If you asked most people what constitutes a “good night sleep” they would likely say sleeping for about 8 hours without getting up. Most experts, including the National Sleep Foundation, would agree that most adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. There is no question that getting enough sleep is critical to your health. Numerous scientific studies into various sleep topics have provided a solid understanding of just how critical it is to our health, happiness, and well-being.
But what if sleeping for 7 or 8 hours straight is something you struggle to do? Does that mean you have a sleep disorder? Do you need to take medication to help you get to sleep and stay asleep so you can wake up refreshed and ready to go? Not necessarily. A piece recently published in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times that suggests there may be something else going on for those of us who do everything right and still struggle to sleep the way we think we are supposed to each night.
For many people, the idea that a good night sleep entails sleeping for 8 or 9 hours is so strongly engrained that to suggest something else feels akin to blasphemy. But is seems like the 8 straight idea of sleep is a relatively new one that we have constructed to suit the significant changes to everyday life that have come about since the widespread adoption of electricity. Before there were electric lights and constantly-pinging gadgets in our lives, we followed a schedule more closely dictated by our natural surroundings. It helped that many of us were “self employed” either as farmers on our own land or tradesmen who worked from our homes. Lacking light in the middle of the night and the need for a rigid schedule dictated by society and an employer, historical references show that we slept much differently than we do now.
The fact is, according to the NY Times piece, we aren’t really built for 8 or 9 straight hours of sleep. Neither our bodies nor our brains seem to require this kind of solid block to function optimally. This doesn’t mean that all the research and all the experts on sleep are wrong. The suggestion is not that we don’t need all that sleep; it’s that we may not need it all at once. Since almost a third of working adults are getting less than 6 hours of sleep each night according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it may not be a bad idea to look for radical alternatives to help people get the sleep they need to be healthy.
There is scientific research indicating that that a different approach to sleep may be the answer for many people who struggle to get the sleep they need in the standard 8 hour block way. The results of an experiment published in the Journal of Sleep show that when deprived of artificial light, people will develop a segmented sleep pattern consistently of a period of sleep, a period of wakefulness around midnight that can last as long as 3 hours, followed by another period of sleep. While these findings are an isolated example, they do open the door to the idea that the path to developing a healthy relationship with sleep may not be quite so straight.
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