Why do we sleep? Should we nap?

I have written in the past about sleep, in particular how interesting and revealing the study of sleep was for me at University (see here). What has always baffled me is that Sleep Researchers still have never scientifically proven why adult human beings need to sleep. We do know that if we don’t sleep enough, typically we suffer from irritability, forgetfulness and fatigue, and our motor skills in low-grade repetitive tasks diminish. One thing I also know is that, in ‘modern’ society, we sure spend a bunch of time THINKING about getting more sleep.

That said, sleep researchers have been making significant progress recently. LiveScience published this article, entitled ‘New Theory Questions Why We Sleep‘, by Charles Choi, which describes the latest research by Jerome Siegel at the University of California at Los Angeles. Sleep “is often thought to have evolved to play an unknown but vital role inside the body…”; but, Siegel suggests that the reason why we sleep is related to an adaptation to the outside environment. Specifically, Siegel “proposes the main function of sleep is to increase an animal’s efficiency and minimize its risk by controlling how a species behaves with regards to its surroundings.”

There are several other theories as to what is the purpose of sleep. These theories include promoting longevity, a role in learning, reversing damage from daily stress… The Choi article continues to say that “in humans, the brain constitutes, on average, just 2 percent of total body weight but consumes 20 percent of the energy used during quiet waking, so these savings have considerable significance…” Intuitively, the idea that the rest we get is most beneficial for the brain makes sense, knowing that the brain’s activity is never fully shut off during sleep and is hyperactive in the REM phases.

“I think this idea of ‘adaptive inactivity’ is an extremely useful way of thinking about the broader picture of sleep without getting lost in individual theories,” said sleep researcher David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Dinges noted that regular cycles of light and darkness “put enormous environmental pressures on animals that all play into forced ‘time-outs.'”

Meanwhile, there are all sorts of myths about sleep, in part perpetuated by a lack of evidence, but also our lack of study/research and, more ominously, mis-information. It is worth noting that sleep (or at least getting to sleep) is also, unfortunately, big business: it is estimated that worldwide sales for sleeping pills (hypnotics) will surpass $5 billion in the next several years.

My own interest in sleep stems from a fundamental belief that sleep management is integral to time management. Actively managing one’s sleep should be part of one’s daily hygiene, just as much as eating and doing sports. One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that sleeping more is ipso facto healthier, to the point where taking sleeping pills is better than not sleeping enough. This is unlikely to be the case. From this LiveScience article, I quote, “[a] six-year study [Daniel F.] Kripke headed up of more than a million adults ages 30 to 102 showed that people who get only 6 to 7 hours a night have a lower death rate than those who get 8 hours of sleep. The risk from taking sleeping pills 30 times or more a month was not much less than the risk of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, [Kripke] says.”

I am personally a light sleeper and early riser, always living on the edge of what is necessary to live my conscious day in a comfortable way. While many people express a certain jealousy, it could yet be classified as chronic sleep deprivation. Do I naturally need less sleep or is it a self-imposed internal regime? Research by Ying-Hui Fu, a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, Mission Bay, suggests that a gene (DEC2) may be responsible for the amount of sleep we need (at least for the short sleepers). So, perhaps I am genetically predisposed?

If one is to sleep or rest effectively, there is also the solution of the nap. On weekends, a longer nap helps to accommodate the sporting endeavours and longer social engagement on the Saturday night… But during the working week, at least for those working in a company, the nap — even the power nap — is basically out of the question. Quite astonishingly, per a Pew Research Center study, reported in this article in LiveScience, napping is an activity done daily by 1/3 of all adult Americans. But for the other 2/3 [i.e. hard at work], it is a daily dream. Imagine a company where you could, without fear of reprisal, just crawl up for a power snooze of 10-20 minutes when the deep urge fell upon you. Would that not feel like a true daily gift? How much do you think that would be worth? Instead, snoozing is, almost uniformly, voraciously frowned upon and left to do on the commute home, stuffed in between two bodies on the tube/metro/subway or, worse yet, swinging upright, hanging on to a handle bar while standing on a moving bus. Of course, for power naps to be permissible, there would have to be some level of controls. The key is to set clear time-delimited objectives without focusing on exactly “when” the work is being done. This would also be a vital condition to creating more flexible hours for employees. On a side note, the much maligned pigeons (at least on this blog), apparently integrate the power nap into their daily crumb-finding, building-desecrating life – read here for more on those napping pigeons.

In a somewhat counter intuitive result of the Pew study, the most frequent nappers according to revenues were actually those in the middle, i.e. the middle managers : “Among people making more than $100,000, 33 percent said they nap regularly, while 42 percent of those making less than $30,000 clock out during the day. The income group that naps least? Those who make $75,000 to $99,000 (21 percent).” If such is the need for the human body, for the bolder CEO’s or leaders among you, is it not the smart thing to do to invest in organising a nap room, like they did for NASA’s Phoenix mission team members?

What’s your opinion? Is napping a luxury or truly necessary? Which do you prefer, the power nap or 90-minute snooze? Would a nap room make work conditions remarkably better? How might you go about instituting a ‘nap policy’ in an organisation?

Comments 8

  1. Hello Minter et merci pour ce texte avec tous ces liens qui pointent vers des études intéressantes.Je tente dans mon entreprise, depuis plusieurs années maintenant, de promouvoir le sport le midi à la place des déjeuners au restaurant. Un petit groupe, environ 20% des équipes, est maintenant convaincu et accroc aux bienfaits de cette pratique.Je trouve en effet que la sieste de 10 à 20 minutes pourrait apporter un bienêtre à ceux qui ne sont pas sportif. J'ai déjà entendu parlé des salles de siestes dans certaines start'up. Ce serait vraiment fun de proposer cela ( accompagner de massages une fois par semaine )En bref, ce qui peut faire baisser le stress, et créer un bien être dans l'entreprise, me semble important à étudier.

  2. I am totally for the power nap when needed and not forced. It needs a little rigueur for getting the most of it. Everybody is different and YES it is a luxury in open spaces 

  3. Ce sujet me parle beaucoup, merci Minter ! When I used to work for the airlines and be jetlaged most of the time, I learned about the wonders of naps, and could basically fall asleep anywhere, anytime (with the help of some relaxation techniques). It pretty much saved my health and mental sanity… Yes, each of us probably has a minimum requirement (7hours for me) and yes, naps during the day are a blessing and companies should seriously think about it. Respect of biological rythms are definitely a plus for productivity, and would help people be happier at work !

  4. Hi Minter,

    During periods of high stress or extended hours of overtime I am not shy about locking my office door and stretching out for 15-30 minutes and I would not reprimand any of our employees for doing the same. It is a stress reliever. I use my iPhone as an alarm, mostly so as not to worry about sleeping too much – though not necessary as I usually wake up in good time on my own.

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