Sean Moncrieff: Don’t worry about not sleeping – it will keep you awake

We are constantly prey to the booming sleep industry yet we know very little about insomnia

It seems as if the more research is done into sleep, the more difficult it becomes to make generalised statements about it

It seems as if the more research is done into sleep, the more difficult it becomes to make generalised statements about it

 

You may know what it’s like to go through a bout of poor sleep, and tell someone about it hoping for a bit of sympathy, only to have to endure them telling you how they’ve never had such difficulties. Out like a light before my head hits the pillow, blah blah blah. They present this fact about themselves as if it is a virtue rather than biochemical chance; that their blameless life has been rewarded with endless slumber.

I comfort myself with the suspicion that such people are probably sociopaths.

As for the rest of us, we are constantly prey to the booming sleep industry. Our planet is suddenly stuffed with sleep experts, sleep clinics, sleep columns, sleep books, most of which offer the same joyless path to the land of Nod; no telly, no alcohol, elaborate pre-sleeping rituals and industrial-sized doses of cure-all mindfulness; the trick being not to be mindful that you haven’t had a drink in a week.

But such sacrifices are necessary, not for the achievement of sleep but the avoidance of catastrophe. Without the requisite eight hours, all manner of disaster will rain upon you: illness, job loss, obesity, madness. You really, really need to worry about how much sleep you’re getting. It’s enough to keep you awake at night.

All of this is predicated on the assumption that there was once a Golden Age of Sleep. Before all the info bombardment insta-stresses, we were more in tune with our circadian rhythms and had no problem succumbing to a restful nocturnal swoon.

Six hours

Of course, there have been studies on this, and there are some crumbs of evidence that it might be true. Using six hours or less sleep as the precipice for disaster, the studies indicated that more of us are getting less sleep, and that this has been happening since the 1970s. But how many more is a moot point. Some claim up to 30 per cent. Some claim only 2 per cent. And none of them seem able to ascertain exactly why this is.

Without a time machine, it’s not possible to go further back in time, but it is possible to research the habits of the few pre-industrial societies remaining on our planet. The results of those studies are fascinating, because they tell us exactly nothing. Or more precisely, they don’t tell us what the sleep industrial complex wants us to believe. Those people don’t tend to nap and only grab – gasp – six hours a night. Yet there were no signs that this is causing illness or obesity, or that worry about the hunter-gathering was keeping them up at night. They got what they needed and didn’t really think about it.

Similarly – or not similarly at all – other studies have found that people used to sleep in two “shifts”. If they woke up during the night, they might go on ye olde facebooke for a while and then go back to sleep again. This practice continued up until the Victorian era. It only seems to be a 20th-century idea that we need to get a continuous eight hours; which oddly coincides with the grow of industrialisation and the need for us to put in an eight-hour shift of work every day.

Generalised statements

Those studies comparing today with the 1970s did find one clue: those who sleep less tend to have full-time jobs.

It seems as if the more research is done into sleep, the more difficult it becomes to make generalised statements about it. What is the correct amount of or type of sleep could vary from person to person, or could also change over time.

Try not to worry about it, though. Yes, they’ve studied this too. They found that people who worry about not getting enough sleep don’t get enough sleep because of the worry.

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