I’ve been on the lookout for a good night’s sleep since I was 10 years old. It was a bout of perfectionism over a fifth-grade science project that first threw my delicate dream rhythms off balance. On the eve of my bat mitzvah, my father kindly slipped me a Valium—cut precisely in half for a makeshift child’s dose. I indulged in some pint-sized handwringing over sleeplessness, but by the time I got to college I had fully embraced my wakeful nature. Insomnia was in fact my secret superpower: Needing less sleep than others meant that I could study well into the night. I graduated with high honors, a bouquet of awards, and bags under my eyes. After two babies, an insurmountable sleep debt began its steady climb. Perhaps my weaker adult metabolism couldn’t handle the deficit, because navigating life after a bad night felt like stumbling through heavy fog. Sleep was the new sex—and I wasn’t getting enough.
I know I’m not alone in my quest for that sweet elixir: more Zs. As many as 30 to 40 percent of Americans experience occasional sleeplessness, according to the American Sleep Association. The number of chronic insomniacs is smaller, estimated at 10 percent. Yet even the average, easy sleepers among us are not getting as much shut-eye as they used to. In 1960—when most television stations went off the air at midnight and the Internet and cell phones didn’t yet exist—a National Cancer Society survey found that most people reported an average of 8½ hours of sleep a night. Today, surveys peg the average sleep time to be a Spartan 6½ to 7 hours.
Sleep is simply not fashionable in the 21st century. In these days of digital stimulation, omnipresent Starbucks, and overpacked schedules, it’s more likely that we’ll boast of how little sleep we need and how much we’ve accomplished than regale our friends with tales of long, luxurious stretches of unconsciousness. Bill Clinton is a poster boy of the “short sleeper,” claiming to need only four or five hours of slumber a night; likewise for other world-dominators like Martha Stewart, Margaret Thatcher, and Condoleezza Rice. Yet is there a health price to pay for short-changing our biological needs? Is there hope for the sleep-challenged among us—whether we’re night owls by nature, suffering from true sleep disorders, or simply conforming to a highly caffeinated societal norm? My snooze-deprived mind buzzing with questions, I call a sleep doctor for answers. In fact, I call three—and all are too busy to call me back. Sign of the times?
Your Brain on Less Sleep
While I can’t seem to get a small-town sleep doctor on the phone to save my life, one of the world’s preeminent sleep researchers—Dr. David Dinges—returns my call almost immediately. As the head of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the Hospital at University of Pennsylvania, Dinges performs sleep studies for the likes of the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and the Department of Defense. For the past 15 years, you might say that he’s been hosting a continuous sleepover party in his lab, with one crucial ingredient in short supply: sleep. “We probably study more healthy people undergoing chronic partial sleep loss than any other laboratory in the world,” says Dinges.
In a 2004 study, Dinges and his team assigned subjects to three different groups: Some slept four hours, others slept six hours, and a lucky control group slept eight hours a night. Over a two-week period, each group was tested for its ability to sustain attention and cognitive function. It came as no surprise that the eight-hour group sailed through beautifully and the four-hour group bombed the tests. Yet the six-hour group fared equally badly. In fact, they performed as poorly as those who, in another Dinges study, had skipped sleep for 24 hours—a similar cognitive state to being legally drunk. Even more interesting, the subjects seemed unaware of their impairment, reporting that they felt mentally clear and “good to go.” With chronic partial sleep loss, says Dinges, “We’ve seen that there’s a systematic deterioration in alertness and cognitive function, but not everyone is affected equally.” Dinges explains that, yes, those rare, high-achieving short-sleepers really do exist, though they are poor judges of their own ability to thrive on little sleep. “Everyone will eventually become impaired on less sleep, but some can go further.”
These days, Dinges and his team are looking at another issue: How much recovery, and what kind of recovery, do we need to offset the consequences of chronic partial sleep loss? “We’re trying to understand the effects of a lifestyle that lots of people live in reducing their sleep during the workweek and attempting to recover on the weekend,” says Dinges. “We’ve found that the more sleep you get in the recovery period, the more recovery of cognitive systems occurs. But you don’t quite get back to normal on every measure of brain function.” Thinking of all the sleep I’ve lost over the years, my heart sinks to hear this news. “You don’t ever get it back?” I ask fearfully. “Well,” he says, “we don’t really know that yet.”
Paging Dr. Shut-Eye
Meanwhile, I’m still trying to get a sleep doctor on the phone. At times it seems as likely as having tea with the president. “She is just bombarded with patients right now,” says one receptionist about the doctor who directs a local hospital’s sleep center. I’m used to having trouble reaching doctors these days. But a sleep doctor? This isn’t life or death stuff. Or is it? According to Dinges, when average sleep dips below seven hours, there’s a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, all related to increased mortality.
