Forty percent of Americans sleep less than seven hours per night, and that's a problem.
Of the many pieces of folk wisdom handed down through the generations, the necessity of sleep is of primary importance. While sleep research was effectively in the dark (pun presented but not intended) for eons, the list of benefits of a good night’s sleep—better memory retention; stronger immune system functioning; better attentional control; less aggressive and impulsive behavior; less need for sugars and carbs, implicated in willpower studies—has changed our understanding of the time we spend “doing nothing.”
Which is why new research published in the journal, Sleep Medicine, should be alarming. Thanks to the increased usage of social media and smartphones, teenagers are losing sleep at alarming rates. While seven hours a night is recommended for adults, adolescents require nine, given the continuing formation of brain circuitry, especially the prefrontal cortex where many rational decisions are made. We don’t make the best choices when groggy.
Analyzing a whopping 360,000 teenagers, a team led by San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge found that 40 percent of teens slept less than seven hours a night in 2015. Teens who spend five hours or more a day online were significantly more likely to fall into this group than teens online for an hour or less.
This disastrous phenomenon is not limited to teens. As Twenge concludes,
Given the importance of sleep for both physical and mental health, both teens and adults should consider whether their smartphone use is interfering with their sleep. It’s particularly important not to use screen devices right before bed, as they might interfere with falling asleep.
Forty percent is also not a number limited to teens. Turns out that’s also the total number of Americans getting less than seven hours of sleep every night. Respondents 65 and older were in the highest group, with 67 percent claiming at least seven hours, while parents of young children and lower-income workers struggle to achieve that number. Young adults also fall short of the mark.
This has led sleep scientist Matthew Walker to proclaim a disturbing reality for many young Americans today:
Not only does sleep disruption play a role in the declining mental abilities that typify Alzheimer’s disease, but getting enough sleep is one of the most important factors determining whether you will develop the condition in the future.
Walker points to the fact that sleep helps memories become solidified in the architecture of the brain. The creation of long-term memories is integrated from experiences into the fabric of your history, and therefore identity, though the process of sleep.
Yet humans are terribly complacent when considering best practices involving the future. A smoker knows cancer is likely around the corner, yet puffs anyways; the same goes for alcoholics and cirrhosis, obesity, and other diseases. Most drivers recognize that texting while behind the wheel results in over 400,000 injured or dead every year, yet that’s always the other person—it could never happen to me. Chances that you’ll ply the phone from a teen or adult with a promise of decreased risk of dementia decades from now are minimal.
But the lack of sleep is harming us, now. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that 47 million Americans don’t get restorative sleep, with real world consequences: our insomnia costs the US eighteen billion dollars a year in lost productivity and accidents. Speaking of accidents, 20 percent of car crashes—1.2 million—are attributed to tired drivers.
Preempting the problem with sleeping pills is not the path forward. Pills like Ambien and Rozerem have been shown to only increase sleep seven to nineteen minutes per night, with a host of attendant side effects (including, amazingly, insomnia).
Sleep is such big business that it is now considered a sign of status. On certain days I work in Beverly Hills and Hollywood, regions of Los Angeles where plastic surgeries that make you look inhuman are markers of affluence. That something as basic and primary as a good night’s sleep is now part of our fragmented cultural milieu is highly disturbing. We live in a competitive society already. Bragging about your proficiency in being unconscious is not a sign of a developed mind.
We should all be getting a good night’s rest. If that means restructuring society to accommodate such a goal, so be it. Rising rates of inattention and dementia are not helping our economy, relationships, or much of anything. In a nation that has offered so much to science, that we can’t get the basics down is a dangerous signal that something is systemically wrong.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Nikola Tesla, Franz Kafka, and Winston Churchill all practiced polyphasic sleep.
According to the National Institutes of Health, we spend about 26 years of our life asleep, one-third of the total. The latest research states that between 6.4 and 7.5 hours of sleep per night is ideal for most people. But some need more and others less. A contingent out there, mostly women, do surprisingly well on just six hours.
There is even some data to suggest that a slim minority, around three percent of the population, thrive on just three hours sleep per night, with no ill effects. Of course, most people need much more.
Americans are getting far less sleep today than in the past. Cutting out needful rest could damage your health, long-term— as a recent study showed, sleep is essential to clearing the brain of toxins that build up over the course of the day. It also helps in memory formation and allows other organs to repair themselves. Our professional lives and our natural cycles don’t always mesh. Often, they are at odds.
