February 16, 2012

Sleep: Pharmacological fixer-upper or cultural conundrum?

What kept you up last time you couldn’t get to sleep: Work, the kids, term paper, bills…?

Whatever it was, you’re not alone if you just can’t wind down at the end of the day.

About 54-percent of Americans have trouble sleeping, according to a white paper edited by the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest in 2009. 

Researchers at the WUSTL School of Medicine have revealed that loss of sleep accelerates the buildup of Alzheimer's brain plaques in a mouse model of the disease

Not sleeping is expensive, too; the paper finds that sleep loss costs America $42 billion a year.

The long-term health effects of not sleeping can be pretty nasty, as well.  According to WUSTL medical researchers there might even be a link between insomnia and Alzheimer's disease.

But let’s just push aside all that doomsday-ish data and think about what sleep means to us as a culture.

Heck, the average American between ages 25 and 54 spends more time sleeping every day than they do eating, caring for others, household activities, leisure and sports activities combined, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And check out this article from the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine on the connection between sleep and early Hebrew tradition.

They deplored sleep deprivation, believing that it impaired life. They felt that excessive sleepiness was harmful. They understood that insomnia could be caused by stress and anxiety and by excessive alcohol, and that physical activity (exercise) and drinking milk could improve sleep.

-Sonia Ancoli-Israel, PhD: "Sleep Is Not Tangible" or What the Hebrew Tradition Has to Say About Sleep

So… not sleeping is both expensive and grinds at our cultural core.  Ergo, if you can make a pill that fixes insomnia then that has to be a good thing and you should be paid handsomely for helping us all out, right?

Ah, not so fast, says WUSTL Assistant Anthropology Professor Peter Benson.  Rather, let’s think about this a little more before we sign off on ubiquitous advertising campaigns and pump loads of cash into pharmacological quick fixes.  

Watch what Benson has to say and get back to us on what thoughts you have by commenting on this post or hooking up with on Twitter at @WUSTL_thinks.