The U.S. is sleep deprived. As a nation, Americans are not getting as much sleep as we need to. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it may be our busy lifestyle that keeps us from napping and getting enough hours. Many of us who work 9 to 5 jobs juggle busy class schedules or take care of our families, only to find ourselves sacrificing sleep in order to make sure things get done before bed.
The National Institutes of Health recommends that school-age children sleep at least 10 hours daily, teens sleep nine to 10 hours and adults sleep seven to eight hours. Data from the National Health Interview Survey reveals nearly 30 percent of adults sleep less than six hours a night. In 2009, only 31 percent of high school students reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on average. In short, only 1 in 3 of us feels rested through the day when living on a monophasic sleep cycle. This cycle is conveniently timed for those who work throughout the day or rely on daylight hours to complete their tasks.
There are alternatives for those needing more sleep. Journal accounts from pre-Industrial Revolution people such as Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, report a period of wakefulness in the dead of night. Around midnight, communities would wake and enjoy an hour or so of snacking, reading and other social activities. When drowsy again, they would return to bed and later wake with the sun. These journals also reveal a period of naptime in mid-afternoon, after the midday meal, during which people were free to close their shops and catch a few winks.
A siesta sleep pattern is common in certain countries, including those throughout the Mediterranean, Southern Europe, Latin and South Americas. Public buildings such as museums, shops and churches close for a short period during the heat of the day. This tradition is so common that scientists named a biphasic sleep cycle after it. On the siesta sleep pattern, sleepers will retire for five to six hours during the night and then squeeze in a thirty to ninety minute nap somewhere in the first seven hours of their day. The short nap boosts memory and cognitive functions, supports the natural low levels of the body’s circadian rhythm and have shown to improve cardiovascular health and reduce stress.
Polyphasic sleep is common in many other animals and is believed to be the ancestral sleep pattern for all mammals, according to a study by the Evolutionary Anthropology Research Group at Durham University in the UK. A study at the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that during shorter days, commonly in winter, humans will sleep in biphasic patterns much like these animals. Another study indicates that this will happen whenever humans are removed from artificial light and blames monophasic sleep on the industrialization of western countries.
So why the western obsession with one long rest at night? It all ties back into the work schedule of America and many other western countries. If you work a 9 to 5 job that doesn’t allow a long break during the afternoon to power nap, you’ll push through your day. When home, there’s more to be done. Working longer hours certainly doesn’t help, leaving less time to spend with family and friends and complete household tasks. In certain areas, particularly more rural ones, there is little point remaining active at night. No businesses remain open past certain hours and small towns all but die once the sun goes down. The driving factors of our society (work, education and money) all occur seemingly exclusively during the day. Until there is an opportunity to take a breather and adjust, Americans will continue to run ourselves to the ground.