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The Benefits And Mysteries Of Sleep

America needs a nap. Everybody’s biology is different — both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, for instance, barely sleep, as the president’s late night and early morning tweets indicate — but as a rule of thumb, most people should get about eight hours of shut-eye a night. But fewer and fewer people in our harried, busy country are hitting the target, or really even coming close.

Two thousand Americans were recently surveyed about their sleep habits for a study commissioned by a mattress company. The results? We Americans are a bleary-eyed people. “It seems logging [even] six hours is a struggle for many,” the website Study Finds reported this week. “Consider this finding: In 2018, the average respondent reported about six hours and 17 minutes of sleep per night. By 2019, however, that average shrunk to only five-and-a-half hours each night.” This is a contemporary phenomenon: In the 1940s, Americans were sleeping nearly eight hours a night.

Sleep remains one of life’s great mysteries; scientists still have many questions as to the mechanisms of the process. But one thing is obvious: Sleep is important for a healthy life. Sleep boosts the body’s immune system, reduces blood pressure, regulates blood sugar, improves memory, allows for cell repair and even keeps weight down. (Sleep is actually an appetite suppressant.) Tired people are more prone to cause car accidents; indeed, driving while tired is arguably as great a menace on the roads as drunk driving. All told, people who sleep less die younger, on average.

Why are Americans sleeping so little? Stress, sleep’s enemy, is high in our busy, pressure cooker of a society. And technology has been fingered as a culprit as well: The artificial lights of smart phones that people increasingly use before and in bed keep people up. Want a good night’s rest? Don’t bring the iPhone to bed.

We would argue as well that society itself is structured in a way that keeps people up longer than they should. Prime-time television does not start until 8 p.M. World Series games regularly run until midnight. (The NFL stands out here — most of its playoff games begin and end at a reasonable hour.) Ever-longer commutes see Americans getting up earlier and getting home later. Suburban sprawl has many benefits — larger houses, comfortable lifestyles — but has no doubt cut down on Americans’ sleep.

The notion that sleep should occur in one big chunk is also a modern phenomenon. In the Middle Ages, people slept in two shifts — “first” and “second” sleep. The interregnum between the two slumbers was used for prayer, creative work or having sex. But modern lifestyles have put paid to the notion of two separate sleeps.

Should Americans’ sleeplessness be a government priority? Perhaps. In 2016, the RAND Corporation found that the lack of good sleep was costing the American economy more than $400 billion a year, mostly because of missed workdays. RAND chalked up Americans’ sleeplessness to “obesity, excessive alcohol and sugary drink consumption, smoking, lack of physical activity, mental health problems, long-term health conditions, stress at work, shift work/irregular working hours, financial concerns, and long commuting.” This suggests that rather than make sleep itself a policy issue, the government could look to reduce things like alcoholism. The improving economy should also help Americans rest easy.

In the meantime, we have a suggestion. The impeachment trial beginning this week is a predetermined spectacle. We know what will be said and who will say it. We know that in the end, the president will be acquitted. Want to catch up on sleep? Just turn on the trial and let the ZZZs roll in.

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