Are you getting enough?
"I have given orders to be awakened at any time in case of a national emergency, even if I'm in a Cabinet meeting." Quoted by Ronald Reagan, the late US president.
The bed is best suited for procreation, recreation and sleep, of which sleep is generally considered the most vital of these. There has been much discussion lately among medical professionals about the amount of sleep one requires. As in recreational sex, it is not necessarily how long it lasts, but how well it is performed.
But first things first. Our bodies are regulated by a circadian rhythm, our internal body clock, which ticks over every 24 hours. This clock is generally set by a light-dark cycle once a day and is actually designed to prefer two sleeps a day - a long one at night and a short one in the afternoon. This probably dates back to our evolution from an equatorial climate when our predators slowed down in the afternoon. Apparently, in medieval Britain, the aristocracy would have a 'fyrste sleep' about 6 p.m. to ready themselves for the evening's festivities. Even in the old US West, it was not uncommon to wake, albeit sleepily, around midnight, according to author Roger Ekirch, for a few hours "to talk, read, pray, have sex, brew beer or burgle".
"The amount of sleep needed by the average person is five minutes more." Max Kaufman, comic actor.
In recent times, attitudes about the quantum of sleep you need have changed. It was Britain's now-legendary Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who got by on four or five hours sleep a night. Anything longer, she declared, was "for wimps". Today's business journals are replete with reports of high-powered executives - particularly women - who are on their computers long before the sun rises having had less than six hours sleep.
Decline in sleep
Sleep experts are sceptical of these claims - "if you snooze, you lose" - and are seriously concerned about the declining amount of sleep we are having, as much as half an hour less, for example, than we had 60 years ago. What's more, disturbed sleep is lowering the quality of sleep. The experts contend one of the main purposes of sleep is to allow our brains to process information we have absorbed during the day.
Apparently, night-time light exposure can be extremely detrimental. Leaving electric lights on, not turning off the TV, computer screens still lit, or not disengaging your iPhone suppresses the production of melatonin by the body. It's the melatonin, the major hormone secreted by the pineal gland, that manages our sleep and wake cycle. What's more, such distracting light prevents you from winding down after a busy day.
"If your husband has difficulty getting to sleep, the words, 'We need to talk about our relationship' may help." - Rita Rudner, comedian.
Sleep deprivation can result in a variety of medical conditions - from diabetes to cancer to heart attacks. At least as worrisome is the consequence of lack of sleep on road safety, which accounts for nearly a third of all accidents in the United States.
But not being able to sleep is a unique medical threat of its own making. Insomnia is a sleep disorder that includes not being able to get to sleep, frequently waking during the night, arousing too early, and feeling tired. Jet lag, for instance, messes with your body clock, but fortunately its symptoms - fatigue, insomnia, lack of concentration, upset stomach - are temporary.
"His insomnia was so bad, he couldn't even sleep during office hours." - Unknown origin.
Generally, insomnia can be overcome by following good sleeping habits. Acute insomnia - experienced three or four times a week for a month or longer - is often triggered by a health problem (i.e., depression) and needs professional medical assistance.
The legendary pianist, composer, actor and comedian Oscar Levant had the solution to a pleasant night in bed when he recommended, "I honestly believe there is absolutely nothing like going to bed with a good book ... or with a friend who has read one."
Among other sleep distractions is snoring. As British novelist Anthony Burgess observed, "Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone."
More men, than women, snore, but it is commonplace among both sexes. It is caused by a blockage in the throat which obstructs the movement of air and can even produce a low sound or be loud and very irritating. Likely causes include overweight, with fat pressing on the throat, and sometimes sleeping on your back. In its advanced form, you could be subject to sleep apnoea and need medical help.
Sleepwalking is another activity related to sleep disorder. Most common in children under 10, it can range from strolling around a room or agitated movement resembling an attempt to 'escape'. Usually, the sleepwalker doesn't respond during the event or remember it afterwards. It is not associated with other sleep problems and is often a trait that runs in a family.
As much as it is a cliche, 'beauty sleep' is a reality. When you go to sleep, your body goes into a repair mode - your skin renews itself, new skin cells replace old ones. At least as important is the beneficial effect sleep has on all facets of your body, ensuring a healthy, restored you in the morning.
Now, finally a warning from comedian Steve Martin: "For sincere advice and should you wish to get the correct time, call any residential phone number at random at 3 a.m."
Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.