The Ultradian Rhythm

Ever find yourself periodically losing energy and enthusiasm throughout the day? Turns out, there is a name for that phenomenon, and it reveals a lot about how our waking lives should be structured. More from Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center:

Our brains and bodies also cycle in “ultradian rhythms” throughout the day and night. An ultradian rhythm is a recurrent period or cycle that repeats throughout the 24-hour circadian day, like our breathing or our heart rate.

…[About] every hour and a half to two hours, we experience a significant “ultradian dip”, when our energy drops and sleep becomes possible. When we work through these dips—relying on caffeine, adrenaline, and stress hormones to keep us alert—instead of letting our bodies and brains rest, we become stressed and jittery, and our performance falters.

Now I feel a lot less bad about hitting these seemingly random walls of fatigue and disinterest. But how does one overcome this problem? Thankfully, it is a lot simpler than you would think.  Continue reading

Rethinking Daylight Savings Time

And by rethinking it, I mean ending it. Aside from the inconvenience of having to adjust one’s sleeping pattern — most clocks nowadays are automated so at least that part is less troublesome — daylight savings time (DST) is both unnecessary and in many measurable respects, does more harm than good.

The Atlantic outlines just some of the problems with this fairly new and unusual concept:

Daylight Saving has been an official ritual since 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson codified it into law during the waning days of World War One. Nowadays, its ostensible purpose is to save energy: One more hour of sunlight in the evening means one less hour of consumption of artificial lighting. In 2005, President George W. Bush lengthened Daylight Saving Time by a month as part of a sweeping energy bill signed that year, citing the need to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

But does Daylight Saving Time actually make much of a difference? Evidence suggests that the answer is no. After the Australian government extended Daylight Saving Time by two months in 2000 in order to accommodate the Sydney Olympic Games, a study at UC Berkeley showed that the move failed to reduce electricity demand at all. More recently, a study of homes in Indiana—a state that adopted Daylight Saving Time only in 2006—showed that the savings from electricity use were negated, and then some, by additional use of air conditioning and heat.

The simple act of adjusting to the time change, however subtle, also has measurable consequences. Many people feel the effects of the “spring forward” for longer than a day; a study showed that Americans lose around 40 minutes of sleep on the Sunday night after the shift. This means more than just additional yawns on Monday: the resulting loss in productivity costs the economy an estimated $434 million a year.

Daylight Saving Time may also hurt people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, depriving them of light in the mornings. “Our circadian rhythms were set eons ago to a rhythm that didn’t include daylight savings time, so the shift tends to throw people off a bit,” Nicholas Rummo, the director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, New York, told HealthDay News. The switchover to Daylight Saving Time is also linked to an increase in heart attacks as well as traffic accidents.

While we take it as a given, adjusting our clocks in this manner is actually a pretty novel idea, and one that is hardly universal. The article points out that millions of people in the United States — namely those living Arizona, Hawaii, and territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — do not observe the practice, and have done just fine (even despite being out of step with the majority of the nation).

Indeed, most of the world does not observe DST, and those comparatively few nations that do so have no appreciable advantage.

Daylight Savings Time Around The World

In short, DST is a dated idea with little empirical evidence or efficacy backing up it up. But even if there emerges any concerted effort to end this practice, phasing it out will probably take time given its familiarity.

How Much Should You Sleep?

Restfulness is one of the most elusive things in modern society. It seems like no one is getting enough sleep these days. But how much is enough in the first place? Nine hours has long been the widely accepted position, but recent research has shown that the optimal amount varies by age range, as well as other factors, namely when people sleep (e.g. sleep is more restful when done during the night than during the day, even if the amount is the same).

