Monday, 25 May 2009

You've made your bed...

Interesting to see that in the bust-up over MPs' expenses, one member has been praised for her frugality, as she sometimes sleeps on a camp bed in her office. There's something rather penitential about the photograph of the MP sitting on a spartan fold-up bed.

The idea of plain and simple bedding for a higher purpose has very deep roots. There are spiritual retreats where people sleep on stone beds as a way of focusing their thoughts on higher matters and to shake off worldly pleasures. John Wesley was distrustful of beds that were too soft and pleasurable, wanting something starchier and more morally bracing. The camp bed, all function and no frills, modestly ready to be hidden away, is the perfect bed for such uncomfortable times.

Political leaders around the world, sensitive to this puritanical instinct, seem much happier to be seen to be exhausted and sleep deprived. They might be too tired to make any decent decisions, but at least it looks as though they're trying.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Not jet lag but fat lag

Long sleepers are slimmer say researchers - and missing out on sleep is linked to a greater risk of obesity.

This is the result of research into the relationship between weight and sleep patterns. It's good news for the serious sleepers, but it's more anxiety for the sleep starved, who now face the prospect of being overweight as well as exhausted.

I'll leave the complex science of all this to the complex scientists - but something mentioned in these reports struck me as very convincing. Loss of sleep leads to comfort eating.

Anyone who has ever worked a night shift or tried to finish off some work through the middle of the night will know the feeling. You're completely exhausted, you're up all night and you're not really hungry, but you suddenly want to eat the most unhealthy food you can find. It's a ridiculous feeling, light-headed with lack of sleep and then stuffing your head with junk food. It's that haywire moment in the middle of the night.

It's like the confusion of messing around with time zones. Except it's not jet lag, but fat lag.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Wherever I lay my... suitcase

In Canada there has been another of those stories where someone is found living in an airport. The woman had a suitcase, as if ready to travel, but had not caught a flight after a month in the terminal.

What's interesting is that the proof of her "living" in the airport was that was where she slept. Sleeping in a place, on a regular basis, is almost a definition of home. There is something significant about the place we choose to sleep. It confers a particular status. It becomes home. In our insecure, rootless society, where we're all driftwood, where relationships seem so fragile, the search for home becomes even more significant.

And one of the characteristics of the elusive sense of home is that this is the place we sleep, whether it's a suburb we inwardly distrust, the inner-city we want to leave or... an airport terminal.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Wool: The stuff of dreams

How much time do we spend in bed? Not enough, I know. But it's remarkable how little time we spend thinking about what we're sleeping in and what we're sleeping under.

So, by way of experiment, I'm testing a different type of duvet. I've been trying out a duvet filled with wool. Although wool has been a staple of keeping people warm for thousands of years, I'd never had a duvet with wool inside before.

At first glance, it looks flatter than the duvets I've usually used. And in terms of getting into bed, the warmth feels more intense. It is extremely cosy, there is a definite fleece-factor. I'm an enthusiastic sleeper and I like to be warm, so this was very much to my taste. It's big on comfort, in a wrap-around kind of way.

The Woolroom ( which sells these wool duvets, says that wool is better at helping the sleeper to maintain an even temperature. "It initially raises skin temperature so that you are warm, it insulates you from the cold but also stops you overheating while you sleep."

This ability of the wool to adapt to body temperature is claimed as making the sleeper less likely to feel "clammy". Such quilts are meant to be particularly good at absorbing moisture. Wool quilts also can boast a natural, eco-friendly status.

In the end, regardless of the science, the question the sleeper will want answered is: Was it a good sleep? And the answer is a positive one, it's seriously snug.

But it also occurs to me that we don't have much of a language for comparing sleeps. How do we describe the different sleeps below types of quilt or using types of pillows? How do we distinguish between the sleeps on different beds?

What does a sleep below a wool quilt feel like? If it was a wine, it would be a velvety red. The word that keeps coming back is "intense". I dreamt more, which could have been a coincidence, but it was that kind of rich, snug sleep.

How do you review sleep? For something we do so often, maybe we should be thinking about it more seriously.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Champion sleepers

The French are the champion sleepers of the industrialised world, according to figures from the OECD.

A study of lifestyles across developed countries shows how the amount of sleep varies sharply between cultures.

The French enjoy the most sleep, followed by the slumbering citizens of the United States. At the other end of the scale, the Koreans and Japanese sleep the least. The UK hovers somewhere in the middle, sleeping less than the Spanish or the Australians, but sleeping more than the Italians or the Germans.

Apart from feeling jealousy towards those relaxed French dreamers, it's also a lesson in how much sleep is driven by culture rather than nature. Given that we're all the same human species, it might be expected that sleep would be pretty constant between different countries.

After all, you'd expect cats in Korea and cats in Germany to sleep for the same average amount of time each day, regardless of the passports of their owners. But with humans, there are big national differences, with more than a hour a day in the gap between the French and the Koreans.

Over the course of a year, that means that the French are asleep for a full 15 days more than the Koreans. Think of that, missing out on a full 15 days of uninterrupted sleep.

It shows how much sleep, that glorious natural instinct, can be altered by the pressures of human society.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Bank Holiday: Top quality kipping

The Eskimos supposedly have lots of different words to distinguish between types of snow. I don't know if that's true, but it's the kind of thing people tell you, usually not people with a big grasp of Inuit languages admittedly. It makes me wonder why our own vocabulary hasn't adapted to our surroundings. What about words to discern between different types of being stuck in traffic? Or a range of descriptions for the different annoying gits in a railway carriage?

Anyway, this is getting round to wondering why there is such a limited range of words for the quality of sleep. "Did you sleep well?" "Yes." "What sort of sleep was it?" "It was just sleep." We lack words for the degrees of slumber, the quality of kip.

Today offers a particular type of sleep. It's a bank holiday, a Monday without the need to go to work or take the children to school. It's a magnificent chance of a lie-in. Big time sleeping. It means looking at the alarm clock and laughing into its bossy face. It's way past getting up time. It's really late. And I'm still lying in bed, half awake, half asleep. It's a good time for dreaming and making plans that feel a bit like dreams, which you forget when you get up. It's that feeling when you're drifting back and forth between sleeping and waking.

It might not have special name, but it's a very special sleep.