I’m assuming you’re in a sleep crisis, not because we’ve met and you’ve bragged about late-night partying or, on the other hand, complained about tasks you had to do after the children were in bed. I’m assuming you’re in crisis because three-fourths of the population is, and half of those are in extreme trouble. You may be one of them.

Assess yourself right now with the same questions used in the National Sleep Foundation poll (sleepfoundation.org, March, 2002). Please check which of these applies to you once a week or more:

  • difficulty falling asleep
  • waking frequently
  • waking too early, unable to fall back asleep
  • awaking tired and reluctant to get up
  • snoring (your own; believe your bed partner!)
  • unpleasant tingling in your legs
  • sleep apnea—stop breathing for a second or more

Once upon a time, people slept when it was dark. In the winter, in most places, it’s dark for 12 hours or more. In the summer, it may be dark for eight hours or even less. If lamp oil cost you as much as the apricot pit oil the Hunzakuts of the Himalayas use for lamps—think how many apricots one must grow and eat and pit and press to burn a lamp till 11:00 pm in the winter—you might be inclined to go to bed at sundown and rise when it is light. By the way, the Hunzakuts live, without illness, to 100 and often more, dying in their gardens, not in nursing homes.

Of course, sleeping while it is dark is only one of their many longevity “secrets.” But it is an important one. If you’re a habitual camper or RV-er, you may already know the pleasantness of going to bed around dark and sleeping till light. The body wants to synchronize with nature. It virtually insists, yet modern humans resist—to our peril and the peril of others.

If you didn’t work for a living, and removed all the clocks and watches from your premises, when would you sleep, and for how long?

Lack of sleep plays a larger role in industrialized societies than you may think. In factories working around the clock, running three shifts a day, generally the first shift, starting after daybreak, has the fewest accidents. People working under artificial light have more accidents. Third shift (night) workers rarely get enough sleep, because their friends and family consider them available all day, even though they work all night while those same other people sleep.

Swing shift workers have the most accidents. Those are the workers whose working hours vary either from week to week or every few weeks. Their body’s circadian rhythms are thrown off, attention to detail declines, and awareness of the moment—the life they are in at one instant versus another—becomes a blur as they move, robot-like, through their responsibilities.

Stanley Coren’s Sleep Thieves attributes “such disasters as the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the near meltdown at Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the explosion of space shuttle Challenger” to human error due to the lack of sleep. Those are stiff prices to pay, and not to be paid by only those who were sleep deprived, but by all of us and our children and our children’s children.

How do you know you will not be one to let a machine get away from you, push a button too late (or too soon), nod behind the wheel and kill a family of five on the highway? Motor vehicle accidents have been shown to increase from four times to seven times, depending upon other variables in each study. That means for every 100 car wrecks among the general population, sleep-deprived people have 400-700. That does not mean they have accidents because the were asleep at the wheel at the time. They were sleep-deprived. That means reflexes were slower, judgment lagged behind the need for good judgment, physical movements—like tapping the brake—were slowed down. Their brains may have been oxygen deprived.

You may or may not get behind the wheel of a vehicle or operate heavy machinery while under the influence of alcohol or medications that carry these specific warnings. But if you aren’t sleeping enough and sleeping well, you may be more dangerous than a drunk driver. At least the drunk driver can be identified by others and often prevented from operating a one-ton beast in public. But if your only problem is impaired judgment that does not produce slurred speech or a staggering gait, how many people will you kill? And how will your family feel if you are one of them in such a preventable tragedy?

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