The National Sleep Foundation, an American nonprofit organization, released new guidelines on the preferred amount of sleep for the average person of a given age range. Based on a two-year study, as well as a meta-analysis of hundreds of other studies by leading sleep experts, the ground has offered the following recommendations:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours (previously 12-18)
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours (previously 14-15)
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours (previously 12-14)
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours (previously 11-13)
  • School-age children (6-13): 9-11 hours (previously 10-11)
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours (previously 8.5-9.5)
  • Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours (new age category)
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours (previously the same)
  • Older adults (65 and older): 7-8 hours (new age category)

More from The Atlantic:

These new recommendations do little in the way of upsetting the old, with minor variations and clarifications for older adults and young children. And the numbers may vary among people with medical conditions, and among the few outliers who still function optimally outside of these ranges. But these are the amounts that the panel wants people to consider “rules of thumb.” The issuance of new guidelines, however familiar they are, serves at least in an effort toward awareness amid an ongoing public-health effort to rebrand sleep deprivation as less of a testament to mettle and more of a serious medical hazard.

The evidence against too much sleep is not as strong as the evidence against too little, though getting too much sleep has been linked with increased risk of near-term mortality. Still some experts argue that it’s unclear if sleeping beyond nine hours is inherently dangerous to adults. In relation to poor health and failure to thrive, deviating from these sleep ranges can either be a cause or an effect.

In practical terms, the panel also reminds people, familiarly, of the benefits of avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bed, exercising as a means to better sleep, and the reprehensibility of bringing a phone into bed. Because ultimately, the National Sleep Foundation implores us today, evoking the scythe: “Humans, like all animals, need sleep, along with food, water, and oxygen, to survive.”

Speaking for myself, seven hours seems to be the magic number. Any more or less and I feel “off” in some way. I can also attest to the importance of avoiding technology — especially screens — at least an hour before bed. Since I have cut back on that bad habit (for the most part) and upped my physical activity, I have been enjoying far more restful sleep — which in turn has markedly improved my anxiety, depression, and ability to concentrate.

What have your experiences been?

Sleep deprivation is killing your career

Some practical advice to consider implementing, when or if possible. I have definitely seen big benefits in many areas of my personal and professional life from adequate sleep, but I am fortunate to have a work and lifestyle schedule that accommodates most of these suggestions. What is most important is experimenting with these and other ideas, since sleeping needs vary wildly by individual.

The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Sleeplessness seems to be an intractable part of modern living. Nowadays, few people seem to consistently get the right amount of sleep they need — estimated between seven to nine hours — in order to function optimally. The subsequent day-to-day struggle for energy is increasingly becoming the norm, as a recent article in Mic.com noted:

Just 59% of American adults surveyed by Gallup in 2013 got enough sleep — way down from the 84% who reported sleeping that much in 1942. Just 14% said they got five or fewer. That’s enough to seriously endanger health and well-being in most people. According to the CDC, insufficient sleep is an “epidemic,” with a survey conducted by the agency finding 35.3% of people get less than seven hours of sleep on average. A surprising 37.9% reported being tired enough to doze off during the middle of the day in the past month, while an unnerving 4.7% admitted to sleeping at the wheel of a car.

Aside from the obvious lack of productivity and the increased likelihood of accidents, lack of sleep has been linked to such myriad issues as declining intelligence, numbed sex drive, impaired memory, weight gain, depression, and possibly even permanent damage to brain cells (namely those associated with wakefulness).

The following infographic pretty much sums up the potential risks (the likelihood and severity of which vary from person to person).

One of the key characteristics of 21st century society is its constant activity: 24-hour cycles have gone from novelty to norm, whether for business, news, entertainment, or even daily routines. Based on anecdotal evidence, not to mention personal experience, it is not unusual to stay up all night just reading, watching TV, or doing some other mundane activity.

Any number of factors could be responsible for the decline of restful sleep, ranging from the ubiquity of technology (particularly the Internet) as a source of distraction and over-stimulation, to an economic system that demands ever more work at the expense of free-time and energy. It is difficult to find time to sleep when there never seems to be enough time for neither leisure nor work.

