We don’t hear much about the sleep of presidents and prime ministers except for the hours they get: President Obama, 6; George W. Bush, 8: Margaret Thatcher, 4. Their personal habits matter little compared with the decisions they make and the work they do in office.
But Dr. Li Zhisui wrote about insomnia at length in his biography of Mao Zedong, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, suggesting that our leaders’ sleep (or sleeplessness) may affect their decisions and behavior more than we think.
People with insomnia typically worry about not getting enough sleep. It’s easy to understand why. The media are are full of stories warning of the perils of insufficient sleep: obesity, diabetes, dementia, cardiovascular disease.
But a study of sleep in 3 traditional societies published in October suggests that humans may need less sleep than we think we do—which should give insomniacs food for thought.
Most of us know that drinking coffee after dinner will probably disrupt our sleep and that regular exercise will improve it. But some ideas I see tossed out about sleep and insomnia are not quite accurate. Here are six misconceptions followed by information that is evidence based.
Occasionally I hear from an insomnia sufferer who can tell me precisely the times she woke up the previous night. “Went to sleep at 11:30, up again at 12:55. Lay awake for an hour. Got back to sleep but woke up again to go to the bathroom at 2:40. Woke up again at 4:40 and stayed awake until the alarm rang at 6. What should I do?”
This person—let’s call her Judith—doesn’t sound like she’s getting much sleep: little more than 4 hours if you tally up the numbers. Few of us could thrive on a steady diet of 4-hour nights, and Judith is no exception. She works full time and cares for her family in the evening. When the alarm rings, she’s got to be up and on her toes all day until she crashes at 10 p.m. No wonder she has a lot of anxiety about sleep and is desperate for more of it.
I’ve blogged about various ways to improve sleep, but one small change of habit I’ve mentioned deserves more attention.
It’s cruel to blame people for health problems they have little if anything to do with creating. Yet the urge to do so is powerful when the true causes of an affliction remain unknown. In the 20th century many illnesses were seen as psychological or behavioral problems, and insomnia was one.
We’re in the 21st century now, and biology and neuroscience are teaching us that the causes of many chronic disorders and serious diseases are complex. But some people still regard insomnia as stemming from “bad” behavior or as “all in the head.” Here’s my take.
Post-marketing tests now show that Ambien and Lunesta, the most popular sleeping pills today, are not as benign as they once were believed to be. Are we moving into a period similar to that which occurred in the 1980s, when physicians moved away from prescribing sleeping pills for people with insomnia and prescribed off-label medications instead?
So it’s news that the rich sleep better in Canada (as headlines in various online publications recently proclaimed)? Not exactly shocking. Who wouldn’t sleep better owning a Mercedes than a rickety Ford?
Insomnia is more often the curse of those who struggle to make mortgage payments and pay for healthcare than the well to do.