Despite our near-constant anxiety about restlessness, Americans today sleep about the same amount as they did 50 years ago.
But it doesn’t mean we’re getting enough shut-eye.
According to a 2020 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, over one-third of US citizens aren’t getting the seven or more hours of sleep each day suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even among those who get enough sleep at least six nights a week, one-quarter say tiredness still interferes with their daily lives regularly.
That’s a lot of time lost due to indolence, but the repercussions of chronic sleep deprivation can be far worse.
People who sleep less than six hours every night have a higher risk of accidents, heart disease, and diabetes.
Yet, from the illumination of screens to our DNA, our desire for sleep is thwarted by a slew of interlocking roadblocks.
The full scale of the situation is impossible to fathom, much like a fading dream.
Decades of studies have honed in on five major roadblocks in our quest for REM.
Understanding what keeps us from falling asleep could mean lulling ourselves into a comfortable rest despite the battle.
LIFE GETS IN THE WAY
In 1964, Josiane Laures, a midwife, and Antoine Senni, a furniture manufacturer, volunteered for a NASA study on the consequences of isolation to help guide future space flights.
They dropped into caves a few hundred yards apart in December and stayed within as long as they could bear it.
When they emerged, Laures after 88 days and Senni after 126, their estimates of how much time had gone were weeks wrong, and their sleep cycles had been severely disrupted.
Senni, for example, might sleep for up to 30 hours at a time.
Laures and Senni’s bodies, like all humans’, followed the circadian rhythm, an internal clock controlled by the brain and designed to respond to the sun.
At sunrise, the sun’s rays cause the body to create more cortisol, a hormone that helps us wake up and get moving.
As the light fades, glands begin to produce melatonin, the chemical that sends us on the path to sleep.
The internal timekeepers of Laures and Senni, however, grew untethered from the environment when they were protected from sunlight by the jagged caves of the French Alps.
Researchers have shown that in the absence of such cues, humans can go into sleep-wake cycles that last up to 48 hours.
Few people will ever have the opportunity to live like Laures and Senni, even if just for a short time.
Many modern behaviors, on the other hand, can subtly alter our evolved rhythms.
Smartphones, computers, and LED lamps all emit “blue light,” a high-energy wavelength that can turn off the melatonin factory and make your inner clock tick.
Your brain is fooled into thinking it’s time to party instead of resting.
Researchers found that people who read an e-book on an iPad before bed took longer to fall asleep, had lower melatonin levels, had less and later REM sleep, and were less alert the next morning than those who read a print book in a 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Our morning habits also help us sleep better. We grab coffee when we wake up exhausted or feel lethargic in the middle of the day.
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, but it also suppresses the production of melatonin and attaches to receptors for adenosine, a neurotransmitter that helps to initiate z’s, making it difficult to fall asleep that night.
Consuming the equivalent of a grande dark roast from Starbucks six hours before bedtime lowered sleep time by more than an hour, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
Sitting all day is also ineffective. Regular exercise can make it simpler to fall asleep and improve the quality of your sleep.
Working out raises your core temperature, which tells your body to stay alert; when it drops between 30 and 90 minutes after you leave the gym, you might feel sleepy.
Unfortunately, 80 percent of Americans do not get enough activity, which the US Department of Health and Human Services defines as at least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week, a requirement that became more difficult to meet when many people turned to at-home work under COVID-19 lockdown.
THE ENTIRE WORLD IS UNCOMFORTABLE
People’s preferred sleeping surroundings differ significantly. Mariah Carey said she needed 15 hours of beauty rest surrounded by 20 humidifiers to lubricate her vocal cords in a 2007 interview, and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps used to retire to a pressurized chamber designed to simulate an altitude of 9,000 feet to force his blood to absorb more oxygen in the hopes of speeding up his workout recovery.
Few individuals have the unique requirements of a Grammy-winning recording artist or an Olympian, but finding comfort is an important element of having a good night’s sleep—and it’s becoming increasingly difficult.
Simple enough: comfortable bedding, a good pillow, enough darkness, and limited or muffled disturbing noise (whether it’s your partner’s snoring or the sounds of the city).
The main issue is temperature: the air should be cool enough, somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
Otherwise, it could obstruct your body’s natural self-refrigeration, which lowers your core and brain temperatures at night to decrease metabolic activities and conserve energy.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult in the United States to achieve the Goldilocks temperature.
Four academics from neuroscience, psychology, and political science collaborated in a 2017 publication to show a link between climate change and slumber—or the lack thereof.
Participants in the poll reported more nights of poor sleep between 2002 and 2011, as average nighttime temperatures rose.
According to the experts, people in the United States will lose 23.8 million nights of sleep every month by 2050 if current trends continue.
Many folks struggle to relax even with their pillows stuffed and the air conditioner blasting.
According to a 2015 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, almost 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, with about a fifth of them also having a sleep disturbance.
Discomfort causes tossing and turning, and alertness in these would-be sleepers.
This disrupts undisturbed repose—a state in which your eyes stop moving and your brain waves calm down—and leads to tiredness, which leads to greater discomfort over time.
Doctors do not endorse the Carey approach or the Phelps plan for these erratic hibernators.
Rather, they encourage everyone to develop a consistent evening habit.
