A Wide-eyed Look At Sleep

June 30, 1991|By A.M. CHAPLIN

You know how it is.

You work all day and when you get home, there are the kids, your spouse, dinner to get and clean up and later "L.A. Law" to watch, maybe some work from the office to clear up, and then, of course, Arsenio/Johnny/David.

So with one thing or another, it's later than you really had in mind before you hit the sack. And, since you want to get in a little run before work tomorrow, you set the alarm for 6:30.

When it rings, you don't feel too hot -- but who does, when the alarm clock rings? That's why God gave us coffee. Of course when 4 p.m. rolls around, you're sagging, but a Diet Coke fixes you up again, and you're ready for the evening round.

By Friday you're feeling pretty stressed out, but that's normal, isn't it, that's why people say thank God it's Friday. Saturday morning you can sleep in -- or no, got to take the kids to soccer. Sunday, then. Oh no, that tennis game with the Joneses. Oh well, once you get going, you'll feel better.

And you can sleep any time, after all. Life is short and you don't want to spend it with your eyes shut. You're not that type. Sleep's cheap. You'll catch up one of these days.

SOUNDS A BIT LIKE PAYING off your Visa account, doesn't it? Live now, pay later. Live now, sleep later.

The problem, says Lydia Dotto, author of "Losing Sleep: How Your Sleeping Habits Affect Your Life," is that sleep debt is just like financial debt: Build it up far enough and in the end, you have a crash.

She names some of the notable ones: Three Mile Island. The Exxon Valdez. Chernobyl. Challenger. In each case decisions were made -- and made incorrectly -- by people who were short of sleep. In addition, she continues, there are the approximately 6,500 deaths caused by people falling asleep at the wheel and the several hundred thousand accidents fatigue causes in industry and the home.

In other words, sleep matters. More than we think.

During the go-go '80s, anybody with an M.B.A. or a respectable dose of ambition was trying to find his or her way around sleep, bragging about how he or she could do with less and less of it. Getting eight hours of shut-eye began to seem as outdated as using carbons in the age of fax and photocopy.

But now, at the dawning of the think-twice '90s, some sleep researchers are beginning to say whoa, wait a minute, wake up and smell the coffee. Doing without enough sleep, their research suggests, can do a number not only on your mood but also on your performance. In other words, while you think you're improving how you perform by skimping on sleep and splurging on work, you might actually be doing the exact opposite.

And -- here's the radical thing -- when these researchers talk about "enough" sleep, they're not talking about more than four or five hours of shut-eye a night. They're not even necessarily talking about the traditional seven to eight long ones a night.

"One of the myths about sleep is that if you get seven to eight hours of sleep you get plenty," says board certified sleep-medicine specialist Dr. David Buchholz. But "the truth is, for most people that's not enough."

"One of our most important findings is that eight hours of sleep - the commonly believed ideal amount -- fails to provide all-day alertness in many people," writes Dr. William C. Dement, one of the pioneers of sleep research and the director of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Center, in a recent issue of Executive Health Report.

In support of this view, Ms. Dotto cites a study that took normal sleepers -- people who were not complaining about getting too little sleep -- and gave them nine hours of shut-eye instead of their usual seven or eight.

The result? "They did much better both on performance and mood," Ms. Dotto says. And the effects weren't a one-night deal; the improvement continued to grow over a span of equally well-rested days and nights.

It may be that's what nature has us set up for, suggests Dr. Buchholz, who is director of the Neurological Consultation Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and neurological consultant to the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center at Francis Scott Key Medical Center. Evidence indicates that before the advent of electric lights, the average individual slept nine to 10 hours in each 24, he notes. And that, he continues, may tell us what our "natural sleep need" is.

Not that we pay any attention to it.

What with shift work, jet travel and the expectation that if we're important we'll be available 24 hours a day, the old idea of sleep-when-it's-dark, rise-when-it's-light seems hopelessly outmoded. Besides, with inducements like electric lights, television and alarm clocks, it becomes all too easy to stay up too long and cut your sleep too short.

Are you wondering if you cut yours too short?

If you wake up to an alarm clock, says Dr. Buchholz, then you are.

"Most of us do," he adds kindly, but somehow it's not very reassuring.

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