Cashing in on sleeplessness: the pathologization of sleep.

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  • Cashing in on sleeplessness: the pathologization of sleep.

For some time, I was obsessed with the thought that something must be wrong because I was not able to get the recommended eight hours of sleep. I believed the esteemed sleep scientists who decided that was the normal thing to do. 

It turned out that something was indeed wrong, but it was not due to the amount of time I spent in bed (sleeping).  I offer reasons for that.

Before sleep became an issue for me, I never measured the quality of sleep by how much time I spent in REM vs non-REM or how many times I was startled awake by the phone ringing, or if I got the urge to sleepwalk to the bathroom during the night.

Perhaps you can tell that I loved sleep. The feeling of sliding under soft, cool sheets during the summer, and cuddling under a cozy, warm blanket in winter. Delicious.

The real test of a good night’s sleep was drifting off to sleep within minutes of my head hitting the pillow; being able to go back to sleep if someone or something forced my eyes open, and waking up thinking the sun streaming through the blinds looked pretty darn magical.

When those twilight moments became a battle against sunrise, like many, I started doing some research in order to find out how to get back to normal.

Never in a million years would I have believed there was a hidden agenda to the whole eight-hours-of-sleep mantra. Until I came upon several “woke” folks who claimed it’s all about the drive for progress and productivity. And in the words of singer Rihanna, it’s about  “Work, work, work, work, work, work.”

First off, if we are to believe Matthew Wolf-Meyer, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York, sleep disruption became a disorder thanks to big pharma and the stock exchange. His book, The Slumbering Masses, made me rethink the credibility of the sleep medicine gurus. It makes me wonder, who’s really benefitting by promoting the idea that we are sleep deprived if we do not get 8-hours of shut-eye?

Prof. Wolf-Meyer claims that:

Before the introduction of factory shift work, Americans enjoyed a range of sleeping practices, most commonly two nightly periods of rest supplemented by daytime naps. The new sleeping regimen-eight uninterrupted hours of sleep at night-led to the pathologization of other ways of sleeping.

Come on, you mean the eight-hour mantra is just a myth?

So, is there a prescribed sleep pattern that everyone should follow? Let’s look a bit further from home…

Consider the case of the Hazda, hunter-gatherers who are used to represent what we would be like without cell phones and the internet:

This study showed that circadian rhythms in small-scale foraging populations are more entrained to their ecological environments than Western populations. Additionally, Hadza sleep is characterized as flexible, with a consistent early morning sleep period yet reliance upon opportunistic daytime napping.

That means, different cultures and people sleep based on a biological, cultural or seasonal schedule. In case you think only “primitive” people take time to sneak a nap or two during the day, in most of Southern Europe, there are those welcome mid-day siestas. Following lunch (and perhaps a nice glass of wine) they rest for a couple of hours. Imagine chilling out during the peak of the afternoon sun like the Spaniards and Italians. Yeah, baby!

The question that boggles in my mind with all of this is, what exactly is a sleep disorder if sleep patterns vary? Aside from a genetic defect or disability (as in blindness) – if sleep is being disrupted, is it a sleep disorder, yet another “syndrome?” Or is there an underlying cause that needs to be considered? And who stands to benefit from yet another label of pathology?

I’m still pondering these questions.  For now, I’ll just sleep on it.

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