Insomnia, which could be loosely described as difficulty sleeping, is hardly new. Nor is it restricted to Western or modernized cultures. Ancient medical texts from China to Greece give considerable attention to the problem, and it is probably safe to assume their patients asked for that help. Folk remedies, be they valerian tea, mandrake and lettuce juice poultices, back rubs, warm baths, or hot toddies, have been passed down for generations throughout the world.
When I visited relatives in India several years ago, they showed me a sacred herb growing in a small pot on a pedestal in the center of their family compound courtyard; it was tulsi, otherwise known as holy basil, which has been grown for a variety of medicinal purposes, including improving sleep, for centuries. A friend of mine rubs a spot on the foreheads of her children whenever they cannot sleep, something her mother and grandmother taught her, and she swears it always works.
Sixty-two percent of American adults report experiencing a sleep problem a few nights a week,which strikes me as ironic, considering that we are born with the ability and practice it incessantly the first few years of life. As we grow up and grow older, a variety of forces converge to turn the natural knack for sleep into a fragile, uneasy accomplishment.
Adapting - or not - to Lack of Sleep
Our bodies change physiologically, continually altering the amount of sleep we need, the kind we get, and the time of day we are best able to get it as we progress through the life cycle. We assume and relinquish many responsibilities, encounter differing environmental conditions, and make lifestyle choices that impact when, where, and whether we can sleep. Sleep carries us into and out of life; but in between, it seems to abandon us.
More than half of Americans between ages thirteen and sixty-four have difficulty sleeping almost every night,10 to 15 percent of the general population have chronic insomnia, and a solid majority admit they would rather get a good night’s sleep than have sex. Even children do not get the sleep they need. In 2013, researchers at Boston College published the results of an international comparison of nine- to ten-year-old students taking math, science, and reading tests.They found that 73 percent of the American students were sleep deprived, more than in any other country, although New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Australia, Turkey, England, Chile, Ireland, and Finland were close behind.
While insomnia has troubled humankind for millennia, its prevalence and chronicity may be a relatively new phenomenon. The comparison begs the question: what are the conditions that hamper sleep for so many in the twenty-first century?
Don’t Rest. Don’t Sleep. Close the Deal.
Benjamin Franklin once famously declared: “There will be sleeping enough in the grave.” Whenever I hear that quote, I imagine it was followed by something like: “So get to work, you slackers!” Franklin wanted Americans to be industrious and hardworking, if only to convince the British that they could build and run a country.
His other legendary line of advice—“plough deep while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and keep”—clearly reflected the work ethic of his Puritan ancestors, who settled the eastern seaboard and came to dominate American political and business life for the next two hundred years. Centuries later, we have new proverbs to convince us that sleep is a form of laziness we cannot afford if we are to succeed—“You snooze, you lose” and “The best don’t rest”—but they mean the same thing.
When Consumer Reports conducted an online survey of subscribers in February of 2012, 60 percent reported that they did not sleep well at least three times a week, and the top reason they cited was job-related stress.
One-quarter of Americans have work schedules that do not allow adequate sleep, while many more believe they cannot be a success and get enough sleep.As reporter Margot Adler observed, “In today’s world, the well-rested lose respect.”CEOs brag about how little sleep they need, as if that were the secret to their success, while those at the bottom of the ladder, working two or three jobs to make ends meet, sleep least of all.
A study conducted by the Institute of Education in the United Kingdom in 2009 found that 18 percent of men in poorly paid jobs, such as cleaning or waiting tables, sleep less than six and a half hours a night, as compared to 13 percent of their professional counterparts.In this era of high unemployment, bulging workloads, shifting schedules, union busting, and corporate downsizing, many feel they have no choice but to burn the candle at both ends.
Sleep Fragility: Good Sleep Requires a Feeling of Safety and Trust
After all of the theories have been explored, one fact remains: sleep is fragile. All manner of conditions (heat, cold, good food, bad food, solitude, company, noise, silence, love and the loss of love, and so on) can fray its fabric, and there is little we can do to reliably improve it, as chronic insomniacs remind us. The fabric of sleep requires trust and a sense of safety to remain intact, and these qualities come by way of grace, good genes, viable relationships, and practice, more than anything else.
The fast-paced life of anxiety and high tension many encounter in postindustrial cultures further erodes that fabric. Societies may undergo enormous social, economic, and political changes, totally transforming the lives of their members, but they leave it up to individuals to successfully adapt, stay calm, and keep sleeping. Our sleep, by virtue of its vulnerability and uncontrollability, displays the strain of our efforts to accommodate to that which is not always suited to us, be it work demands or LED screens, long before we realize the stretch may be too great.
What To Do?
There are simple things societies can do, such as delaying school start times for adolescents, providing flexible work schedules for adults, changing the color of light that electronics emit, and building workplaces with windows and skylights to expose employees to daylight to improve both sleep and daytime alertness, but the political will is often lacking.
There are a variety of tools available to help us downshift; meditation, yoga, and biofeedback (including neurofeedback) have all been shown to be effective in improving sleep.They are not quick or easy, though, and what works for one person may not help the next. But they can be well worth trying before opening the medicine cabinet and reaching for that bottle of sleeping pills.
©2014 Kat Duff. Reprinted with permission
from Atria Books/Beyond Words Publishing.
All Rights Reserved. www.beyondword.com
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
The Secret Life of Sleep
by Kat Duff.
The Secret Life of Sleep taps into the enormous reservoir of human experiences to illuminate the complexities of a world where sleep has become a dwindling resource. With a sense of infectious curiosity, award winning author Kat Duff mixes cutting-edge research with insightful narratives, surprising insights, and timely questions to help us better understand what we’re losing before it’s too late.
Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.
About the Author
Kat Duff is the award-winning author of The Alchemy of Illness. She received her BA from Hampshire College where she pursued a multi-disciplinary concentration in literature, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neuroscience. Kat’s life-long love of sleep and her friendship with two chronic insomniacs led her to investigate the subject of sleep with her signature multi-disciplinary approach. Visit her website at www.thesecretlifeofsleep.com/