Losing sleep: Let's open our eyes to the facts and make proper rest more than a museum piece
Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle
July 16, 2010, 8:29PM
For just six weeks this summer, a dim, hushed room at Art League Houston displayed a relic from the past: people taking naps. Called N.A.P. — short for Napping Affects Performance - and designed by artist Emily Sloan, the space offered soothing gray walls, soft white noise, and cots outfitted with immaculate sheets and fresh pillows. Visitors were welcome to lie down for a nap - and for much of June, many did.
Sloan's room was an art piece, but its celebration of daily downtime without shame, multitasking, or furtive checking of e-mail is backed up by science.
Adequate sleep is endangered in the United States, a deficit strongly linked to the chronic health problems draining us economically and politically. Too little rest, for example, has been shown to throw off hormone output that regulates satiety after eating and the ability to process sugar. Dozens of other studies link inadequate sleep to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
And it's not just medical students and pilots who are tired. Americans overall get an overage of only 6.9 hours' sleep a night - an hour less than we slept in 1960 and 15 to 25 minutes less than we did in 2001, sleep physician Lawrence Epstein wrote in Newsweek. These seemingly small quantities of rest can have a stunning effect on functioning. Just 20 to 30 minutes of napping can measurably improve mood and performance, the National Sleep Foundation reports. And in one NASA study of sleep-deprived pilots and astronauts, a 40-minute nap boosted performance more than 30 percent - and alertness by 100 percent.
Sleeplessness may have the most pronounced effect, though, on children. All of the 31 major studies of children's sleep and weight gain showed strong correlations between too little sleep in childhood and obesity either in childhood or years later. Meanwhile, families that police their children's sleep habits with an old-fashioned rule about bedtime also achieve the 21st-century holy grail: higher test scores, according to the nonprofit SRI International research center.
While afternoon naps may have served an evolutionary purpose, the rhythms of U.S. culture pretty much make them impossible. Nonstop accessibility by phone and computer, plus social pressure to work relentlessly, undermine many a decent night's sleep at home. Siestas seem unthinkable. Yet it's become clear that proper sleep is one of the cheapest, most potent tools we have to help rein in our national health care bills.
It would take a concerted effort to re-cast the workday nap as a respectable - even responsible - activity. But it was also tough to get Americans to quit smoking. Reviving the nap, in fact, might be surprisingly popular. The cozy Art League complex isn't usually the site of protests, but as Sloan's show neared its closing date, scrawled placards appeared on the tree and walls outside: SAVE THE NAP ROOM. It could have been the work of angry art lovers. But maybe it was the whisper of a silent majority, yearning for the focus and peace that comes from 20 minutes of socially approved shut-eye.
For more info: http://nappingaffects performance.blogspot.com/