Every one of us has a mysterious double life.
For about two thirds of the time we are conscious beings, thinking about the world within and without, and negotiating our ways through the obstacles of life. For the other one third of the time we are nearly lifeless lumps of flesh, unconscious to everything but our own fantasies, as we lie flat in bed asleep. We all know that sleep is important for health. But for an activity that consumes about 8 hours of everyday of life, surprisingly little is thought about the act of sleeping, or the way our culture teaches us to sleep. Sleep behavior, like all human activities, is defined by our culture.
Sometimes, the practices taught by our culture can impact on the way our bodies function. As medical anthropologists, we research ways our cultural practices may be affecting our health. And we have found that the way we have been trained to sleep may be one of the most important causes of various diseases plaguing our society.
Of course, when you consider the culture of sleeping, it includes such isues as the length of time to sleep, and time of day for sleep. Do you take frequent naps or do you sleep 8 hours straight? Do you sleep at night or during the day?
Other issues concern sleepwear. Do you sleep nude, or with pajamas or lingerie? Do you sleep in your underwear? Should the sheets be natural fabrics, such as cotton or silk, or is polyester okay? What about the detergent and fabric softeners used in the sheets, pillow case, and pj’s?
Should you eat before you sleep? What is the impact of watching television before sleep? Should you take sleeping pills to help you sleep?
These are some of the culturally defined issues that help determine how we sleep, all of which may have some potential impact on health. However, there is one cultural issue that tops the list of importance, and which may greatly determine your health status.