The No Wake Zone: Can’t sleep through the night? You’re not supposed to.

| January-February 2009

  • Feet Sleeping in Bed

    Image by Queereaster, licensed under Creative Commons.

  • Feet Sleeping in Bed

This article is one of several on reclaiming rest in all aspects of our lives. For more, read Get Radical. Get Some Rest., Give Us a Break, Breaking It to Your Boss, Want to Get Away, Stay Home, and Sleep Tips: Age Matters.

It’s 3 a.m. Your eyes snap wide open and stare unblinking into the darkness. The mysterious night noises of your home—pings, drips, rustles, hums, creaks—send electrical jolts through your nervous system. You are determined not to move, because that would mean you are irrevocably awake. So you lie very still and clamp your eyes tightly shut again, though they quiver in the effort to reopen.

Insomnia. Almost everybody has it at one time or another. Some poor souls live (or barely live) with it. It’s hard to know exactly how widespread it is: As many as 30 percent of the U.S. population, or as few as 9 percent, suffer from some form of it. Critics maintain that the higher estimates are overblown, partly by insomniacs themselves, for whom 10 minutes of being wide-eyed in bed feels like an hour, and by the pharma­ceutical industry (that all-purpose villain) in order to sell billions of dollars worth of sleeping potions.

Why we get insomnia, which parts of the brain are most implicated, how it actually hurts us, even what it is exactly, all remain largely a mystery, as does sleep itself. What’s undisputed is that sleep is as necessary to physical and mental health as air and water, and that, without it, we suffer—often severely. So, those annoying world-beaters who brag about needing only four hours of sleep a night are perhaps not being entirely candid. According to sleep expert Thomas Roth of the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders Center in Detroit, “The percentage of the population who need less than five hours of sleep per night, rounded to a whole number, is zero.”

Yet if a vast conspiracy were afoot to create an entire civilization of insomniacs, it would operate pretty much the way our society does now. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average working American now sleeps about six and a half hours a night—even fewer for ambitious careerists—down from eight hours a generation ago. Thanks to technology, particularly the Internet, there’s nothing you can do during the day that you can’t do at night. We can work, play, buy, gamble, and follow the latest news in Karachi, without stopping for a time-waster like sleep.

It turns out, though, that for well over a century we’ve been insulting our natural wake-sleep cycle by expecting to fall asleep precisely at 10 or 11 p.m., sleep solidly the entire night, and wake promptly at 6 or 7 a.m. There’s accumulating scientific and historical evidence that human beings, like many of our mammalian cousins, weren’t meant to follow what we consider a “normal” wake-sleep pattern of two strictly segregated blocks of time—16 uninterrupted hours awake, 8 uninterrupted hours asleep.

9/30/2009 1:17:37 PM

If we could give up the constraints of what we're taught to expect, a world of possibilities opens and we are much more free and at peace. I've always questioned that we have so little freedom to make our own schedules as we see fit. Who's in charge here? We get to live our lives this one time, and we do it according to rules, laws expectations that aren't in our own best interest as we define it for ourselves... why are minds enslaved to be so affected by these things that are NOT set in stone? Sleep when you want. Eat when you want. Most would say "yeah, right!" But again, I ask, "Who's in charge here?" There has to be a better way... and if more people choose to create a better way, we can evolve toward far greater freedom in our lives than we know now. Some people who think they are free make me chuckle. When you can't sleep and you're lying there measuring the costs of being too tired to perform for the dollar the next day, you need to rethink more than just that next day...

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