🎁 'Tis the season to support public service journalism Donate Now
Shelf Life

America’s sleep problem

Marketplace Staff May 11, 2010
Shelf Life

America’s sleep problem

Marketplace Staff May 11, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: A single bad night’s sleep is one thing. You can power through the next day most times and get over it. But night after night of not sleeping is something else entirely. Patricia Morrisroe is well acquainted with the wee small hours of the morning. She’s been dealing with insomniac almost her whole life. Her new book about sleeplessness and the business of treating it is called “Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia.” Patricia, it’s good to have you here.

Patricia Morrisroe: Thanks.

Ryssdal: Are we, do you know, sleeping less as a society than we were, say, 50 years ago?

Morrisroe: That’s what they’re saying, but there’s no hardcore evidence. You know, in doing the research for this book I went back and looked at newspaper accounts of sleep 100 years ago, and even at the dawn of industrialization people were very, very worried. They say, “Oh my god, people are not sleeping.” With each new technological change, you do find there’s a focus on sleep. Having said that, I think with the increased travel — I know, for example, my husband last week was in five different countries in the Middle East — so I think you’re getting much more of that, and that is really messing around with people’s sleep.

Ryssdal: When you first started researching this book, you did a little bit of a historical examination of a study of the science of sleep and one of the things that you discovered was that it’s just not that long of a history, is it?

Morrisroe: You know in the 50s and 60s it was pretty much dominated by psychiatrists. Psychiatrists would set up sleep labs and they were hoping to study the mystery of dreams and that really didn’t pan out because they discovered that what people were telling them in the lab after they woke them up really wasn’t any more interesting than what they told them on the couch.

Ryssdal: You actually took a night in a sleep lab as part of your treatment in this book. I imagine just being in that lab doesn’t make you very inclined to sleep at all?

Morrisroe: No. Certainly not for me. I found the whole set up very, very uncomfortable. You know, the technician said to me, “Well, if one of the wires comes unattached in the middle of the night, I’ll just quietly come in and hopefully you won’t wake up.” And the answer is if I were the type of person who didn’t wake up when a strange man came into my room to remove electrodes, I would not be here, so…

Ryssdal: Yeah. The modern medical answer to sleep problems these days is basically drugs, right? I mean, Ambien in the 80s, isn’t that when it started?

Morrisroe: Yeah. Two-pronged: drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy. I think you can really pinpoint when the whole issue of America’s major sleep problem, it very much started at the same time Searle introduced Ambien in 1991.

Ryssdal: Do we know how big the sleeping pill industry is in this country?

Morrisroe: $45 million — people spend on sleeping pills, and I think in 2012 it’s estimated that the number will go up to something like $3.9 billion.

Ryssdal: And does it work?

Morrisroe: Sleeping pills can be much more successful for people if they need them for what they call sleep onset insomnia, meaning you have a difficult time falling asleep. But they are much less successful in terms of keeping you asleep. And I was very surprised when I was looking at some of the clinical studies that they only provide 11.5 minutes of extra sleep over a placebo.

Ryssdal: Is the sleep industry writ large sort of making plans to adjust to these lifestyles that we have that are increasingly fractured and frenzied and just busier and busier?

Morrisroe: A couple of days ago I saw something for Dream Water — sleep is just a sip away.

Ryssdal: Oh geez.

Morrisroe: So it’s that type of thing. It’s so pervasive. It’s not only sleeping pills, it’s down to more and more complicated mattresses that we need. You know, sleep is a very natural process, but you wouldn’t know it by all the gimmicks out there.

Ryssdal: Patricia Morrisroe, her memoir of insomnia is called “Wide Awake.” Thanks a lot for your time.

Morrisroe: Thank you.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.