Speaking from experience as a former night owl, I can definitely vouch for the positive benefits of getting good sleep. Everything from my depression to my physical fitness have improved markedly since I have made regular sleep a habit. But it took a long time to develop the habits and lifestyle adjustments needed to sleep well: avoiding meals and electronic screens at least an hour before bed, willing myself to cut outings with friends short, and so on.

Eschewing sleep has become so common that it is little wonder so few people even try. Even I continue to flounder at least one or twice a week despite knowing the consequences and benefits firsthand. As usual, taking the long view with regards to health is not easy, especially in our fast-paced and restless society.

 

We Sleep to Clean Our Minds

That’s according to researchers seeking to uncover the mystery of why humans and most animals sleep. Like the rest of our body, our brain regularly produces waste as a byproduct of its day-to-day functions, which are known collectively as metabolites. These can build up over time and interfere with the health and function of the organ, which is why our body also has an entire system devoted to flushing these wastes out: the sadly-underrated lymphatic system. But things work differently for our central command center:

But while brain cells burn up a vast amount of fuel and are highly sensitive to a build-up in their own metabolites, the brain has a trash-removal process that is far less straightforward than that by which wastes are removed from the rest of the body. The lymph system collects metabolites from tissues throughout the body and dumps them into the bloodstream, where they’re carried to the liver for breakdown and removal. The brain’s metabolic waste concentrates in interstitial fluid present in all corners of the brain. A second slurry — cerebrospinal fluid — circulates throughout the brain, and where the two fluids flow together, the metabolic byproducts are carried away by the cerebrospinal fluid.

This is part of the reason why the brain sits in a pool of fluids — among other things, this biological concoction serves as a plumbing system. It’s interesting to note that the excessive build-up of such waste coincides with the development of various dementias, including  Alzheimer’s Disease. That in turn explains why a lack of sleep, especially over a long period of time, inevitably leads to a range of behavioral and cognitive problems, including hallucinations, mood swings, depression, and ultimately death. When it comes to the brain, sleep seems to be the only time it’s given a good cleaning:

In a new study, scientists from University of Rochester Medical Center and New York University found that the brains of mice — whether they are sleeping or anesthetized — showed more activity and volume at the “transfer stations,” where interstitial and cerebrospinal fluid meet, than did mice who were awake and active. The result was that by the end of a sleep period — around early evening — mouse brains had their lowest concentration of neural refuse of the day. By the time they were ready to sleep again, those concentrations had reached their peak.

It wasn’t just the mouse circadian schedule that initiated the trash removal: even when researchers used the powerful sedative ketamine to put the mice to sleep, they saw evidence of a sudden increase in traffic at the brain’s transfer stations.

Noting the link between sleep deprivation or disruption and neurodegenerative disease, the authors suggest that neural trash removal must be one of sleep’s major benefits. Indeed, they surmised, it could even be that the build-up of brain refuse may be one of the cues that drives us to bed, and that an empty trash bin may help signal us to wake and initiate another day of mental activity and its inevitable byproduct, brain trash.

While we’ve always known that sleep serves as a way of recharging the brain, the precise way in which it does so was, until now, little known. This might also explain why people vary widely in the amount of sleep they need. Sleepiness may depend less on how much you tire your body out and more on how much “neural trash” you build up.

The Detriment of the Modern Sleeping Bloc

It appears that chronic fatigue, insomnia, and other sleep-related issues have become common in our society; in fact, these problems have come to define modern existence — one would be hard-pressed to meet anyone who doesn’t complain frequently about being tired or sleepy.