What if you are insanely busy, like ten times the norm? Say you are going to medical school, earning your PhD, or are trying to get a business off the ground. There may not be enough hours in the day for what you have to do.
One thing you can do is rearrange your sleep cycle to give yourself more time. Paleoanthropologists espouse that our ancestors probably didn’t sleep for seven hours at a clip, as it would make them easy prey. Instead, they probably slept at different periods throughout the day and night, and you can too.
Though we find many modern ways to do it, napping could have played a central role in our ancestor’s lives.
What we consider a “normal” sleep cycle is called monophasic. This is sleeping for one long period throughout the night. In some Southern European and Latin American countries, the style is biphasic. They sleep five to six hours per night, with a 60-90 minute siesta during midday. There is a historical precedent too: before the advent of artificial light, most people slept in two chunks each night of four hours each, with an hour of wakefulness in-between. Then there is polyphasic sleep. This is sleeping for different periods and amounts of time throughout the day.
Certain paragons of history slept this way including Leonardo Da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Franz Kafka, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Edison, among others. The idea gained popularity in the 1970s and 80s among the scientific community. Buckminster Fuller, a famous American inventor, architect, and philosopher of the 1900s, championed this kind of slumber. He branded his version Dymaxion sleep.
Here, you take a half hour nap every six hours and sleep a total of just two hours per night. Swiss artist Francesco Jost practiced it for 49 days straight once, while observed by Italian neurologist Claudio Stampi. At first, Jost had trouble adjusting. But soon after, he was able to make it work with few side effects. He did have trouble waking at times, however. But the artist gained five more hours each day.
R. Buckminster Fuller, with his design of a domed city in the background.
Do a quick search of polyphasic sleep and you find that many people around the world are experimenting with it. There are different ways of doing it. Some try the Uberman schedule. Here, one takes six 30 minute naps throughout the day at 2pm., 6pm., 10pm, 2am, 6am, and 10am. That’s three hours of sleep total. Another way to do it is the Everyman Schedule. Here, a three hour chunk of sleep takes place between 1 A.M. and 4 A.M. Then, three 20 minute naps occur throughout the day at 9am, 2pm, and 9pm. That’s around 4.5 hours of sleep daily.
So what’s the science behind this radical system? Unfortunately, no long-term research has been conducted, yet. One 2007 study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, found that most animals sleep on a polyphasic schedule, rather getting their sleep all at once. This also begs the question, how much sleep does the human brain need to function properly? The answer is unknown.
Sleep is broken into three cycles. There is light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The last one is considered the most important and restful of phases. We don’t stay in any one phase for long. Instead, we cycle through these constantly throughout the night. So with polyphasic sleep, the idea is to experience these three phases in shorter amounts of time, and wake up rested.
Image by Häggström, Mikael. "Medical gallery of Mikael Häggström 2014". Wikiversity Journal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.008. ISSN 20018762.
We don't know the exact purpose of these phases. Sleep is still something of a mystery. Without a good understanding, it’s difficult to quantify the impact a polyphasic schedule has. One question is whether such a schedule allows for enough REM sleep. Polyphasic practitioners say they are able to enter the REM phase quickly, more so than with a monophasic style. Jost for example, claimed he could enter REM sleep immediately. This quick entry into the REM state is known as “repartitioning.” The deprivation of sleep may help the body enter REM quickly, as an adaptation.
So what are the downsides of this altered sleep cycle? Boredom and a limited social life. For those who want to go out drinking with friends, stay up late watching movies, or spend time with the kids, the drastic schedule change can cause problems. It has to be rigidly kept to work. Another concern, some studies have shown that those who sleep under five or six hours per night may have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and lower immune system functioning.
Some argue that sleep theories just don’t account for human diversity in needs. For instance, some insomniacs have praised a polyphasic style for helping them regain the ability to sleep. At issue is the lack of data. But of course, anyone who is considering seriously taking part in such a style should consult a physician and keep in touch with him or her regularly, throughout the process.
How people sleep and how much they need varies widely. This may or may not have a genetic component. More research on sleep may help us to determine what our brain and body needs, and how we can adjust our sleep patterns to get the most out of our day, without sacrificing our health.
To hear more about a polyphasic sleep style click here: