MEGHAN DAUM

Sleep at your own risk

A survey showing that women don't get enough shut-eye shouldn't come as any surprise.

YESTERDAY marked the start of daylight saving time, a month early this year. The theory is that it will help conserve energy, but most of us know this is part of a vast conspiracy (possibly the work of government officials who know all about those aliens who come into our bedrooms and probe us) to keep us from getting enough sleep.

In conjunction with this occasion, the National Sleep Foundation released the results of a poll last week showing that most women don't get sufficient shut-eye and suffer negative consequences as a result. A random telephone survey of 1,003 women aged 18 to 64 found that 84% experienced insomnia more than one night a week. And 40% reported snoring, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.

Unsurprisingly, the groups that suffered from the worst sleep disturbances were mothers (both working and stay-at-home), although single working women without children spent the least amount of time in bed (less than six hours on work nights versus an average of roughly 8 1/2 hours).

To cope with drowsiness, 65% of the women surveyed said they drank caffeinated beverages during the day, and an alarming 36% reported fatigue-generated mood symptoms that left them "feeling hopeless about the future."

Asleep yet? Or just depressed? The foundation's report, which is 53 pages long and includes details about the relationship between sleep and such factors as caring for an aging relative, menopause and watching TV or using the Internet before bedtime, is both impressively comprehensive and only slightly less exciting than the first inaugural address of Grover Cleveland. So it's no surprise that much of the news coverage of the poll has not featured headlines saying "Women Don't Sleep Enough" or "Ladies, Don't Check E-Mail Before Bed!" but "Women in the U.S. Too Tired for Sex."

The poll did find that 33% of women opted out of sex when they were "too sleepy or ran out of time." But that sacrifice actually ranked fifth on the list, trailing other things women ignore when they are too tired or pressed for time, like eating right, seeing friends and family, exercise and, ironically, sleep itself. Still, the media have run away with the sex angle, mentioning (with notable scorn) that the activity women are least likely to put on the back burner is work, even though 2 in 10 said they were late to the office more than once in the last month due to oversleeping or feeling too tired in the morning.

The real news — that we're too sleepy to sleep — might not be as titillating as apocalyptic conjectures about the state of American romance, but it's a potentially far more interesting peek at the American psyche. There are all sorts of reasons we don't sleep well or long enough — stress, illness, child-rearing, late-night reruns of "Xanadu" — but the common denominator seems most often to be our inability to be quiet, still and (as we are in sleep, even if there's someone next to us) essentially alone. And why should we have these abilities? There's hardly any need for them in modern life.

We check our e-mail from our cellphones, call Bhutan while driving to Bakersfield and apply for life insurance online while watching TV, talking on the phone or maybe even having sex. (The secret of highly effective people? Do all three at once!) There is no longer any excuse for doing one thing at a time, let alone indulging in a few moments of idleness. Even meditation has been reformatted into active, even aggressive, magical thinking. Instead of focusing our thoughts inward, we're told by the latest bestseller "The Secret" that we should be "manifesting" (seeking what we want) through "visualization." We close our eyes not to shut the world out but to invite more stimulus in.

No wonder we can't sleep. Sleep equals doing nothing, and doing nothing is such a low priority that we are way out of practice. Sure, we want slumber, need it, even crave it. But because we can't work, buy things or communicate while we do it, it has very little relevance to our lives.

And because the very essence of sleep runs counter to the nonstop consumption that's become the governing principle of our lives, we see it as a sign of weakness, even diminished social status. Those who have time for adequate sleep are assumed to be professionally unambitious, neglectful of their families or not affluent enough to maximize their participation in our around-the-clock culture. In other words, they're the losers. Those of us who have bags under our eyes and throw tantrums in crowded Trader Joe's parking lots? We're the American success stories. Just don't get too close to us on the freeway. We really shouldn't be driving.

Sleep, it seems, not only eludes us, it's taboo. Meanwhile, those other elusive activities, like healthy eating, exercise, seeing friends and having sex? They have become prosaic to the point of disposability. I guess that means that sleep is the new sex. Or sleep is the new exercise. Or something.

At any rate, we had only 23 hours to work with yesterday. I hope no one wasted it exercising.


mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

CHICAGO

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