You're tired. You could put your head down on a desk right now and fall asleep immediately. You went to bed late last night, had trouble falling asleep and woke up too early. And let's not kid ourselves: Tonight will be the same unless … well, read on.
This is the classic not-so-shut-eye experience of many Americans who think they are sleep-deprived and possibly need pills or other treatment to fix their insomnia, teeth grinding, jet lag, restless or jerky legs, snoring, sleepwalking and so forth.
Reality is quite different.
For instance, insomnia is said to be the most common sleep disorder, but these dissatisfying sleep experiences only get in the way of daily activities for 10 percent of us, according to the National Institutes of Health. And in almost half of those cases, the real underlying problem is illness (often mental) or the effects of a substance, like coffee or medication. Here are five recent findings that might help you rest easier: 1. We sleep better than we think we do For most of us, sleep deprivation is a myth. We're not zombies. The non-profit National Sleep Foundation (which takes money from the sleep-aid industry, including drug companies that make sleeping pills) says the average U.S. resident gets 7 hours a night and that's not enough, but a University of Maryland study earlier this year shows we typically get 8 hours and are doing fine. In fact, Americans get just as much sleep nowadays as they did 40 years ago, the study found. 2. We need less sleep as we age We'll die without sleep. The details are sketchy, but research suggests it's a time when we restore vital biological processes and also sort and cement memories. Last year, the World Health Organization determined that nightshift work, which can lead to sleep troubles, is a probable human carcinogen. On the upside, the latest research suggests we need less of it as we get older. 3. You can sleep like a baby (or Thomas Edison) Multiple, shorter sleep sessions nightly, rather than one long one, are an option. So-called polyphasic sleep is seen in babies, the elderly and other animals (and Thomas Edison reportedly slept this way). For the rest of us, it is more realistic and healthy to sleep at night as best we can and then take naps as needed. EEGs show that we are biphasic sleepers with two alertness dips — one at night time and one mid-day. So talk to HR about setting up a nap room, like they have for NASA's Phoenix mission team members. 4. Animals exhibit a range of sleep habits The three-toed sloth sleeps 9.6 hours nightly. But newborn dolphins and killer whales can forgo sleeping for their entire first month. However, the latter extreme is not recommended for humans. We grow irritable and lose our ability to focus and make decisions after even one night of missed sleep, and that can lead to serious accidents driving and using other machinery. 5. Get used to being tired, hit the desk The bottom line is that a good night's sleep is within the reach of most of us if we follow common-sense guidelines for sleep hygiene:
- Go to bed at the same time nightly.
- Set aside enough time to hit that golden 7 hours of sleep.
- Refrain from caffeine, heavy or spicy foods, and alcohol and other optional medications that might keep you awake, four to six hours before bed-time.
- Have a pre-sleep routine so you wind down before you hop in.
- Block out distracting lights and noises.
- Only engage in sleep and sex in bed (no TV-watching, reading or eating).
- Exercise regularly but not right before bed.
But you already know all this and you don't do it. So your realistic plan might be to surrender to the mid-day desk nap.
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Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at Space.com and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.