The Ugly Truth About Sleep
Sleep has turned into a form of class privilege.
It’s also a weapon in class warfare.
I’m guessing you don’t need yet another life coach or wellness grifter selling you on the concept of sleep. You’ve probably spent a lot of time and money on it already. We participate in a $400 billion sleep economy. More than 70 percent of Americans bought a sleep aid over the last year.
We even have a sleep awareness month.
If you’ve read Tricia Hersey, then you know how capitalism has robbed us of the right to rest, and how sleep culture maintains racial and class hierarchies. So why are we still so tired all the time? Why do most of us feel like we could sleep for ten years? Why do we keep looking for advice from the privileged types who only want to sell us stuff instead of addressing the real problems?
It’s because the decider class wants it that way. The sleep industry has tricked us. Every guru, every podcast host, every goop lady has been lying the entire time. They’ve been telling us it’s our fault we can’t sleep. The Great Resignation made them deeply angry. It scared them. In retaliation, they’re driving an artificial recession. They’ve doubled down on making sure everyone’s either at work, or out there hustling and spending their money.
Just a few minutes ago, I read through a Forbes article that does exactly what the sleep industry wants. It’s a great example of the problem. It trots out the stats on poor sleep, then blames us for it. It shames us for:
- Looking at our phones too much.
- Eating at inconsistent times.
- Not getting enough sunlight.
- Not exercising enough.
The article concludes by telling us to make our rooms as dark, cold, and quiet as possible. Basically, it does what every piece of sleep porn has always done. It turns good sleep into a personal responsibility and then dumps all the work on us, as if we all have 100 percent control over it.
That’s the problem, though.
Serious research on sleep points to the same undeniable facts. How we sleep is programmed into us. It’s in our genes. Sleep is also something that has to be managed collectively. If we want better sleep, our politicians and CEOs have to create the structures that make it possible.
We have to demand it.
We need sleep agency.
For starters, up to 30 percent of humans are hardwired night owls. Melatonin doesn’t accumulate in our brains until much later, sometimes as late as 2 or 3 am. There’s an evolutionary reason for it. Back in the Paleolithic days, humanity needed certain people to stay up at night and guard the tribe. Even now, our 24/7 economy necessitates that some of us work at night. And yet, we’re shamed. We’re paid less. We’re excluded. We’re told we have poor sleep habits.
Even when some blogger acknowledges the night owl gene, they treat it like there’s something wrong with us.
For thousands of years, a lot of humans slept in shifts. We didn’t sleep in one big block. We broke it up into parts.
Humanity forgot about that until historian Roger Ekirch started stumbling across the phrase “first sleep” in old court documents. From there he found references to it in literature, diaries, and letters going all the way back to the 8th century B.C. We used to go to bed around 8 or 9 pm. We woke up around 11 pm. We did chores. We read. We did some quiet thinking. We had sex. Then we went back to bed and slept until we were ready to wake up. Ekirch also uncovered experiments from the 1960s that found when you remove stimulus and stress, humans go right back to sleep shifts. In fact, a lot of mammals do the same thing.
Mammals sleep in shifts.
Our natural sleep cycles started changing during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thanks to industrialization and inventions like the light bulb, the super rich started messing with our sleep. According to Ekirch, they created a culture of shaming around anyone who didn’t sleep according to their rules. Unfortunately, Ekirch didn’t want to rock the boat too much. So he’s on record saying, “There’s no going back… conditions have changed.” So we’re stuck doing something that’s not natural for us, simply because it pleases the current status quo.
We’re also supposed to be taking naps.
A chemical called adenosine governs our sleep routines. It’s literally an alarm clock inside your brain. When enough of it accumulates, your brain tells you to go to sleep. You know that feeling when you literally can’t keep your eyes open? That’s the adenosine trying to shut you off. When you sleep, your brain washes out the adenosine. When it’s low enough, you wake up.
