Our Sleep Problem and What to Do About It
Written by Betsy Isaacson
If you’re feeling cranky, confused or too tired even for sex, blame it on Thomas Alva Edison. We’re all bushed, and it’s all his fault.
Humans have been screwing with their body clocks—and getting less sleep—ever since the Wizard of Menlo Park had his very bright idea. Indeed, our classic eight-hour-night only dates back to the invention of the light bulb in the late 1800s. Historians believe that before the dawn of electric lighting most people got plenty of sleep, and practiced what they call “segmented sleep,” snoozing for several hours in the first part of the night, when darkness fell, then waking in the middle of the night for a few hours of eating, drinking, praying, chatting with friends or maybe even canoodling, before ducking back under the covers again until morning. The arrival of electricity, argues sleep historian A. Roger Ekirch, led to later bedtimes and fewer hours of sleep overall.
We’re still waging a war on sleep, and we are, alas, still winning. Researchers at the University of Chicago recently studied our sleep patterns over time and concluded that we now sleep between one and two hours less than we did 60 years ago. In the 1970s, most Americans slept about 7.1 hours per night: Now the mean sleep duration has plunged to 6.1 hours. An hour lost in 40 years? If we keep up at this rate, we’ll be down to less than four hours a night by the end of the century. And very, very cranky.
So where’s all this sleep gone to? And why are we losing it?
Modern technology, which seems particularly adept at messing with our sleep schedules, is certainly a large part of the problem. Smartphones, tablets and computer screens all emit a bluish light; great for saving power (most energy efficient CFLs and LEDs burn blue, as do the backlights of most screens), but also just right for disrupting our body clocks. “The lights on these electronic devices are colored like enriched moonlight,” says Charles Czeisler, the director of Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. These blue lights drastically suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls the body’s day-night cycle. So reading in bed with an iPad, he says, or any other backlit device, makes it harder to fall asleep at night and makes you more tired the next day.
Shifting all the blame for our sleep problems onto blue light, however, might be disingenuous. The bigger problem might be that we’ve created and now live in a world where stimulation doesn’t stop when the sun goes down—thanks, Tom!—and it’s making us all addicts. Research shows that every time we check our email, Twitter feed or Facebook timeline and find a new piece of information, we get a shot of dopamine—a chemical our brains release to simulate pleasure.
“We eventually associate texts, Twitter [and] Facebook with the promise of instant gratification,” says Kathy Gill, a researcher at the University of Washington who is an expert in human-computer interaction. The temptation to get that quick dopamine shot can be ignored through willpower, says Gill, but willpower’s at an all-time low when we haven’t gotten enough sleep. Hence the cycle of sitting up in bed, listlessly refreshing our email (a recent Pew study found that 83 percent of millennials sleep with their phones nearby) even when it’s way past our bedtime and we really should put our computers and phones down. And our head down on a pillow.
In our efforts to feed the dragon, the quest to eliminate sleep has veered toward the surreal. Once confined to coffee and tea, caffeine is now showing up in topical sprays that promise the rush without the crash, soap that says it’ll give you a buzz in the bath, stockings from Australia that keep you perky and (supposedly) eliminate cellulite and toothbrushes that wake you up while cleaning your teeth. Not to mention the plethora of food products that now contain caffeine: Beer, marshmallows, “perky jerky,” lollipops and bottled water are just a few examples.
Seeing a public that’s gobbling up all the caffeine it can find, ambitious creators of recreational stimulants are now raiding the pharmacopoeias for products, repurposing medicines and dietary supplements (methylsynephrine! creatine!) as additives to keep-awake colas. The popular energy drink Red Bull turned taurine, a formerly obscure amino acid found in the tissue of animals, into a household name and a billion-dollar global business.
Meanwhile, the military is going straight to the brain in search of wakefulness: It is researching a process called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which more or less zaps the brain with electricity, in the hope that it will keep soldiers constantly at the ready. Andy McKinley, an in-house researcher for the U.S. Air Force, helped publish a study on the phenomenon. “When we kept people up for 30 hours, we found that tDCS improved their vigilance performance twice as much as caffeine, and the effect lasted twice as long. Caffeine lasted two hours, tDCS lasted about six.” For the sleep-unhappy public, unregulated and unapproved tDCS-applying devices have already found their way onto civilian markets.
So have large quantities of modafinil, a powerful stimulant used extensively by the military during the recent war in Iraq. Modafinil, marketed in the U.S. as Provigil, was originally designed to treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy. But since the early 2000s, it’s been the drug of choice for Wall Street execs and other power users seeking an afternoon boost. Off-label use rose by more than 15-fold from 2002 to 2013, according to a study published JAMA Internal Medicine.
