Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sleep: a short history

The average individual needs between 8 and 9 hours of sleep any given night to feel a sense of complete rest when they awaken in the morning. Too little sleep can make us feel groggy and less alert during the day.

Just as too little sleep can be damaging to our bodies and health, so is too much. Generally, more than 10 hours of sleep a night is not healthy either. Getting more than 10 hours of sleep a night, on average, can raise an individual’s chances of experiencing depression during the waking hours significantly.

The history of sleep in our culture is quite interesting. Before 1900, the average amount of sleep people acquired was 9 hours. After the light bulb became common in households, the average amount of sleep individual received dropped to 8 hours.

The cause? People were staying up later because of the artificial lighting and were no longer tied to the natural rhythms of sun light. Light, and the lack of it, are directly tied to the production of melatonin in the brain. When we enter into a dark environment, it triggers the brain to produce more melatonin which causes us to feel a sense of drowsiness.

Artificial lighting inhibits the brain from producing the sleep causing melatonin and we remain awake longer. As a result, people didn’t seem to suffer and most adapted quite easily and went about their daily lives without missing that extra hour.

Our sleep pattern changed again in the 1950’s. The average amount of sleep dropped again. It fell to 7½ hours on average. The reason? Television had become common in most households. More and more people were staying up later to watch their favorite programs before retiring for the night.

As a result, people seemed to adjust fairly well to this drop in sleep also. Although some people felt a little tired during the day, they were easily able to make up the lack of rest during the weekend.

The 1980’s brought yet another change in the amount of sleep the average individual received. This time, the average amount of sleep dropped to 7 hours a night.

The culprit? 24 hour news television programming. Up until that time, television stations ended their transmitters around midnight and with nothing left to watch, people went to bed. Now, they could watch news and other programming 24 hours a day. There was no external cause to direct them to bed. Entertainment was now 24/7 and people responded.

It was in the mid 80’s when researches began to notice a new issue arising in American culture: fatigue caused by a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation was now just beginning to work its way into society as a cultural phenomenon. People actually began to brag about their lack of sleep as a badge of honor for social status.

Still, getting 7 hours of sleep is still enough for most people to function well enough at home and work. If it wasn’t enough, they could just catch up on the weekends.

Then in 2009, our sleep habits changed one more time. Yet again it dropped, and this time, to the lowest average ever in human history. In 2001, the average amount of sleep the average American experienced was about 6.5 hours and many others were living with significantly less on a sustained basis.

Why? Researchers are not completely sure why except that it coincides perfectly with the rise of the Internet. As more and more people logged onto the Internet, the average amount of sleep continued to fall. This time to dangerous levels.

Getting less than 7 hours of sleep will begin to cause ramifications in your daily life. Most people will begin to have a tired feeling throughout the day if they get less than 7 hours. It can mildly impair cognitive functioning. When we feel mildly sleep deprived, we might have more difficulty making good decisions. We may find ourselves a little more irritable.

In fact, getting less than 6 hours of sleep can be linked to an increase in car accidents, short term memory loss, lack of focus and difficulty maintaining attention. It has even been linked to weight gain by suppressing the body’s ability to control appetite.

Getting less than 6 hours of sleep on a continuous basis can have serious ramifications for the average adult. It can begin to negatively affect the immune system and we find ourselves more susceptible to depression and physical injuries.

For most people, it is vitally important that they receive between 7 and 9 hours of sleep on average every night. This amount of sleep allows us to function at our peak during the day without feeling tired or distracted. It allows us greater access to our faculties and gives our bodies a chance to rest and heal. It is critical for both our physical and mental health. Getting enough sleep is essential for living a vital, active and healthy life.

For more information on getting enough sleep and to listen to free samples of Dr. Walton’s self-help hypnosis album for falling asleep at night, log onto You can also follow his tips of the day on Twitter@LAtherapist For more information on Dr. Walton, log onto

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