. He tells of a sleep doctor he used to know who joked that humans have a nervous system that works optimally with one cup of coffee.
“Everyone believed it, but of course it’s a joke. Our ancestors were not drinking cups of coffee in the cave. There’s nothing natural about our caffeine consumption,” he says.
Napping in Shame
Wolf-Meyer discusses a pervasive feeling in society he describes as “the shame of napping.” Historically, this connection between sleep and laziness can be traced back to the Protestant work ethic of our forefathers. Benjamin Franklin was “early to bed and early to rise,” and religious writings warn against being awake too late and sleeping past dawn because, in short, what sort of mischief were you trying to get up to during the night?
There is historical evidence to suggest humans used to sleep bi-phasically. We’d go to bed earlier, wake up for a period of time in the middle of the night and sleep a little later. The traditional siesta in Spanish cultures arose out of a need to rest in the afternoon to counter a later bedtime. But in the last 20 years Spain has realized that there’s no way it can remain a world economic power if no one holds meetings between noon and 4pm every day.
A Simple Solution
The modern demands of our society make this kind of rest nearly impossible. So what can the sleepless masses do?
Wolf-Meyer offers a simple prescription: “People should sleep when they’re sleepy and not sleep when they aren’t.”
Our biggest problem, he says, is that we think we need to be in bed at a certain time, and awake at a certain time.
“If you’re not sleepy at 10 o’clock, just don’t go to bed. Even if it means you’ll get less sleep than you think you should, you’re better off staying out of bed than laying in bed and staring at the clock,” he says. “Part of that is behavioral: the more time you spend in bed not sleeping, the more sleep becomes this problem in your life. If it means you need to take a nap the next day or go to bed at 8 o’clock the next night, that’s fine.”
Most importantly, he suggests that we avoid using drugs, in whatever form, as a crutch: “Medicine draws the line between alternative orders and disorders. If you can live unproblematically with your sleep schedule, whatever that is, and you’re doing no harm to yourself or those around you, then it’s not very disorderly.”
But sleep disorders, of course, are very real.
“If in order to maintain your sleep schedule, you’re consuming 12 cans of Mountain Dew a day, or taking trucker speed, and then you have to take Ambien to go to sleep at night, there’s clearly something wrong there,” he says.
Science still isn’t sure why humans—or any organisms, in fact—need sleep. But a more conscious understanding of why we sleep the way we do might make our periods of unconsciousness more restful.