We’ve been told over and over that the 8-hour sleep is ideal, but our bodies have been telling us something else.
I’ve always been at odds with sleep. Starting around adolescence, morning became a special form of hell. Long school commutes meant rising in 6am darkness, then huddling miserably near the bathroom heating vent as I struggled to wrest myself from near-paralysis. The sight of eggs turned my not-yet-wakened stomach, so I scuttled off without breakfast. In fourth grade, my mother noticed that instead of playing outside after school with the other kids, I lay zonked in front of the TV, dozing until dinner. “Lethargy of unknown cause,” pronounced the doctor.

High school trigonometry commenced at 7:50am. I flunked, stupefied with sleepiness. Only when college allowed me to schedule courses in the afternoon did the joy of learning return. My decision to opt for grad school was partly traceable to a horror of returning to the treadmill of too little sleep and exhaustion, which a 9-to-5 job would surely bring.

In my late 20s, I began to wake up often for a couple of hours in the middle of the night – a phenomenon  linked to female hormonal shifts. I’ve met these vigils with dread, obsessed with lost sleep and the next day’s dysfunction. Beside my bed I stashed an arsenal of weapons against insomnia: lavender sachets, sleep CDs, and even a stuffed sheep that makes muffled ocean noises. I collected drugstore remedies — valerian, melatonin, Nytol — which caused me “rebound insomnia” the moment I stop taking them.

The Sleep Fairy continued to elude me.

Recently I confessed my problem to the doctor, ashamed to fail at something so simple that babies and rodents can do it on a dime. When I asked for Ambien, she cut me a glance that made me feel like a heroin addict and lectured me on the dangers of “controlled substances.” Her offering of “sleep hygiene” bromides like reserving my bedroom solely for sleep was useless to a studio apartment-dweller.

Conventional medical wisdom dropped me at a dead end. Why did I need to use a bedroom for nothing but sleeping when no other mammal had such a requirement? When for most of history, humans didn’t either? Our ancestors crashed with beasties large and small roaming about, bodies tossing and snoring nearby, and temperatures fluctuating wildly. And yet they slept. How on earth did they do it?

A lot differently than we do, it turns out.


The 8-Hour Sleep Myth

Pursuing the truth about sleep means winding your way through a labyrinth of science, consumerism and myth. Researchers have had barely a clue about what constitutes “normal” sleep. Is it how many hours you sleep? A certain amount of time in a particular phase? The pharmaceutical industry recommends drug-induced oblivion, which, it turns out, doesn’t even work. The average time spent sleeping increases by only a few minutes with the use of prescription sleep aids. And — surprise! — doctors have just linked sleeping pills to cancer.  We have memory foam mattresses, sleep clinics, hotel pillow concierges, and countless others strategies to put us to bed. And yet we complain about sleep more than ever.

The blame for modern sleep disorders is usually laid at the doorstep of Thomas Edison, whose electric light bulb turned the night from a time of rest to one of potentially endless activity and work. Proponents of the rising industrial culture further pushed the emphasis of work over rest, and the sense of sleep as lazy indulgence.

But there’s something else, which I learned recently while engaged in a bout of insomnia-driven Googling. A Feb. 12, 2012 article on the BBC Web site, “ The Myth of the 8-Hour Sleep,” has permanently altered the way I think about sleep. It proclaimed something that the body had always intuited, even as the mind floundered helplessly.