What is a "Good Night's Sleep" Anyway?

Where Did the Idea of an 8-Hour Sleep Come From?

Is our 8-hour work day responsible for the explosion of sleep-related problems that have contributed to the meteoric rise of thousands of sleep clinics and sleep medicine professionals around the country that track the electrical firing patterns arising in our brains in a desperate nightly search to diagnose the cause of sleep disturbances? What is driving the expanding menagerie of devices and treatment protocols promising to restore “natural” sleep patterns? What is the link between the surging numbers of people suffering from obesity, depression, and memory disturbance and a chronically sleep deprived population? Surprisingly, as outlined in Benjamin Reiss’ new book, Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World, the short answer may be that, yes, our beliefs about sleep’s role in our lives and our health is both a cause of, and a response to many of the challenges we face in maintaining our health and modern lifestyle!

A Brief History of Sleep

To gain a perspective on the connections between work schedules and sleep difficulties, we have to step back in time. But, we have to step waaaaay back. Only by doing so can we temporarily escape from the tyranny of the distorted perspective that evaluates our daily difficulties against the timeframe of our lifetimes, which typically measure a mere 70-90 years. Sleep patterns evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, not a handful of decades. Our sleep-regulating neurobiology is intricately interwoven with and still largely dependent upon the passage of time on a daily basis as measured by the rising and setting of the sun and the complementary daily cycle of the moon’s and star’s appearances. As with much of life, it is variation, not rigid sameness, that determines and drives our routines. For example, the daily and nightly cycles of light vary by season. Longer nights during winter months imprinted patterns of longer periods of sleep each night. Our internal clocks were set to the rhythms of the natural world of which we were an inseparable component. However, those rhythms varied dependent upon where on the planet’s surface we lived and, even more importantly, the rhythms varied across each individual who was a member of any given tribe. There was no “standard” sleep, only an average pattern that varied by individual, locale, and season. People obtained the sleep they needed in highly individually variable patterns that bore little resemblance to the nearly universally sought after magic associated with attaining and sustaining 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.

What Have We Done to Disrupt Our Sleep?

What have we done? What has occurred in the last 150 years to disrupt those natural rhythms that nature spent so much time honing? Modern civilization occurred. And, with the rise of our modern industrial civilization there gradually arose a need for conformity, standardization, predictability and control. The economic/industrial’s system’s need to drive product output necessitated a work schedule that imposed on each individual worker a set start time and end time. In short, time itself had to be managed. An agreed upon work shift emerged, often occurring as a result of confrontations between employers/factory owners and workers, which sometimes ended in violence. The 8-hour work day, complete with scheduled breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon, along with a time-limited lunch hour emerged and became the norm. Even with today’s more flexible work scheduling arrangements, the primacy of an underlying structure of a traditional work day is still felt, with the resulting expectation that sleep has to be “fit into” whatever time is available after work commitments are discharged. In an increasingly interconnected, 24-hour-a-day world, the consequences for sleep and adequate rest are being increasing felt.

Reiss argues that our march to dominate time did not stop at the factory gates. The proliferation of artificial sources of light, whether through street lights, house lighting or nightstand lamps, or through the personal electronic devices through which, like invisible umbilici linked to an electric womb, we remain connected to the maternal source giving us access to the all-the-information-all-the-time internet. But, does this attachment to light and information provide us sustenance or suffering? The correct answer, it seems, is both. However, learning to become a wise manager of our connections to time, to light and to information, is ultimately what appears to determine the health of our days and the restorative nature of our sleep.

Three Truths to Reshape Our Sleep Patterns

Here are several enduring ideas that have emerged regarding sleep that can be adapted for your personal use irrespective of your current circumstances.

1.        One of the core features of all life forms is variability within species. While every baboon is a baboon, every baboon is also slightly different than the next in size, facial features, temperament and in many other ways, too. The same is true of us. We are all people but no two of us share the same fingerprint or iris shape and color or any of a thousand other features and traits. In other words, variability, even within species, is the norm. When it comes to sleep patterns, should it surprise us that no two of us have same sleep pattern that works best? On my FB page (https://www.facebook.com/DrDavidAlter/) I have posted a Sleep Quiz you can complete that can help you to better understand your particular sleep pattern preferences. Ignoring your preferred sleep pattern is like forcing your feet into an ill-fitting shoe simply because “everyone else is wearing them.” Ouch!

2.       Our sleep habits co-evolved with our changing environments. We tend to want to sleep more in winter months with shorter periods of daylight and longer during the summer months. This becomes even more true the farther north or south of the equator we find ourselves. Regardless, the rising and setting of the sun is a major regulator of our own sleep/wake cycle, complete with the active secretion of numerous hormones and messenger molecules that quiet or stimulate our minds, brains and bodies. Keep the lights low – very low in the evening –  for better results. But, light/dark cycles may be a less powerful trigger for sleep than are room and body temperature. A warm bath prior to bed or a cooler bedroom trigger a similar response. They drive us to “get comfy”, to snuggle under our covers or crawl next to someone for some “shared bodily warmth,” and generally mimic what humans have done for countless years: They help us to drift off to sleep.

3.       Begin to challenge the tyranny of a nightly, 8-hour idealized sleep cycle that is attained all in a single stretch of uninterrupted sleep. Cutting-edge research suggests this is literally a modern cultural invention. As recently as 100 years ago, and for much of human history, we experienced segmented sleep. We would fall asleep in the evening for 3-4 hours. This was called our first sleep. Then, we would be awake for about an hour during which some wonderful things happened.  At a minimum, it was a period of reflective, contemplative quiet. Having a nightly, hour-long meditative time was a good habit. It was also a time during which, in this state of calm and relaxed comfort, amorous arousal could blossom. Many children were conceived during this middle of the night pause! This moonlit interlude would then give way to the second sleep, which would end in the morning when it was time to rise and begin the day. The point is, sleep can be good, restful and restorative sleep, even when it is broken up into segments, and especially if complimented by a short (less than 20 minute) daytime nap. As you allow your expectations regarding sleep to broaden, you may find that the anticipatory anxiety about “Will I sleep tonight?” can begin to diminish.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog, which will address some of the real and troubling problems that arise when chronically insufficient sleep is obtained.