Sat, Apr 15, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Sleep has become the new obsession

First it was looks, then weight. Now, the new Western obsession is sleep - or a lack of it. But even experts don't agree on how much people really need


Sleep, or rather our frustration at not having enough of it, is the new health obsession. Worries about diet, pollution and exercise have given way to new anxieties about insomnia. We are told that we are building up a "chronic sleep debt" because our modern lifestyles don't allow us to spend enough time in bed after a long day.

It is a new sort of epidemic, with millions being spent on sleeping pills to "cure" those who can't drop off at night.

Interrupted sleep is now one of the most common complaints aired in the doctor's surgery. Everything from parenting problems to diabetes and career setbacks are blamed on a "sleep disorder pattern" which is fueling an industry of therapists, drugs and devices.

Now a new book by Britain's leading expert on the subject sets out our real relationship with sleep. It argues that most of us get quite enough, and that the present generation enjoys a better-quality night-time than our ancestors ever had. Instead of obsessing about sleep debt, we should realize that the key to feeling energetic and focused in the morning is what we do in the waking hours, not whether we are getting enough time with our heads on a pillow. Even those who wake up frequently at night are probably getting sufficient sleep.

Jim Horne is the experts' expert when it comes to sleep research in Britain, and his views will annoy some people because he does not pander to the idea that we are all chronically deprived of sleep. But he celebrates the fact that we know so much more now about "Nature's soft nurse" than in the past, and that it's there to enjoy: We should stop being so hung up on it.

Sleep is now something, finally, we can understand. As mornings become lighter (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) and Easter approaches, many of us find ourselves waking early. Long before the alarm clock goes off, you're opening your eyes, reacting to the combination of early sunlight and the April dawn chorus. But how is the body able to fine-tune itself so exactly to the seasons when we live in such a hectic, technology-driven world?

Stories so far this month would suggest that we are hopelessly out of synch, given the plethora of stories warning of the dangers of sleeplessness. The New York Times said that insomnia was pushing thousands more people into taking prescribed drugs for the condition amid concern that younger people are finding it particularly hard to doze off.

The British Association of Counselling is reported as saying that 12 million people have at least three bad nights of sleep a week. Then the RAC, a British drivers' club, warned that sleepy drivers were responsible for 20,000 crashes last year.

Horne wants to change the tone of the debate, arguing that the human body adjusts to different sleep patterns with great agility.

This is because our lives are governed by a body clock which affects not only the timing of sleep but also the different levels of alertness or lethargy. These "circadian rhythms," which govern our moods and energy levels, are set by the body clock, which in turn is synchronized by sunset and sunrise, and also by more modern cues such as artificial light, the alarm clock, even the daily addiction to a particular TV soap.

But this timepiece, which in prehistoric times would allow us to rise early to have the best chances of survival and hunting, can be shifted by our own irregular lifestyles. For example, a very bad night's sleep will affect your level of alertness so that by 10am, when you would normally be awake and highly receptive to people around you, you will still be in a sleepy phase. Afternoon sleepiness is an entirely natural phase of the body clock, and is the human way of getting through the day.

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