For those looking to sleep less without drugs or military tech, there’s the “Uberman” sleep schedule: 20 minute naps taken every four hours. That’s just two hours of sleep in every 24 hours. Uberman is based on the theory that while humans experience two types of sleep, we only need one of those to stay alive. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage in which we dream, and it also has been shown in lab tests to be critical to survival: Rodents deprived of REM sleep die after just five weeks. Then there is non-REM sleep, which itself is broken down into four separate stages. One of those is short wave sleep (or SWS). Scientists aren’t really sure what function SWS serves, and Uberman advocates argue that it may not be critical to survival at all.
We spend only 20 percent of our sleeping time in REM sleep, and, usually, we need to work our way up to it, going through non-REM sleep first. But according to the Polyphasic Society, a segmented-sleep advocacy group, that’s a waste. They say the Uberman and sleep schedules like it can force the brain to reconfigure its sleep cycle to avoid the non-REM sleep and jump straight into REM, saving a handful of precious, precious hours every day. The disadvantage? Physical stress, even to the point of lifting heavy objects, can cause Uberman sleepers to unexpectedly “black out.”
Uberman advocates are only a small subset of the many movements that today seem to be waging a war on shut-eye. Despite the conventional wisdom of eight-hours-of-sleep-to-be-healthy, in recent years, CEO testimonials, helpful life-hacking tips and even some scientific studies have tried to convince us we need only five hours of sleep to be healthy, happy and successful.
Writer Douglas Haddow has a theory why: Time isn’t money. Time awake is money. In a recent article for Adbusters, Haddow argues that the reason we sleep less today is because “sleep is the enemy of capital.” While we’re waltzing with the sandman, we can’t do anything productive and, unlike in our leisure time, we can’t even consume (and pay for) the products others make. It’s not quite clear what’s happening in our minds during nap time: Theories range from storing memories and restructuring the brain to simple energy conservation and immune system restoration. But whatever we do, we certainly aren’t buying extra lives on Candy Crush or writing articles for Newsweek. Sleep is perceived to be the enemy of efficiency: inescapable wasted blocks of time that can’t be converted into anything of broader use to society.
Entrepreneurs and capitalists have known this forever, of course. The growth in popularity of coffee and tea during the Industrial Revolution was, as Tom Standage argues in The History of the World in Six Drinks, tied to the working hours and conditions brought on by that revolution. In the early days of factories, owners, Standage argues, saw what the long hours were doing to their employees’ sleep. But instead of offering more time in bed, they’d give them free tea and reap the reward: “Tea kept workers alert on long and tedious shifts and improved their concentration when operating fast moving machines,” he writes. “Factory workers had to function like parts in a well-oiled machine and tea was the lubricant that kept the factories running smoothly.”
It’s worse today. Even those of us who would never check our email at midnight now live in a world where being on call 24 hours a day is commonplace. In 1992, Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, made headlines by revealing that U.S. citizens worked, on average, a month more in 1990 they did in 1970. Since then, the numbers have gotten worse. From 1990 to 2001, Americans added another full week to their working year: That was 137 hours longer than the Japanese, 260 hours longer than the British and 446 hours longer than the Germans, according to a report put out by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. Fast-forward to today: The Bureau of Labor Statistics says Americans are working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept.
It also bears noting that nearly 7 million Americans are currently stringing together part-time jobs: That’s 3 million more than in 2007, when the Great Recession began. These people are likely to have erratic and often inconvenient work schedules; not exactly a recipe for getting proper R&R. Shift workers, in particular, have it tough: In December 2014, the Health Survey for England found that in the U.K., those who worked outside the 12 hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. were substantially “sicker and fatter” than those who worked daytime hours. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that shift work substantially increased the risk of dementia.
Again, millennials seem the most vulnerable: 40 percent of young people work part-time, contract, temp or onetime jobs, with more than half living paycheck to paycheck, according to the 2014 Millennial Study conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Wells Fargo. The Health Survey for England found that 16- to 24-year-olds were the demographic most likely to be stuck doing shift work. And a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association found that of the present generational groupings—millennials, Gen Xers, boomers and mature—millennials were by far the most stressed, and reported the highest rates of “feeling sluggish or lazy” and “having trouble concentrating on things they need to do.”
Millennials are shaping up to be the most sleepless generation yet. While Generation X reports sleeping the fewest hours per night, millennials report the poorest habits: Nearly one-third of those between 18 and 33 say they can’t sleep because they are “thinking of all the things they need to do or did not get done,” and a similar number reports not sleeping at least eight hours a night because “they have too many things to do and not enough time.” Compare that to only 19 percent of Gen Xers and 13 percent of baby boomers.
