Miles O'Brien

Reporting on space, science, aviation & tech.

“I’ll Sleep When I am Dead” and other Myths

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Me at FL 370 on Virgin America flight 366 from LAX to BOS on November 14, 2012.

I really should be asleep right now. I am on a Red Eye at 37,000 feet – somewhere between LA and Boston. I only got five hours of sleep last night; obligations late last night and early this morning.

This is not an unusual sequence of events in most of our lives. We over-program our days, and when push comes to shove, we trim our sleep time in order to fit it all in. We might think we are doing the right thing by trying to max out our waking moments, after all, we will all “sleep when we are dead.”

But there is a huge stack of evidence we are hastening the arrival of our dirt nap by burning the candles at both ends. Our illusory quest to push the sleep envelope makes us fatter, sicker, sadder, stupider and, ultimately less long-lived.

But how much sleep do we need? It depends. Some folks need more than others. Eight hours may be a good number to aim for, but not for everyone. If you are routinely awakened by an iPhone Marimba or other alarming requests for consciousness, and cannot really function until you have tossed back a grande latte, you are clearly not getting enough shuteye. But we all know that.

If you want to learn what your optimal sleep time is, simply take note of how many unconscious hours have elapsed when you awaken naturally, not at the urging of an alarm, a child, a partner or a dog. You might be one of the lucky ones who can function with less.

The idea that eight hours is the universal Holy Grail is a myth sleep researchers would like to dispel. The truth is, the pursuit of that arbitrary goal can lead people down the road to serious problems with insomnia. People who sleep less may wrongly feel pressure to get more, prompting the sheep counting and a lot of anxiety when that doesn’t work out. This is a vicious cycle that leads us to even more time staring at the ceiling.

Often people turn to sleeping pills to solve this problem. Their use is skyrocketing in the U.S. thanks to some aggressive advertising. But sleep researchers say many of us are wasting out money and harming our health.

“There’s no evidence in literature that taking sleeping pills themselves are something that produced a health benefit,” said UCLA psychiatry professor Jerry Siegel. Siegel also worries that the pills can mask more serious problem an insomniac might have with anxiety.

But wait, there is more.

“The sleep you get with most sleeping pills is impoverished sleep,” says Harvard psychiatry professor Robert Stickgold. He says the pills generate less deep sleep and and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) time. So you might be out longer without the commensurate benefit. You might as well be up and answering email.

I can, and should, log eight hours of sleep every night. I know this is true, and yet I find it hard to do – given the nature my itinerate “workstyle.” The counterintuitive message from the experts is clear: the more we sleep, the more productive our conscious hours will be.

But if I go to sleep now, I won’t finish this piece. If only we could sleep like dolphins, on one side of the brain at a time. Of course we would have to plan our work according to which hemisphere was in play: when the right brain is asleep, pay bills and do tax returns. Left brain napping, write blog posts.