From what I’ve read, this reflects the little-known fact that our modern sleep structure is an unnatural and radical departure from any other point in history. Humans across nearly every culture and civilization have always slept in irregular patterns, with multiple naps throughout the day and night.  An interesting article in Discover Magazine explores this issue in-depth:

In his fascinating new book, The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness (Random House, $24.95), science writer Jeff Warren explores some familiar and some less familiar states of consciousness, everything from daydreams to lucid dreams. Warren talked to scientists and Buddhist monks, slept in sleep labs, and spent time in a secluded mountain cabin to experience firsthand various states of consciousness. Along the way, he discovered perception-shifting information about how people sleep in different cultures. Westerners prefer a quiet bedroom, sleeping alone or with a partner. Egyptians commonly sleep with several family members in the same room and, even in a noisy city like Cairo, with the windows wide open. In the excerpt below, Warren meets with one of the few anthropologists who study the culture of sleep. —Jane Bosveld

When I flew down to Atlanta to interview Carol Worthman, the director of the Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology at Emory University, she greeted me in her office, among the stacks of research monographs and the photos of her with beaming tribal groups from several continents. I asked why she had first thought to study sleep, and she smiled. “It was a true ‘aha’ experience. I was sitting in my office when a friend of mine who was studying mood disorders called me up and asked me what anthropologists knew about sleep.”

She laughed and paused for a moment of dramatic emphasis. “Nothing!” She widened her eyes behind the thick lenses. “We know nothing about sleep! I think of all the places I’ve slept around the world, all the groups I’ve studied. . . . I mean, here I was, part of this discipline dedicated to the study of human behavior and human diversity, and yet we knew next to nothing about a behavior that claimed one-third of our lives. I was stunned.”

So Worthman began to comb the literature, interviewing ethnographers, sifting through fifty-odd years of published work. What she found, she said, shouldn’t have surprised her: “The ecology of sleep is like the ecology of everyday life.” Sleep, it seems, comes in many cultural flavors.

It seems that we take that last part for granted — most people don’t really think of sleep as something that’s relative in the same way that other activities or traditions are. It’s kind of assumed that everyone more or less sleeps the same way — the standard 8 to 9 hour nightly bloc that we grow up believing to be the “right” way.

It’s also interesting to note how little we actually know about this very important behavior. There are no formal sleep professionals, and scarcely any institutions specializing in sleep studies. I suppose sleep was alway something we simply did perfunctorily, without any thought to requiring further understanding. Of course, I’d imagine this will start to change quickly as sleep problems persist across the modernizing world.

Anyway, more on this interesting research:

Worthman flipped open a book and showed me photographs of big families piled into large, sprawling huts, little kids peeking up from the arms of Mom, older generations wrapped leisurely around the fireplace. “Forager groups are a good place to start, because for much of human history we’ve been occupied with their mode of existence,” she said. “There are the !Kung of ­Botswana and the Efe of Zaire. For both of these groups, sleep is a very fluid state. They sleep when they feel like it—during the day, in the evening, in the dead of night.”

This, said Worthman, is true of other groups too—the Aché of Paraguay, for example. Late-night sleep, when it happens, is practically a social activity. In addition to procreation, the night is a time of “ritual, sociality, and information exchange.” People crash together in big multigenerational heaps—women with infants, wheezing seniors, domestic animals, chatting hunter buddies stoking the fire—everyone embedded in one big, dynamic, “sensorily rich environment.” This kind of environment is important, said Worthman, because “it provides you with subliminal cues about what is going on, that you are not alone, that you are safe in the social world.”

The more Worthman learned about the communal and interactive nature of non-Western sleep, the more she came to see Western sleep as the strange exception. She laughed again. “It’s funny, because as an anthropologist I’m used to getting weirded out a bit—I mean, you wouldn’t believe the things people do. So after collecting all this material I look at my own bed and go, ‘This is really weird.’”

Western sleep, said Worthman, is arid and controlled, with a heavy emphasis on individualism and the “decontextualized person.” Contact is kept to a minimum. The apparent conflict with marriage co-sleeping norms, she notes elsewhere, “has been partially mitigated for Americans by the evolution of bed size from twin, to double, to queen, to king.” She lifted her thin arms and drew a big box in the air. “I mean, think about it—this thing, this bed, is really a gigantic sleep machine. You’ve got a steel frame that comes up from the floor, a bottom mattress that looks totally machine-like, then all these heavily padded surfaces—blankets and pillows and sheets.”