It’s no surprise that energy drink manufacturers see youth as their primary prey. “Nobody ever wishes they’d slept more during college,” says one Red Bull tagline. And marketing to our overstressed, under slept youth has paid off big time: Globally, the energy drink market’s now worth $27.5 billion, and energy drink consumption has increased 5,000 percent in the U.S. since 1999—just when those millennials were starting to enroll in college.
Today’s youth are also at tremendous risk for long-term, sleep-related health impacts. Sleep-related disorders are on the rise, creeping upward among older workers and becoming staggeringly common in young adults. We’ve long known that sleep is crucial to good health: Bodies subjected to sleep deprivation undergo an ugly metamorphosis until they are in many ways fundamentally different from their sufficiently-slept counterparts. A study published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)showed that chronic sleep deprivation caused “shifts” in the expression levels of more than 700 genes. “Many of these [genes] are related to inflammation and immune and stress response, and overlap with the program of gene expression that is generally associated with high stress levels,” explains Malcolm von Schantz, a researcher at the University of Surrey who helped conduct the PNAS study.
Sleep loss has tremendous cognitive consequences: Dozens of studies have connected lack of sleep to deficits ranging from poor insight formation to diminished working memory. Chronic sleep deprivation is also associated with increased mortality and especially obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and impaired cognitive function, says von Schantz. REM sleep in particular is needed for maintaining brain cells: “Brain cells are some of the few cells in our bodies that we retain throughout our lives,” says Czeisler. “We store our memories, and through their complicated architecture, they are difficult to replace.” Sleep is when toxins accumulated by the body get flushed out of the brain—including big-name baddies like amyloid beta, the plaque that, if it builds up, eventually causes Alzheimer’s.
With all the talent we’ve got working on keeping us up later and later, there’s a chance one of the burgeoning “wakefulness” treatments will solve corporate America’s sleep problem without ruining our bodies and minds. But even if it turns out that zapping our brains or sleeping two hours of every 24 over the long term is completely safe (assuming we don’t, say, do any weightlifting), we can’t keep cutting down on sleep forever. We need to sleep some or eventually we’ll die.
One solution is to make a trade: What if we could cram 24 hours of work into 16, and use the leftovers to get some rest? Plenty have made that bargain by using “smart drugs”: Ritalin, Adderall and non-FDA approved nootropics—cognitive enhancers like Piracetam and Oxiracetam. If current research can be believed, smart drug use among students has become an epidemic: In the U.S., 18 percent of Ivy League students have used cognitive enhancers. Similar numbers of smart drug use has been seen among students in Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Sadly, in many ways the use of smart drugs is a terrifyingly rational reaction to the parallel demands of “do more” and “sleep more”; unlike coffee, Coca-Cola or modafinil, smart drugs are thought to increase efficiency without robbing sleep. Poppers of Piracetam don’t have to worry about crashing, burnout or ominous future health risks; they can meet all the demands of daily life while still sleeping that blessed eight hours.
But do we really want an entire society running on smart drugs to keep up with our self-inflicted rat race? Though the health risks associated with the use and abuse of smart drugs haven’t been extensively studied, a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience indicates that long-term use of cognitive enhancers may decrease brain plasticity—especially in younger users. In other words, the cost of short-term productivity may be long-term creativity, adaptability and intelligence.
There are also some thorny ethical issues to navigate. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively on what he calls “cosmetic neurology”: the use of smart drugs to enhance work performance. He says we may be headed toward an “arms race of accomplishment,” where the haves (those who can afford smart drugs and are willing to take them) will push out the have-nots (those who can’t, or won’t). And, as with any arms race, it has the potential to continue until it reaches dangerous extremes.
As millennials move from college into the workforce, their desire to beat back sleep is coming with them. The only real solution might be to make fundamental alterations to our work environment. In some places, change is already afoot. Germany has banned after-hours emails to government workers; a law passed in Brazil in 2012 says workers who have to take calls or emails from employers after work can charge their bosses overtime. In the U.S., a few progressive companies have taken the lead; The Huffington Post has installed nap rooms in its offices, while Treehouse now mandates four-day workweeks.
These efforts might be good for everyone involved. It turns out, according to a paper published by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, that productivity at work is highest when people work around 30 hours per week. And according to a 2010 study published in the journal Cognition, even short breaks at work—like, say, naps—increase engagement with work substantially. These countries, and companies that follow the science to buck the trend of “sleep less, do more” are beginning to recognize that sleep is more than just wasted time. It’s time we all wake up and recognize that sleep is a fundamental human need.