Since childhood, we’ve been told that getting eight hours of sleep each night is one of the most important things we can do to keep ourselves happy and healthy. I have no beef with this conventional wisdom as broad advice for the broad population. With most human needs, there is an optimal behavior that works for people in the middle of the bell curve. So, for the majority of people reading this blog, you are well-served by getting seven or eight hours of sleep every night.
However, I know a few people outside the bell curve who have worried themselves into insomnia over their inability to conform to the classic sleep pattern. One friend of mine has nearly turned herself into a sleeping-pill junky (admittedly, this is my judgment, not hers). She rarely falls asleep without pills and complains of waking up dead-tired. Sleep aid commercials are common on late night TV. The presumption is clear: If you’re up in the middle of the night, there must be something wrong—so knock yourself out.
Researchers and physicians have established guidelines for a range of human needs: diet, exercise, even sexual activity. But there are always outliers. Some people are particularly responsive or non-responsive to physical exercise. Some digest certain foods particularly well or badly. Some are particularly sensitive or insensitive to changes in daylight or temperature. And some are not wired to the classic sleep pattern.
Top physicians understand this. The National Library of Medicine cautions people who are worried about their sleep habits:
“It is important to remember that not getting 8 hours of sleep every night does not mean you are putting your health at risk. Different people have different sleeping needs.”
But my unscientific sample (three people who’ve complained about not easily falling asleep to their doctor) suggests that too many people label themselves insomniacs and ask for a pill, and too many docs uncritically oblige.
For many years, I went to bed at the same time each weeknight (about 11:00 PM), even when I wasn’t tired. Sometimes, it took me two or three hours to fall asleep. Other nights, I woke up at 3:30 AM and tossed and turned in bed until the alarm went off. About five years ago, I stopped fighting against my presumed insomnia. When not tired, I got up and started writing short stories in the middle of the night. Losing a few hours of sleep didn’t impact my performance at work the next day. If I tire early the next evening, I went to bed early.
Embracing this “sleep when I’m tired” philosophy is the best thing that’s happened to me since the birth of my children. I now follow an approximate three-day sleep pattern: two nights of 7 or 8 hours, one night of 4. I sleep soundly when I sleep, and don’t sweat it when I don’t. I almost never feel tired during the day, and I’ve gained the time to pursue my creative interests. This includes writing a well-reviewed novel (A Thinking Man’s Bully) and an award-wining history book (The Theatre of Spoil and Destruction: The American Revolution in Monmouth County). Both books were written primarily in the middle of the night. Other books will be born from future late-night writing sessions.
Insomnia, the inability to sleep when your body needs it, is a real problem for many people. Medical/drug interventions may be necessary to address that problem. But I think there are a great many Americans—perhaps even in the millions—who have convinced themselves they’re insomniacs just because their natural sleep rhythm does not fit the classic sleep pattern. That’s a shame.
Falling asleep when you’re tired and waking up well-rested is more important than the sleep pattern that delivers the good result. I checked in with Dr. Patricia Salber, co-author of the excellent blog, The Doctor Weighs In (www.thedoctorweighsin.com). She counsels:
“One of the best tests of whether you got enough sleep is ‘are you refreshed in the morning after waking up?'”
If you can pass Dr. Salber’s test without sleeping 8 hours every night, you’re probably fine.
If you’re a sleep pattern outlier, embrace that fact. Write a book, manage your assets, educate yourself on interesting topics, gets tomorrow’s dinner going in the crockpot, or find something else that deserves your energies. You are fortunate to have this extra time to do something meaningful outside of the daily grind.