Shift work is a reality of our modern economy. Services don’t stop running when the sun goes down. Without night workers—nurses and doctors, toll booth workers, security guards, policemen and women, truck drivers, pilots, and more—our world would grind to a halt. One of my closest friends works nights at a home for children. Most of his time is spent reading, but when the kids wake up or there’s an emergency, he is the first person on the scene. Without him, those kids wouldn’t be safe. But he pays a high price. Like many late shift workers, he suffers from terrible sleep-wake disruption, and is always either strung out or exhausted. After years of this strange schedule, he suffers from a host of physical problems. He has high blood pressure, struggles with his weight, and was just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He also has a lot of trouble with his relationship.
I once stayed in a hotel/art installation called the Propeller City Island Lodge in Berlin. Its whole purpose is to experiment with sensory distortion—to use furniture and space to confuse, befuddle and delight with floating beds, strange mirrors, and optical tricks to create a warped sense of space. The way I felt in those spaces was strangely akin to the way I feel after an all-nighter: disoriented, amused, slightly afraid, and more than slightly uncomfortable.
When I was a kid, I read a book about African explorers. I was living in Africa at the time, so the story was especially alluring. Africa: home to heartbreakingly beautiful sunsets, the most delicious orange Fanta I’ve ever had, one of the best zip lines in the world, and the greatest number of diseases of any country on earth. The book was about these two men journeying alone into the jungles of what was, at the time, the nation of Zaire (today it is the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo). They had a compass, sleeping bags, enough fresh water for a week, and their wits. Of course, like many adventure stories, the two men didn’t have a peaceful time frolicking amongst the epiphytes. No, they met angry local people, had a run in with a cheetah, ran out of water, and had to build a shelter out of monkey bones. Then, one of them got bitten by a tsetse fly and fell into a strange dreamlike trance. The story was fiction but, as I would soon learn from my dad (a medical student at the time), sleeping sickness is very real, and very frightening. I spent the rest of our year in Kenya scouring my surroundings for tsetse flies so that I might escape the fantasy explorer’s dreaded fate.
I’ve written a lot about sleep apnea. It’s one of the most common sleep disorders, and one of the most dangerous. Just a quick recap: sleep apnea is a potentially fatal condition that causes pauses in breathing during sleep, sometimes hundreds of times throughout the night. These periods of oxygen deprivation can raise a person’s risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and obesity. The precipitous and repeated drops in blood oxygen are what damage the body’s delicate tissues. Sleep apnea also results in a diminished quality of sleep. Poor sleep is related to a whole host of conditions, from anxiety and depression, to poor intellectual performance, to collapsing relationships. One of the things that’s so upsetting about sleep apnea is that it can be successfully treated, eliminating all of these frightening side effects. And yet, few sufferers even know they are suffering. If you live alone or your partner is a heavy sleeper, you may have sleep apnea and be entirely unaware. Even more frightening: new research shows that women are at particularly high risk.
Ever since I was a kid I loved the idea of sleep learning: that you could put on headphones when you went to sleep and have conversational French when you woke up. I even tried it in college when, depressed by my mounting student loan debt, I decided I was going to go for a 4.0. All I got for my trouble was a few restless nights and a headache. Today, science can’t promise you passive language learning, but there may be some hope for the lazy learners among us. A new study published in Nature demonstrates a fascinating phenomenon: sleep conditioning, a la Pavlov. Here’s how it works.
Kids these days! I never thought I’d say those words, but here I am worried about how much time kids spend on the computer and watching television. Screens have infiltrated our homes and they’re not going anywhere soon. They’ve become a ubiquitous part of our work lives, social lives, and home lives. And kids are not immune. An increasing number of children have televisions, computers, cell phones, and tablets in their bedrooms. I’ve written before about how light from phones, computers, and televisions can affect sleep. The blue light from theses devices simulates daylight, confusing the brain into thinking its time to wake up. This is bad news if it’s time to go to bed. New research shows this type of light has an even more deleterious effect on children.
Ah, naps. There’s nothing more enjoyable than a mid-afternoon slumber when you’re feeling tired and run-down. I used to hate naps. They left me feeling groggy and out-of-touch, sapping my energy for the rest of the day. I was really suffering with mid-afternoon fatigue but I thought a nap would make it worse. I tried to wake up with coffee but it turns out pumping myself full of caffeine does more harm than good. I’d end up feeling jittery, sick to my stomach, and anxious. My mood suffered too. As 3 o’clock rolled around, I’d be snapping at co-workers and tearing up with irate customers. It was an unsustainable cycle. I decided to revisit napping one afternoon in the dead of winter. It was getting dark around 4 and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open for another second. So, I snuck out to my car, reclined the seat, and slept for about 25 minutes. I woke up feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle the evening’s tasks. It was a real eye-opener. Literally. It turns out napping is really good for you. It helps with mood, alertness, memory, and overall health! Who knew? This is especially good news for retirees and new moms, two major napping demographics.
Romantic relationships are wonderful—without my husband, I’d be adrift, lonely, and decidedly unhappy—but that doesn’t mean marriage isn’t hard. I’m very proud of my relationship but that pride as much the result of hard work, compromising, and talking things out, as it is a result of the innate chemistry between the two of us. After ten years, I think the compromising and talking is even more important. And I’ve noticed, without fail, when one of us is sleep deprived, compromising and talking gets a whole lot harder. As much as we love each other, as committed as we are, we’ve had some truly difficult times. Almost all of them have involved a lack of sleep. As it happens, a new study has shows that relationship quality is directly affected by quality of sleep, and vice versa.