It’s true. Most of us sleep alone in the dark, floating three feet off the ground but also buried under five layers of bedding. I had the sudden image of an armada of solitary humanoids in their big puffy spaceships drifting slowly through the silent and airless immensity of space. “Whoa,” I said.

Again, I never thought to question neither the sleeping bloc method nor the idea of sleeping in isolated conditions. I imagine that both these developments reflect wider trends in our society — the mechanization and patternization of everything from work and school hours, to our own personal activities; the growing desire for personal space and minimal human contact; and constant consciousness about time. These are how modern societies are structured, and why few developed nations sleep the way hunter-gatherers once did (save for some Romance countries that retain the practice of the siesta, or afternoon nap).

By contrast, village life is one big, messy block party, crackling with sex, intrigue, and poultry. In these cultures, interrupted or polyphasic sleep is the norm, which jibes with findings about still other cultures, like the Temiars of Indonesia and the Ibans of Sarawak, 25 percent of whom are apparently active at any one point in the night.

Even more intriguing are some of the culturally specific practices around sleep. Worthman flipped to a sequence of photos showing a tribe of bare-chested Indonesians gathered in a big circle. “These are the Balinese, and this is an example of something called ‘fear sleep’ or ‘todoet poeles.’ See these two guys?” She pointed to the first picture, where two men cowered on the sand in the center of the group. “They just got caught stealing from the village kitty, and they’ve been hauled out for trial.” The villagers all had angry faces and open mouths. The two men looked terrified.

“You can see the progression. He’s starting to sag”—in the next photo one of the thieves had his eyes closed and had begun to lean over—“and here in the last photo you can see he’s totally asleep.” The same thief was now slumped and insentient, snoozing happily amid the furious village thrum. “Isn’t that amazing?” Worthman shook her head. “In stressful situations they can fall instantly into a deep sleep. It’s a cultural acquisition.”

Yet for many people, myself included, the slightest mental or physical disturbance interferes with one’s ability to sleep. As instances of anxiety, depression, and stress continue to increase across the nation (due in no small part to economic malaise), so too does sleeplessness — which in turn triggers more psychological distress and perpetuates a positive feedback loop of mental illness and chronic fatigue. This doesn’t bode well for the social and economic health of our nation — a society made up of sleepless, tired, and frustrated people is bound to have many more problems ahead.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We moved out of her office and made our way down to the laboratory, where Worthman pulled out a big cardboard box. “We wanted to look at sleep in non-Western cultures firsthand, so we decided to initiate a study.” She opened the box. “We went to Egypt, because, well, hunter-gatherer types are interesting, but they’re not really relevant now. Cairo is an old civilization in a modern urban environment. We wanted to look at a pattern that everyone knows is historic in the Mediterranean area. They sleep more than once a day—at night and the midafternoon.”

I nodded. Of course, the siesta—or Ta’assila, as it’s known colloquially in Egypt. Worthman reached into the box and lifted out a set of black paisley headbands, all of them threaded with thin wires and dangling sensors. “So we studied six households in Cairo, and we made everyone wear one of these headbands at all times. One of these little sensors is a motion detector, the other is a diode that glues onto the upper eyelid in order to detect whether or not you’re in REM sleep.”

Thus outfitted, the families went about their daily business, supplying a steady stream of information for the visiting anthropologists. What they found was that Egyptians on average get the same eight hours that we do, they just get it by different means: about six hours at night and two in the afternoon. They also sleep in radically different sleep environments—rarely alone, almost always with one or more family members, in rooms with windows open to the roar of outside street traffic.

