by Jessica Spyker
The doors slide open and the zombie shuffles through into the too-bright light of Spar. He heads instinctively to the fridges at the back, drawn by the call of shiny neon cans which preach the power of caffeine. A mom pulls her kid out of the way as the zombie grabs a Redbull, pops the tab and then downs the fizzy yellow liquid. He passed out at 4:00am, but he has a compulsory 8:40 tutorial to get to in ten minutes. “Sleep is for the weak,” he mumbles, searching in his pocket for a leftover Ritalin pill.
The consequences of a lack of sleep are well known and undeniable. Sleep impacts everything from memory and emotion regulation to appetite. New research also presents a powerful connection between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s disease. Now, more than ever, we are understanding the importance of getting in those eight hours of 'Zs'.
Sleep, however, is complex and, for some, not as easy to come by. Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders such as insomnia are very common and are associated with significant long-term health problems. With the pressure to get ‘good sleep’, so too comes the products which promise it. There are a wide variety of sleep remedies on the market, from weighted blankets to herbal teas, and pillow mists which promise good dreams. Sleeping pills are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs, despite significant side-effects and high levels of dependency.
Whether it is the Friars dance floor or the 24-hour section of the library, University life has been known to significantly impact sleep cycles. With no mom to yank the covers off at 6:30am and force me into the car, university provided for me the freedom to embrace a later sleeping cycle. A 'dawnie' on Marxism just cannot compete with those few extra hours under the covers. As a self-proclaimed ‘night-owl’, however, late nights were not new to me. For many, the sleeping late/rising late pattern feels more natural and perhaps even inescapable. Research within the field of chronobiology has been exploring how night-owls – those who naturally sleep and rise late – are often biologically ‘programmed’ to be the way they are. These individuals will most often be unable to fall asleep at what is deemed a reasonable time, even if they are forced to consistently wake-up early. The question arises: where do night owls fit within health discourse around ‘good sleep’?
In my own honours level research on young adults with sleeping issues, a noticeable theme was the feeling of restriction participants felt in the face of society’s normal routines. Some spoke of how they enjoyed the early hours of the morning and got most of their work done in this period. One participant mentioned the fear they felt about entering the working world, where they would be unable to adjust to normal working hours. Society does not accommodate late risers, who are constrained because they have to fit into the ‘9-5’ pattern. Their circadian rhythms are incompatible with the rhythms of most institutions in society.
This issue has begun to be addressed. For example, B Society founded by Carmilla Kring fights for “chronotype equality” and advocates for later starting times in schools and more flexible working hours. Companies too are experimenting with different work schedules or flexible work arrangements world-wide. Society typically values early-risers, but it could be beneficial to shift the focus to the advantages of later sleeping patterns too. Many celebrated coders, hackers, CEOs, entrepreneurs and creatives have expressed how they are most productive after midnight.
For some individuals then, difficulty sleeping at what is considered a ‘normal’ time is not unhealthy, but entirely natural. Sleeping issues might be better labelled as sleeping differences. Instead of buying a new herbal tea, becoming dependent on sleeping tablets or lying awake in bed for hours, many could benefit from understanding or even ‘embracing’ their natural rhythm. This is not to say that all or even most people who have sleeping issues are biologically ‘set’ to be late-risers, but it does broaden the discussion around sleep management. Instead of focusing on how individuals should manage their sleep, health discourse could focus on how society can better accommodate different sleeping schedules. Perhaps it is time to normalize the night-owl!