Okay, now I’m motivated. Redoubling my efforts to find a sleep doctor and get some advice, I finally connect with Dr. Mohammed Aziz, medical director of the sleep lab at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Fishkill. While Dinges looks at healthy, middle-of-the-road sleepers for his studies, Aziz sees patients who present a number of sleep disorders, from restless leg syndrome to narcolepsy. The most common issue is obstructive sleep apnea, in which the back part of the tongue repeatedly falls and closes off the breathing passages. People with this issue, related to snoring, can experience as many as 40 or 50 unconscious wake-ups an hour as the brain rouses just long enough to clear the airways. Side effects can include weight gain and sexual dysfunction, since poor-quality sleep can affect testosterone levels. Disorders like this can also threaten marriages. “I had one couple that had been sleeping in different bedrooms for the past three years and was on the verge of divorce,” says Aziz, who explained that a lack of sleep had left both partners irritable, anxious, and unable to get along. “They were actually sent to me by a marriage counselor,” says Aziz, who may well have saved more than one relationship in the course of his career.
When it comes to insomnia, Aziz says he often has to dig deeper to find an underlying cause. Factors can include depression, medication side effects, other sleep disorders, and ultimately, lifestyle. “The biggest pillar of the disorder is something called sleep hygiene,” says Aziz. Keeping good sleep hygiene means conforming to a long list of no-nos, including no coffee or tea after 3pm, no rigorous exercise at night, no alcohol, and no TV in the bedroom. It’s a strict plan, and the term “sleep hygiene” seems unfortunate, making me think that the Sand Man won’t come if you don’t smell good. And besides, what if insomnia is just a natural nocturnal rhythm for some of us and there really is no underlying cause? What if it’s our secret superpower? What then?
Spirit in the Dark
For Clark Strand, a writer and meditation teacher based in Woodstock, insomnia is not just a superpower: It’s a chance to connect to the Divine. In the mid 1990s, when he was in his late 30s, Strand developed what doctors call “sleep fragmentation.” He would fall asleep without trouble yet he would wake in the night and not be able to drift off again for one to two hours. “I just assumed I was anxious,” says Strand, who noticed that his sleep was fragmenting at exactly the same time every night. “My doctor couldn’t explain that,” he says. Thus began a 10-year quest by Strand to understand his nocturnal awakenings. He read studies about research subjects who experienced fragmented sleep naturally when they were taken off electric light. And, a Buddhist by training, he read volumes of spiritual texts that revealed something curious: Every religious tradition has some form of what Strand calls the Hour of God—rising in the night for spiritual practice. “In Judaism it’s Tikkun Chatzot (midnight prayer), in Islam it’s Tahajjud, and in Buddhism it’s Ushitora Gongyo,” says Strand. “In Christianity they call it the Night Office. It goes back to Paleolithic times. This is how people naturally slept—there’s a first and second sleep of the night. Once I found this, my struggles with insomnia were over and my nights of meditative bliss had begun.”
Strand believes that insomnia is often wrongly pathologized, with a “multimillion dollar hoax” of a sleeping-pill industry to support it. “Some people suffer from genuine sleep disorders,” says Strand, “and I’m glad there are doctors and specialists who can treat them. But for people like myself, who simply wake up for two hours in the middle of the night, they’re waking up not because something is wrong with them, but because something is right.” In his meditation courses, Strand helps people find their own practice for wee-hour wake-ups, calling them “a nightly meditation retreat for everyone on Earth.” He notes that many practitioners need to go to bed an hour or two earlier to make up for the lost sleep, but when they wake in the night they no longer have to experience torment and frustration. “Sometimes people break down and cry when they hear me talk about this, because they’ve suffered from insomnia for years. They say, ‘I’ve been looking at it all wrong. Now I feel happy and at peace.’”
As I listen to Strand wax lyrically about a life lived in rhythm with the stars, I’m sure that he is right. Whatever your religion—whether it’s chanting mantras, studying for exams, or painting stilllifes—the nighttime hours offer a luminous opportunity to awake to your own personhood and connect to your heart’s desire. But remembering Dinges’ warnings about cognitive decline and the health issues related to short sleeping, and Aziz’s stories of life-enhancing transformation after proper sleep is restored, I feel more protective than ever of those blissfully comatose bedtime hours. I’m ready to adopt Strand’s rapturous manifesto as my own. But first, I think I’ll have a little nap.