Caffeine works by blocking your brain’s adenosine receptors. It also tells your brain to produce adrenaline and dopamine. Of course, caffeine doesn’t work quite as well if you’re already tired—adenosine has already begun building up in your system. The only way to sweep out the adenosine is sleep.
That’s why some gurus recommend the coffee nap. You clear the adenosine, allowing caffeine to bind in its place.
Here’s the interesting part:
By 3 pm, your body reaches a natural adenosine high. You’re supposed to sleep for a couple of hours in the middle of the afternoon.
Researchers have uncovered more than 100 areas of the human genome associated with sleep. These areas explain our need for naps and sleep shifts. Our genes even determine how much sleep we need. Some of us need more sleep than others. Some can get by on 6. Others need as many as 11.
It’s not because you’re lazy.
It’s in your DNA.
Several cultures around the world made naps a central part of the day. Even after industrialization, they’ve managed to hang on to the afternoon break—even if people don’t use it for sleep anymore.
Western capitalist culture has largely done away with the afternoon nap through shaming us and obsessing over productivity. Even the wellness gurus suggest squeezing it down to a 20-minute “power nap,” because that’s probably all you’re allowed, even if you’re some bigshot.
Most sleep psychologists agree that we sleep best at temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees. They tell us to treat our bedrooms like caves, because that’s how we evolved. We slept in dark, cold caves and huts. Most of us probably have an internal thermostat, part of our sleep genome. We have an ideal temperature at which we fall asleep. It’s not that flexible.
We’re ice age creatures.
Ironically, we’ve done just about everything we can to destroy our climate niche. Humans are increasingly dependent on artificial ways of cooling themselves. You know, like air conditioning.
Sleep costs money.
It costs money to turn your bedroom into a cool, dark cave. If you live in the city, you have to buy blackout curtains. If you live in an apartment, good luck finding quiet neighbors. Good luck blocking out the nighttime traffic, and the dudes who drive by like they’re in a Fast & Furious movie.
Only the top income bracket gets true sleep agency. They can decide what time they go to sleep. They enjoy some flexibility about when they wake up. They can decide to take a nap in the middle of the day.
If you’re a middle or low-income worker, someone is constantly stealing your sleep, just like they’re stealing your wages. They can schedule you to work the closing shift one night, and then open the next morning. They can call you in on your day off, and fire you if you say no. It’s not legal?
They do it anyway.
Even my “successful” friends don’t get to sleep when they want. Their boss can make them work late on a project, then schedule a meeting with overseas clients at 4 am. They can make my friends work nights and weekends, even while pretending to respect their boundaries while sipping out of their “world’s best boss” mugs. They can wake my friends up in the middle of the night with questions or emergencies. They can drag them out of bed to debug code.
Imagine telling them to quit or find a better job, when this behavior happens across 90 percent of companies. Imagine telling someone to eat better or get more sunlight when they work 10 hours a day.
Most of these articles and books about sleep are directed at us as individuals. They act like we’re the ones calling the shots. Instead, they should be talking to our bosses. They should be talking to school boards.
If we need temperatures between 60F and 70F to sleep well, then we should stop overheating the planet with fossil fuels. We should stop making ourselves increasingly dependent on machines just to be.
If we need to sleep in shifts, if we need to wake up later, if we need afternoon naps, then we should get them. We shouldn’t have to beg. We shouldn’t have to win some kind of financial rat race. We shouldn’t be called lazy or unproductive for doing something that humans were designed to do and did for thousands of years. We shouldn’t have to deny that in order to make someone else obscenely rich. Even medieval peasants were allowed to sleep better than us.
We would be fine if we actually used science to understand ourselves. Instead, our tech overlords are trying to stick chips inside our brains and turn us into robots. They want to strip this planet of its resources and then go find another one as soon as possible. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to stop looking at phones and eat better if we want to actually get any sleep.
We don’t need better sleep habits.
We need sleep.