One of my daughters sleeps on a buckwheat husk pillow; the other sprays her bedroom with lavender when she turns out the light. One friend packs up her white noise sleep machine whenever she travels; another just bought a mattress that cost the same as my first car. My pharmacy sells a half dozen herbal products to entice falling asleep, and if they don’t work, the gift shop next door has these cute purple sleep rocks to put under your pillow. Catalogs and websites sell power-napping kits to take to the office. And chances are if your life includes speaking to someone on a daily basis, one of you will mention last night’s sleep.
Until a few years ago, my knowledge of slumber time was limited to the obvious. That babies, with their little bellies going up and down and their sweet hurrying breaths, were the best practitioners. That people catch up on sleep in church and at the opera, and teenagers remain forever rest deprived, surviving on some kind of adolescent standard time. When I’m too many hours away from rest, my mood whizzes past cranky and brakes at mean. A day might be 12 hours long but a sleepless night feels like 50.
In 2014, sleep, or rather lack of it, has morphed into a serious health hazard. Forty-three percent of Americans claim they don’t get enough sleep. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders calls our sleep deficit “as important as the national debt.” Estimates of the annual cost of sleep deprivation are said to be over 16 billion dollars. Almost overnight fifteen hundred sleep disorder clinics sprouted up across the country. Statistics in popular magazines showed that since Edison invented the electric light bulb in 1879, our average night’s sleep dropped from nine to seven hours a night, with one third of us sleeping six hours or less. Psychologically and physiologically we’re all paying the price for the anxiety our addiction to 24/7 stimuli has produced.
For years sleep deprivation was a macho point of pride. The less you slept, the less you missed, the more you accomplished. Socially unacceptable, like watching soap operas, daytime sleeping was reserved for unambitious, lazy slugs. Women are even more puritanical than men when it comes to naps, even though we are more likely to have difficulty falling and staying asleep.
Then came research showing that far from being a character flaw, the need for a nap is a simple biological fact of life. Sleep is so much more than self indulgent down time, it’s a complex dynamic activity we should devote more time to, like exercise and reading food labels. By adding 12 hours to the midpoint of your nighttime sleep, the doctors stated, you arrive at your nap zone, the optimum time for your body and mind to rest. Lie down for less than a half-hour and doctors swear you’ll feel the rejuvenating effects for the next ten hours. Google and Procter & Gamble have invested in Energy Pods and Ben and Jerry’s and Levi Straus instituted nap breaks in the middle of the afternoon.
Just because TV and Kinko’s and CVS and the Internet are open for business around the clock doesn’t mean we should be. Eighty-five percent of all mammals break the day with short naps. Winston Churchill, JFK, Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali snoozed regularly. Millions of our successful Mediterranean neighbors enjoy a siesta every afternoon. Wouldn’t it be great if we followed their escape into a brief plunge into oblivion? Sigh. A girl can dream.