A curious thing happened to me several years ago. I had always been an excellent
sleeper, dropping off virtually at will and waking only in the morning – that
is, until a few short exchanges with a journalist colleague with whom I worked
closely and who sat at the desk opposite mine.
He came in to work over
several days complaining of being a very bad sleeper. He said he would wake up
periodically during the night, and then finally at around 4 a.m., after which he
was generally unable to go back to sleep.
We were used to chatting about
our lives, and I was empathetic.
Too much so, perhaps; almost immediately
afterwards, I began to have problems falling asleep – and while I wouldn’t
describe myself as an insomniac, these problems have never really gone
Was it coincidence – after all, it’s commonly accepted that people
sleep less well as they get older – or did my colleague’s recitation of his
sleeping troubles, coupled with my empathy, plant a similar tendency in my
brain? ‘IS INSOMNIA contagious?” I asked Google, on a whim – and found that
2,420 people had posed the same question. Most of the answers I read mocked the
notion, although one blogger noted that after three of her coworkers complained
of insomnia several nights in a row, “Last night, I couldn’t sleep a
One researcher who isn’t mocking the idea of sleeplessness being
catching is Stephen Fowler of the University of California, San Diego. He
studied more than 8,000 students and their sleeping habits and found that
students whose core social group contained sleepless individuals tended to get
less sleep themselves.
Now this isn’t surprising given the
characteristically chaotic and undisciplined nature of student society. But it
becomes intriguing when added to previous research which has shown that concepts
like happiness, altruism, obesity and even loneliness seem to spread throughout
“Heck, we all know yawning is contagious!” exclaims the
SleepingSimple website. “So why not sleep?” And why not the lack of it?
ACCORDING to a 2010 survey, the average Israeli gets six and a half hours of
sleep a night on weekdays, with 25 percent getting only five hours, or less. As
many as 41% suffer from insomnia, defined as “a prolonged inability to fall
asleep or enjoy uninterrupted sleep” (Collins English Dictionary).
almost half the Israeli population – a sobering statistic that may go far in
explaining the lack of patience exhibited in many of our everyday dealings with
one another, not to mention the erratic and heedless driving on our
When you think about it, though, and factor in the stress of
living in our small and beleaguered country, where more “news” than anywhere
else – much of it dismaying – seems to assault us on a daily basis, it’s
astonishing that the other 59% of the population are able to enjoy anything like
a full night’s sleep, despite “the situation.”
WHICH IS where Jerusalem
freelance journalist Brian Blum comes in. After five to six hours’ sleep a
night, he feels tired all day long. In a testament to human adaptability, he
notes “a remarkable ability to write while I’m tired.”
Now 51, he
suffered from child-onset insomnia, in which children simply don’t want to go to
sleep – but he terms his current condition “situational insomnia,” in which a
traumatic event brings on sleeplessness that can last for a short or long
“In my case, it was the second intifada [beginning in late
September 2000], hearing helicopters over my house on their way to Bethlehem. I
would get very tense and couldn’t fall asleep without pills, which I have been
taking ever since.”
A FRIEND who always seems full of energy has, I
discovered, an exhausting history of sleeplessness to which she only recently
found what she hopes is a solution.
Her sleeping quota was between four
and six hours of interrupted sleep owing to a condition called sleep apnea,
which affects 2-9% of the population, and in which breathing pauses several
times during the night, stopping the flow of oxygen.
This sounds serious,
and it is: Beyond constant tiredness during the day – experts say people with
severe sleep apnea are two to three times more likely to have automobile crashes
– sufferers face a higher risk of heart failure and stroke. Ironically, many
aren’t even aware of their condition until their partners complain about the
loud snoring that often characterizes it.
“It’s odd,” remarked my friend,
who is tall and slim, “because I don’t fit the typical physical profile for
sleep apnea, which is people who are overweight, with abdominal fat, and who
have short necks.”
Forcing herself to sleep on her side, as advised by a
sleep clinic, wasn’t enough; nor could she be helped by the CPAP, an oxygen mask
hooked up to a pump, owing to “a phobia about anything being on my
Finally, an ear, nose and throat specialist determined that the
passage of air was blocked by her tongue being located too far back in her
throat and described two radical and daunting surgical procedures, neither of
which was guaranteed to do the trick, and both of which she declined.
has opted instead to sleep with a silicone apparatus molded to her teeth which
raises the tongue and allows more air through.
“It’s OK,” she sums up. “I
can sleep with it, it’s not terrible, and hopefully it will alleviate the
LISTENING TO these histories of very real distress, I realize
that my sleeping problems are small potatoes by comparison – although I feel my
health and general wellbeing would be greatly improved by going to bed much
earlier than I currently do, and on a regular basis.
achieving this goal will need considerable dedication.
I’ve always tended
to potter around late at night, finding interesting or “important” things to do
when I should be making my way to bed. And my love of reading once I’m there
only delays going-to-sleep-time further – even though I know from experience
that when I fall asleep no later than midnight, I sleep better and awake far
Nor is my husband of exactly one year a help in this
area, being as near to a night owl as anyone could be without flapping wings and
hooting. He gets a second wind between 11 or 12 at night, and it isn’t rare for
him to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m., catching up on news or market
He knows that his bad sleeping habits, which leave him tired
during the day, are very unhealthy – as experts are saying with increasing
urgency. But such is custom that I don’t see a change occurring any time
Back in 2005, Rob Stein of The Washington Post wrote of “an
avalanche of studies” indicating that “failing to get enough sleep or sleeping
at odd hours heightens the risk for a variety of major illnesses, including
cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.”
Even those scientists who
argue that more research is needed to establish the risks admit that “the case
is rapidly getting stronger that sleep [deprivation] is an important factor in
many of the biggest killers.”
Although the amount of sleep needed varies
from person to person, it appears that risk of disease becomes significant when
people get less than six or seven hours a day, disrupting the body’s
IT’S EASY to go on the Web and find reams of
advice on strategies for getting a good night’s sleep, ranging from making your
bedroom more sleep-friendly (cool, dark, tidy, etc.) to staying away from big
meals at night. Most of these tips make sense.
Television and computers,
it turns out, are more of a stimulant than a relaxant – and here at least I am
ahead, having a longstanding aversion to the mere idea of a TV in my
But it occurs to me that the most valuable point to make is one
we tend to ignore: that the ability to sleep, and wake up renewed, is an amazing
and priceless gift we need to cherish and guard jealously – the Internet,
e-mail, late-night cable and other distractions of modern life notwithstanding –
instead of blithely assuming we can manipulate it or go without as often as we
We might stop and think that enforced sleep deprivation is a
proven instrument of torture that can drive its victims insane.
like me, your sleeping habits are all over the place, let’s resolve to change
them for the better, incrementally.
Whatever happens, I’ll be in bed
before midnight tonight.