Seventy-six percent of Americans are lacking something right now. No, it's not the latest fad fashion, electronic device or even money in the bank. It's sleep. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb so that people could work at night, and there are now 25 million night shift workers in U.S.-occupied territory. Thanks to the light bulb and the later invention of television, sleep quantity (per person) has decreased by about 20 percent since 1900. Furthermore, 76 percent of Americans have a sleeping disorder at least a few days per week, contributing to our society's epidemic of daytime sleepiness, depression and adrenal fatigue, sleep therapist Dr. Rubin Naiman said in his November lecture at the 2005 Complementary and Alternative Medicine Conference (CAMCON) in Tucson, Ariz.
Modern Western society doesn't comply with our natural biorhythms. Humans are built to nap, according to Dr. Naiman. When we override our natural desire for midday rest, the conflict carries over to sleep disturbances at night. Furthermore, similar to the problem of our junk food-laden diets, we're overfed yet undernourished when it comes to light. During the day, we receive dampened light from fluorescent bulbs rather than the vitamin D-rich sunlight that our bodies need. Then, during the night when we need the dark to trigger essential melatonin production, excessive light at night (LAN) erodes our "lunar consciousness" and throws our body rhythms out of balance. In short, we have too much light when we don't need it (at night) and too little when we do (during the day).
Melatonin, a neurochemical released from the pineal gland, is as essential to the human body today as it was during our evolution. Accordingly, Dr. Naiman talks in great detail about this product of serotonin, even looking back into the ancient Greco-Roman perspective of it and sleep in general.
From a purely biological standpoint, melatonin, which is produced during absence of light, communicates the fact that it is night to our bodies, triggering the release of GABA, our bodies' natural tranquilizer. LAN suppresses melatonin production, hindering this entire process and setting the stage for a phenomenon many of us know all too well: Daytime sleepiness.
Even though we're tired during the day, rest is somewhat of a taboo topic in modern society. We tend to associate it with laziness and, as Dr. Naiman points out, "When we rest, we experience the opportunistic emergence of our shadow issues." In other words, resting often gives us time to think about everything we'd rather forget, which is one of the reasons why many people don't like to rest. It's the common "I-don't-have-time-to-think" phenomenon. Unfortunately, as adrenal fatigue expert Dr. James Wilson explains in his November lecture at the 2005 First Arizona Choices Exposition in Tucson, Ariz., "Our lifestyles have changed, but our bodies haven't." We may not like to rest, or perhaps have time for it, but our bodies still desire it.
In fact, napping can provide amazing health benefits. It lowers diastolic blood pressure, improves mood, improves work and school performance (bosses and educators take note) and helps readjust our nighttime sleep patterns back to the way our ancestors slept before the Industrial Age and, according to some experts, the way our bodies were designed to sleep at night. Historian A. Roger Ekirch of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that, before the Industrial Age changed everything, people slept in two phases: "First sleep," a period of being awake shortly after midnight, and "second sleep."
Using this historical data as his guide, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) psychiatrist Dr. Thomas A. Wehr set out to learn if the human body would revert back to this segmented sleep pattern, given natural, pre-Industrial conditions. In Dr. Wehr's study, 15 healthy adults were prohibited from using any artificial light from dusk to dawn and given 14 hours (6 p.m. to 8 a.m.) for sleep. They slept 11 hours each the first few nights to presumably catch up on lost sleep, but then eventually settled into a pattern beginning with a few hours of nighttime rest.
This nighttime rest is "an essential bridge to night consciousness," according to Dr. Naiman. We have to slow down before we can fall asleep and experience hypnagogia, a sleep-onset dream. Unfortunately, many of us don't take the time to pursue nighttime rest for psychological and sociological reasons.
After a few hours of nighttime rest, Dr. Wehr's volunteers then fell into REM asleep for three to five hours ("first sleep") before awakening. During REM sleep, the brain is as active as when it is awake. Due to this alertness without daytime constraints, regularly awakening from REM sleep is significant in itself, as it allows people to remember and reflect on their dreams in a semiconscious state, according to Dr. Wehr. In fact, he attributes modern society's disconnection with dreams, myths and fantasies to our lack of midnight reflection.
Following this hour or so of quiet time, the volunteers then slept for about four more hours before finally awakening. In conclusion, the NIMH study reinforced Ekirch's historical data, making it seem likely that the human body would naturally like to sleep as it did before artificial lighting, and that waking up midway through the night is innate, rather than a disease meant to be treated with sleeping pills.
Given that most of us are not getting the quality or quantity of sleep our bodies require, and that our schedules often don't allow time for naps, what are we supposed to do about our daytime sleepiness? Many of us turn to high-glycemic carbohydrates like white flour or refined sugar as the answer, putting our bodies at risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes. We also mask our sleepiness with caffeine, making it what Dr. Naiman calls the "fuel of industrialized culture."
Three hundred million cups of coffee are consumed in the United States each day and it is the second-most commonly traded commodity in the world. Unfortunately, our misguided "solution" to daytime sleepiness only adds to the sleep disorders we experience at night, as caffeine's half-life is 7.5 hours, meaning that you still have half the amount of caffeine in your bloodstream more than seven hours after you drink or eat a caffeinated product. No wonder we can't fall asleep at night, or even get a "good night's sleep" when we do.
Lack of sleep eventually leads to fatigue, which is much more serious than everyday drowsiness. By Dr. Naiman's definition, fatigue is a "sustained state of exhaustion, a lack of physical or mental energy." As you might imagine, fatigue is all too common today, accounting for 10 million outpatient physician visits in the United States per year, mostly associated with depression. Ironically, Big Pharma's answers to depression, SSRI drugs, actually worsen the sleep-related problems they were designed to relieve. Pharmaceuticals like Prozac cause reduced REM latency, which actually promotes depression, Dr. Naiman explains.
The real solution to fatigue is easy enough: Make time to rest. Taking a break from time to time doesn't mean that you're lazy; it means that you want to be healthy. Plus, keep in mind that attaining healthy sleep will actually increase your overall productivity and your enjoyment of life.