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Sleep deprivation is a national epidemic. And it's killing us Add to ...

In other words, you might not want to arrive on a red-eye flight before 8 on a Friday morning – “not if it takes more than 10 minutes from top of descent to landing,” Dr. Belenky says. One solution that has been successful in Europe is controlled on-the-job naps.

When the latter idea was introduced in the United States, government-spending hawks laughed the idea out of Congress. Better, apparently, to die in a plane crash.

On the red-eye

If we aren’t sleeping, what are we doing? Mathias Basner, a medical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, conducted a time-use survey of nearly 50,000 people. He found that the biggest sleep bandits in North America are work, travel (including commuting and grocery shopping) and social and leisure activities such as family time.

The study didn’t look at the time-eating capacity of online activity, but “it’s a reasonable hypothesis,” Dr. Dinges says.

The biggest sleep losers are men between the ages of 45 and 54. Remember that, darling, the next time you wake me up at 3 a.m. for snoring.

But “the real issue” as to why we are so sleep-challenged today, Dr. Dinges argues, “is the value of time. Because it’s under our discretionary control, time becomes a commodity, and it becomes a great deal more valuable. For many people these days, time is worth more than money. Anything that keeps time trapped in, that eludes our discretionary ability to control time, is seen as something that’s expendable.”

Thus to maximize our time-use profits, we sleep less and work and shop and Facebook more. “Social factors now control time, asleep and awake,” Dr. Dinges says, “even though sunset and sunrise were what we evolved by.”

The true north, sleepy and free

There was a lot of yammer about national economic productivity during the recent election campaign, but in terms of addressing our fundamental capacity to be productive by getting enough sleep, Canada is still snoozing.

Sleep medicine is a board-certified medical subspecialty in the U.S., but not so here, where the Calgary police force and hospital nurses are among the few professional groups to have openly addressed the exhaustion issue. The rest of us have just grown used to being a sleepy society.

“Sleep is the No. 1 performance enhancer for meeting the challenge of the next day,” Dr. Dinges says. “We need to reprioritize sleep – make it more important than TV, more important than long commutes, more important than a lot of irrelevant social-networking activities that make us feel good. Ten minutes a day on e-mail may be enough.” Radical!

His cause may be helped by sleep’s emergence as one of the new darlings of scientific research. The slowly dawning recognition that sleep is essential to both self-reliance and public performance, no matter what the boss says, has “made sleep medicine kind of a fair-haired child, scientifically,” Dr. Dinges declares.

“But it’s also up against this huge social desire to be awake. Basically we’ve become addicted to a 24-hour cycle that challenges our biology.”

More sleep? Perchance we dream.

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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