“Listen to this.” She pressed play on a tape recorder and the sound of traffic blared out of the little speakers. She raised her voice to yell: “I mean, I’m a pretty sound sleeper, but I couldn’t sleep in Cairo. It was too noisy!” I yelled back, “I see what you mean!” It sounded like 200 years of industrial noise pollution pressed into a single recording. She slid me a photo of a Cairo street, a narrow alley crisscrossed with laundry and jam-packed with donkey carts, trucks, cars, camels, and buses. “Every imaginable form of human transport, right below your window!” She hit stop and the room went quiet. “Despite all this ambient noise, Cairoans don’t seem to have any trouble falling asleep.”

So the idea of sleeping in one solid nightly bloc is a recent invention that emerged largely in the industrial era (as discussed in my previous post on the subject). Our schools, businesses, and institutions are operating in a manner detrimental to sleeping well and functioning optimally. Furthermore, we’ve conditioned ourselves into requiring the utmost silence and comfort — both mentally and externally — in order to rest well, which has made the issue of fatigue even more difficult to address. But here’s the upshot

For Worthman, the conclusion was obvious. All these different sleep patterns suggested that the regulatory processes governing “sleep-wake transitions” could be shaped by cultural conditions. Sleep, it seemed, was putty—some cultures stretched it out, some chopped it up, and others, like our own, squeezed it into one big lump.

So there may be hope for us yet. Maybe it’s simply a matter of time before we adjust to this method. After all, not everyone in the Western World has issues sleeping. But with all this emphasis on economic growth and productivity — which in our minds entails more hard working, longer hours, and less idleness — will we ever consider adopting a more flexible sleep pattern? It’s interesting to note that many of the nations that have retained old modes of sleeping are characterized as backwards, lazy, or underdeveloped — despite their often better quality of life. Will we thus require a fundamental change in our cultural attitudes towards work and free time before we can give our minds and bodies a rest?

As always, please discuss.

The Historic “Two Sleep” Method

Apparently, prior to the 19th century, it was common to sleep in two separate intervals within a 12 hour period. While I’ve always figured that our modern sleep methods are characteristic of the time, I never realized that our ancestors slept so differently:

The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.

His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.

“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.

An English doctor wrote, for example, that the ideal time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Chaucer tells of a character in the Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.” And, explaining the reason why working class conceived more children, a doctor from the 1500s reported that they typically had sex after their first sleep.

Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is replete with such examples.

But just what did people do with these extra twilight hours? Pretty much what you might expect.

Most stayed in their beds and bedrooms, sometimes reading, and often they would use the time to pray. Religious manuals included special prayers to be said in the mid-sleep hours.

Others might smoke, talk with co-sleepers, or have sex. Some were more active and would leave to visit with neighbours.

So why did this arrangement go from being near-universal to being practically unheard of?

Ekirch attributes the change to the advent of street lighting and eventually electric indoor light, as well as the popularity of coffee houses. Author Craig Koslofsky offers a further theory in his book Evening’s Empire. With the rise of more street lighting, night stopped being the domain of criminals and sub-classes and became a time for work or socializing. Two sleeps were eventually considered a wasteful way to spend these hours.

Before you start trying to adopt this system, take the following into account:

Although history shows that two sleeping was common, and science indicates that it is (in some conditions) natural, there is no indication that it is better. Two sleeps may leave you feeling more rested, but this could simply be because you are intentionally giving yourself more time to rest, relax, and sleep. Giving the same respect to the single, eight-hour sleep should be just as effective.

Note too that two sleeping needs a lot of darkness – darkness that is only possible naturally during the winter months. The greater levels of daylight during summer and other seasons would make two sleeping difficult, or even impossible.

Perhaps two sleeping is merely a coping mechanism to get through the long, cold, boring nights of the winter. Today, we don’t need to cope. So long as we give our sleep the time and respect it needs, getting the “standard” eight hours of sleep should be fine.

