09/08/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

Why Are We So Bad at Getting a Good Night's Sleep?


We're living in an age of amazing technological advancement, a time when digital connection and convenience are changing the way we work and live, and scientific breakthroughs are transforming our understanding and treatment of disease. Yet we're more challenged than ever by an ancient practice that's essential to human life: sleep.

In a time and a culture when everything is supposed to be streamlined and made easier, why is sleep so hard? That's the question posed by David K. Randall in this thought-provoking essay that explores the particular -- and particularly significant -- challenges of sleep in our modern age. Randall, a journalist who's just written a book about the science of sleep, covers a lot of ground here: the epidemic levels of sleep disorders in the U.S. and our chronic collective tiredness. An exploding sleep industry that isn't solving our sleep problem. The history of our sleep habits as a species, how they've been affected and challenged by modernization itself, and how the very technologies that are supposed to be making our lives easier are wreaking havoc with our ability to sleep.

We're living in a 24-hour "on" culture, fueled in large part by personal technology that makes it difficult to power down and step away from our tablets, smartphones, and digital screens. All of this exposure to light -- and the stimulation of the brain that comes with it -- is interfering with our ability to sleep. A 2011 National Sleep Foundation survey on technology and sleep found that 95 percent of American adults use some type of electronic device in the hour before their bedtime. This nighttime exposure to light causes several problems that inhibit sleep:

  • It prevents or delays the body from producing melatonin, a hormone essential to sleep.
  • The activity itself creates stimulation in the mind, when what we most need is to relax.
  • And the presence of these devices in the bedroom brings the outside world -- including the office -- into the bedroom, which should be a sanctuary for sleep and intimacy.

Scientists and historians who are piecing together the history of sleep tell us we've been on this light-induced, sleep-disrupted road for some time. For most of human history, our human ancestors slept not in a single sleep period overnight as is common today, but rather in two distinct periods within a 24-hour cycle. Known as bi-phasic sleep, this pattern is thought to have included an initial sleep period of three to five hours, followed by a period of wakefulness and some level of activity. This waking period was then followed by a second sleep period of an additional three to five hours.

What prompted the shift to a single period of sleep? Changes to the daily life of Western culture, the rise of an industrial society, and the creation and ready supply of artificial light sources that extended the "daylight" hours beyond actual daylight. We now live in a time when we actively have to seek out darkness, a problem that most humans throughout history couldn't imagine facing. Studies indicate that despite our efforts to consolidate sleep into a single eight-hour cycle, our bodies still carry the inclination to sleep in two shifts.

There's little question that as a society today, we're increasingly -- and sometimes dangerously -- sleep-deprived. A recent large-scale study by the Centers for Disease Control returned some disturbing results about how much, or rather how little, workers in the U.S. are sleeping. The study found that almost a third of working Americans are sleeping no more than six hours a day. Among shift workers and manufacturing workers, the rates are substantially higher. When you consider that shift workers in this country include many of the people employed to keep us safe, watch over our health, and transport us safely by air and land, it's not difficult to see this lack of sleep in the workforce as a public safety issue, as well as a public health problem.

When we are sleeping, we're not sleeping well. Sleep disorders -- from insomnia to sleep apnea and snoring -- affect millions of Americans, including children. According to the National Sleep Foundation, as many as 40 percent of adults in the U.S. experience some insomnia every year. Among 15 percent of the adult population, this insomnia is chronic. And studies like this one show only about 1 in 4 people are talking to their doctors about their sleep problems, which leaves many sleep disorders significantly undiagnosed.

Left untreated, disrupted sleep can cause a wide range of health problems over time, from heart disease and stroke to diabetes. People with sleep problems are significantly more likely to need medical care than those who sleep well. The estimated costs in the workplace and in our health care system as a result of sleep disorders run into the billions of dollars.

It may be easy to think of sleep problems as beginning and ending at the door to our own bedrooms. But it's not true. Just as sleep problems have a ripple effect in our own individual lives, affecting our jobs and our relationships, collectively our sleep problems create a very serious and very expensive public health issue.

We've got a booming sleep industry -- fueled by everything from a growing array of prescription sleep aids and "natural" supplements, to sleep gadgetry, sleep getaways, and custom-designed bedrooms for loud sleepers -- that promises to cure our sleep woes. But the billions of dollars we're spending on quick fixes for sleep simply aren't doing the trick. And this is what Randall's essay does well to point out: the problem with our fundamental attitude toward sleep. As a society, we still wear our sleep deprivation, and our ability to function on minimal rest, as a badge of honor. We still stigmatize the practice of napping -- the closest approximation, in today's busy, lit-up world, of the bi-phasic sleep that our pre-industrial ancestors practiced for centuries. We still leave sleep out of the conversations we're having with our doctors. We still push sleep aside when our schedules get busy, and our days get long, telling ourselves we'll "catch up" on the weekend.

As much as we may wish there were, there are no shortcuts to a healthy, sustainable sleep routine. The most important change we could make to turn our collective sleep habits around? We could start taking sleep a whole lot more seriously.

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

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For more by Dr. Michael J. Breus, click here.

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