Meditation, according to clinical investigations, helps trigger alpha brain waves, which are most numerous when we sleep.
Sonia Vallabh, a 27-year-old lawyer, received the results of a genetic test in 2011: she had a mutation in her PRNP gene, which would likely result in fatal familial insomnia, a rare disorder that had killed her mother.
It’s caused by prions, or misfolded proteins, that grow and gather in the thalamus, a portion of the brain that controls sleep.
The condition is almost always fatal because the heart and blood vessels can’t repair themselves, the cerebrospinal fluid can’t dispose of waste, and the immune system can’t recalibrate, all of which cause the body to quickly wear down.
Vallabh and her husband decided to change careers. They’re now working as laboratory scientists on medications to treat fatal familial insomnia and other prion disorders like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which causes rapid dementia and death, and Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker, which can lead to a fatal coma.
While just a few dozen families worldwide are known to inherit Vallabh’s mutation, a rising body of research implies that many of us may have some degree of wakefulness programmed into our DNA.
In a work published in the journal Nature Communications in 2019, researchers compared genetic data from 85,670 persons to activity logs from wearable motion sensors.
Certain gene splices—found in skeletal muscles, adrenal glands, and numerous brain regions—were more active in persons with chronic insomnia than in people with “normal” nocturnal cycles, according to the researchers.
One gene, in particular, PDE11A, stood out. Aside from its known roles in depression and Cushing’s disorder, which causes the body to overproduce the stress hormone cortisol, the current research reveals that a splice in persons with insomnia can reduce sleep duration and quality.
Doctors frequently recommend polysomnography, or a sleep study, for patients who have persistent nighttime issues, in which a series of equipment measure brain waves, eye movements, heart rate, breathing pattern, blood oxygen level, and overall movement.
They can use this information to determine which, if any, of the more than 80 types of sleep disorders—from those that can be passed down down the generations, such as restless leg syndrome, to narcolepsy—is interfering with the patient’s ability to sleep.
OUR MIND IS ILL AT EASE
In the 1930s, University of Georgia researchers decided to deprive 17 students of sleep for 100 hours to study the psychological and physical effects of prolonged alertness.
The participants got perplexed, had difficulty reading, and complained of visual problems.
Some people complained of backaches and had trouble telling the difference between hot and cold temperatures by touch.
One individual fluctuated dramatically between sadness and exhilaration on the final day of the experiment.
Even shorter periods of alertness can cause the mind to become unsettled, and the link between sleep and mental health is reciprocal.
Depression, anxiety, trauma, bipolar disorder, and ADHD are among conditions that can make true rest difficult to come by.
Consider major depressive disorder, which affects about 16 million adults in the United States and is the biggest cause of disability among the country’s younger working population.
Almost everyone who has it has some sort of bedtime disturbance as well.
About 75% of patients have insomnia, which makes it difficult to fall and remain asleep, while others have hypersomnia, which makes them feel tired no matter how much time they spend in bed.
During depressed periods, many people swing back and forth between the two extremes.
Doctors still don’t know why sleep and mental health are so closely linked half a century after that University of Georgia study. They are, nonetheless, making progress.
A collection of studies published in the journal Nature Genetics in 2019 linked sleep control problems to genetic abnormalities.
Researchers have long linked some of the same snips discovered in insomniacs to dopamine, a chemical whose low levels can lead to sadness as well as sleep disorders.
Small modifications can help, even if there is a lot to learn. Cutting out stimulants that excite the central nervous system, such as smoking and caffeine, can help you sleep better.
While alcohol helps you fall asleep faster, a meta-analysis of 20 research published in 2013 indicated that moderate to large levels interrupt restorative REM sleep and diminish the amount of time spent in this stage overall.
The effects become more obvious the more you drink.
WISHING DOESN’T MAKE IT SO
In 2020, must-have products such as weighted blankets, prescription sleeping aids, and meditation apps will have combined to make the desire to manage our natural cycles into an $80 billion worldwide market. Despite this, our sleep isn’t getting any better.
The issue could be our obsession with rest: we want it so badly that it refuses to come to us.
Researchers at the University of Oxford in England separated insomniacs into three groups, providing the first two groups various advice on how to sleep and the third group no instructions.
The findings, which were published in 2002, imply that counting sheep had the opposite impact, keeping people awake somewhat longer than visualizing a relaxing scenario of their choice, such as a trip to the beach or a scenic walk to a waterfall.
The researchers hypothesized that tabulating farm animals were simply too monotonous to overcome anxiety associated with the work.
Sleeplessness is reaching new heights as a result of our proclivity to overthink bedtime.
The more we monitor our sleep, the more it appears to avoid us. This phenomenon was dubbed “orthosomnia” by Northwestern University and Rush University Medical School researchers in 2017—the desire for an ideal sleep and the use of wearables to attain it.
The authors mentioned a man who came into the lab because he had associated symptoms like irritation and poor focus to nights when his fitness tracker revealed unsatisfactory rest in one of their three case studies.
He was worried about missing the 8-hour mark, even though he only missed it by 15 minutes on average.
The researchers recommended counseling and lifestyle adjustments to help the patient deal with his stress, but he was dubious and never followed through.
While gathering data is beneficial, the experts determined that focusing on the wrong metrics can prevent us from accepting easy answers.