Speaking from experience, I have found myself oddly refreshed after taking “naps” throughout the night rather than one long sleeping bloc. It seems that there’s no universal way to sleep, especially now that the vagaries of modern society — such as odd working hours and ample distractions — make a consistent or standard sleep method untenable. The most we can do is experiment and adapt. This is why we need full-blown sleep doctors already…

The Science of Sleep

This article in the New York Times challenges the many popular misconceptions about sleep, which remains one of the least understood functions of the human body.

For example, the notion that we all need 8 hours of sleep is baseless, as the “proper” amount varies from person to person. Meanwhile, naps are more useful and “normal” than people think: studies cited in the article find that sleeping for just 24 minutes in the day can lead to a remarkable increase in cognitive function.

Clearly, what we need is more sleep research. Indeed, I think there should be a distinct medical field devoted strictly to sleep and sleep-related issues. It’s remarkable that despite how important sleep is, and how so many people struggle with trying to attain it, we invest so little in learning more.

Study Sheds Light On Sleep

Few commodities are as precious to the modern world as sleep. It seems no one gets enough of it these days, and chronic fatigue resulting from sleeplessness is becoming a common problem even among young people. I am of course no exception, especially given my proclivity for trying to read, blog, workout, and socialize after an eight hour day at work. On average, I get about five or six hours of rest, although it’s not unusual for me to push it to four. As with most people, the effects of this varies: sometimes I can get back with little more than a nap, other times I feel as if I’m about to collapse. It’s a mystery as to why that is.

The fact is, despite it’s importance and increasing rarity, we know very little about sleep – we don’t even know why we do so in the first place. There is no real field of study for it, nor are there any special doctors geared towards addressing sleep-related issues.  There are several dedicated research centers and institutes, but they don’t get nearly as much funding and public support as they should – though I expect that to change as sleep-deprivation and all its subsequent health problems becomes more widespread.

One of the more contentious issues concerning sleep is how much of it you should have. Eight to nine hours seems standard and remains the most widely cited figure, but many studies have raised questions as to whether there is even an universally correct amount. It may be that the amount of time one needs to rest varies based on the individual. Genetic, environmental, psychological, and other factors may also influence how much one needs to sleep.

Now a recent German study may have found why some people can – lucky for them – get by with just four hours of sleep.

Scientists have identified the gene responsible for controlling the length of time for which an individual sleeps and why some have their own internal alarm clock. Karla Allebrandt and her team from the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich identified a gene called ABCC9 that can reduce the length of time we sleep.

The discovery is expected to explain why light sleepers, such as Margaret Thatcher, are able to get by on just four hours shut-eye a night.

The Europe-wide study of 4,000 people from seven different EU countries saw the volunteers fill out a questionnaire assessing their sleep habits.

The researchers then analysed their answers, as well as participants’ genes.

They discovered that people who had two copies of one common variant of ABCC9 slept for “significantly shorter” periods than people with two copies of another version.

Having already established that the ABCC9 gene was also present in fruitflies, the team were able to modify it in the animal and shorten the length of time for which it slept.

“Apparently the relationships of sleep duration with other conditions such as heart disease and diabetes can be in part explained by an underlying common molecular mechanism,” the Daily Mail quoted Allebrandt as saying.

“The ABCC9 gene is evolutionarily ancient, as a similar gene is present in fruitflies. Fruitflies also exhibit sleep-like behaviour.

“When we blocked the function of the ABCC9 homolog in the fly nervous system, the duration of nocturnal sleep was shortened,” she added.

You better believe I’ll be keeping my eye open for more developments on this front. I’d be curious to know if this will ever lead to gene therapies that might allow people get by on less sleep (assuming they can function as if they slept longer – barely dragging yourself through the day doesn’t count). Imagine the implications of being able to reduce the amount of time we spend – some would say waste – sleeping. I for one love to sleep, but I do wish it could take up less of my time without me having to sacrifice my cognitive abilities.