Are We Overthinking Sleep?

Are We Overthinking Sleep?

With all the tips, gadgets and high-tech sleep aids on the market, sleep hasn’t just become commodified, it’s become overwhelmingly complicated. Maybe it’s time to simplify our approach.

Illustrations by GRACIA LAM

Forget the Birkin bag. Never mind the Bentley. In fact, ignore every single item gleefully name-checked by Kanye West. Sleeping well is the ultimate status symbol—an indication that your life runs so smoothly, your working life is so well balanced and your children are so well behaved that you maintain a steady diet of peaceful nights. Like all luxury goods, decent sleep can appear to be the purview of the 1 percent: Arianna Huffington has appointed herself the ambassador of shut-eye, but it’s hard to untangle her appeal for a better-rested society from the extravagant “sleep sanctuary” where she accomplishes that feat. (There are barley-stuffed pillows and a bed surrounded by designer Italian curtains, for starters.)

Unlike other material indulgences, however, there’s no doubt now that sleep is a crucial elixir for good health: We’ve spent the past decade receiving that message. “Before that, those of us in the field felt we were fringe specialists,” says Dr. Rachel Morehouse, medical director of the Atlantic Sleep Centre in Saint John, N.B. “Now it seems we’re being taken seriously.” Recent research has helped the cause, finding insufficient sleep to be a culprit in hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety, obesity, stroke, cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. That’s concerning for many of us: The Canadian Sleep Society says that nearly 30 percent of Canadian women have trouble falling or staying asleep on a regular basis. Sixty-seven percent of people, according to the 2016 Canadian Sleep Review, are looking for better shut-eye.

It’s easy to determine where to lay the blame. “Our Western work culture is not a sleep-friendly culture,” says Morehouse, who led the sleep review. Office hours are no longer limited to time spent in the building; morning and night, we’re surgically attached to our smartphones, where we field emails and review documents while toggling between Facebook and YouTube. When we finally unwind, it’s in front of televisions or tablets. “We’re mammals—we’re not meant to be creatures of 24-hour light,” Morehouse says. “We need light conditions for part of the day and darkness for the other part.”

But if technology is the culprit, there’s also a temptation to turn to it for the cure. Desperate for sleep, we invest in mattresses that boast mystifying advances like PrimaCool gel and viscoelastic memory foam; we consider high-performance PJs that promise to regulate body temperature and improve blood flow. There are white noise machines to block out the sounds of the city (and our families) and gradual-light alarm clocks that mimic a sunrise to nudge us gently from bed. iPhone apps called Sleep Time, Sleep Genius and SleepBot all offer a real-time look at the quality and quantity of our slumber. FitBit unveiled a feature called Sleep Schedule this past June.

Sleep hasn’t just been commodified, it’s become unbearably complicated. Bells and whistles bookend our restless time in bed. And when headlines scream about sleep-deprivation epidemics, and more than 20 million sleeping pills were prescribed in Canada last year—the findings of a recent Global News documentary—it’s easy to believe we are a nation of unprecedented insomniacs. But has the actual amount of sleep we log declined in our hyper-connected post-industrial age? Are we overthinking the problem?

It’s hard to know precisely how much people slept before the advent of electricity, since the measures we use to monitor sleep rely on (you guessed it) electricity. So Dr. Jerome Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and his team decamped for Tanzania, Namibia and Bolivia to study groups of traditional hunter-gatherers whose lifestyles closely resemble those of our evolutionary ancestors. A small, unobtrusive wristwatch-sized device was used to chart when they slept, when they woke and whether they dozed during the day.

Siegel’s study, which was published last year in Current Biology, found that the hunter-gatherers clocked an average of six hours and 25 minutes of sleep per day. (That’s about 90 minutes less than the average Canadian woman, who, according to a 2016 University of Michigan study, conks out around 11 p.m. and wakes up a little past 7 a.m.) The tribespeople also stayed awake long past sunset and largely dispensed with midday naps. Hunter-gatherers: They’re just like us!

And their habits coincide with modern clinical recommendations for achieving a better night’s sleep: Stick to a consistent schedule, put the gadgets away and turn the temperature down. “Their awakening times are very regular, around sunrise, and the sleep period occurs entirely within the coldest part of the night,” Siegel says. While power napping for productivity is all the rage, he adds that “one of the standard elements of sleep hygiene is not to nap, because you won’t have sufficient sleep drive during the night.” It also goes without saying that no hunter-gatherer ever lost sleep from looking at the piercing blue light of a smartphone.

Other notable absences from the hunter-gatherers’ nighttime routine include fresh lavender baths, moisture-wicking satin sheets and a Sleep Sensei monitoring device. When we struggle helplessly with sleep, there’s an understandable instinct to reach for the thousand aids and strategies that allow us to feel, just by using them, that we’re once again in control. But the simplest sleep rules really are the soundest. “You have to set the scene to invite sleep in—you can’t drag it in,” Morehouse says. “Sleep is about relaxation. It’s not about doing something; it’s more about not doing something. It’s about letting go, not grabbing on.”

It’s monumentally frustrating to hear that being anxious about sleep is not a good way to get it, but it happens to be true. “People can develop performance anxiety about sleep, which only acts to keep them awake longer,” Morehouse says. “Maybe you tell yourself you’re going to make things quiet, comfortable and dark, and that rest is the goal, not sleep. Enjoy resting for a while.”

There isn’t a single sleep routine to aim for—some people need more shut-eye, while others get by perfectly well on less. Ditch the apps and pay attention instead to what your body suggests works best for you. And if you do struggle to sleep seven hours, try not to resent a partner or friend who easily achieves eight. “There’s no reason to think they’re going to outlive you,” Siegel says. “People have different heights, different eye colours and different amounts of time they sleep. One is not necessarily better than the other.”

Absolutely, sleep is a critical pillar of our health, right up there with diet and exercise. But just as we needn’t complicate sleep, we also shouldn’t catastrophize it. “I think there’s been a bit of scaremongering,” Morehouse says. “People have been trying to get the message out that sleep is important, and maybe they’ve gone a little overboard.” Now that’s some comforting wisdom to curl up with at night.