Book review: The Mystery of Sleep, by Meir Kryger

Kryger wants to help people correctly identify issues with their sleep
Kryger wants to help people correctly identify issues with their sleep
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The Scotsman’s monthly review of a book about health, promoted by Wellcome

It tires me out just trying to come up with a topic that’s prompted more words than how to get a good night’s kip. Books, the best known of which is probably Ariana Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution, endless blogs, countless magazine features, a slew of opinion pieces, each telling us how to sleep better and longer and, inevitably, ramping up our fears if our sleeping is problematic. There’s no argument that sleep is vital to our health and wellbeing and millions of us experience a nightly struggle with it, exacerbated by how we work (too much) and relax (increasingly online). Insomnia, Restless Leg Syndrome, sleep apnea, you name it, a huge number of us experience it. And although much of what is written about sleep is by people who purport to be experts, that term is sometimes stretched beyond credulity. Meir Kryger, however, is the real deal.

Despite our current obsession with sleep, as a specialist area of medicine sleep studies is comparatively young. It came into existence in the 1970s and Kryger was among its first exponents. Now a Yale Medical School professor, Kryger recorded one of the first cases of what became known as sleep apnea. Having written books about sleep disorders for other doctors, in 2004 Kryger wrote his first book for a general audience, an exploration of how sleep disorders affect women differently from men. His follow-up, The Mystery of Sleep, broadens his target from women to “the entire family and society”. And why not? The National Institute of Health in the US (Kryger’s book is very much US-focused) estimates that between 50 and 70 million Americans of all ages have sleep-related problems. And we’re not faring much better over here.

Each chapter of Kryger’s book begins with a short description of a patient who has come to his sleep clinic for help. In a career spanning 40 years, he has treated more than 30,000 patients with sleep problems. What’s striking is how often the dishevelled individuals with bags under their eyes and stories of woe sitting opposite Kryger have sat in front of many other doctors over years and years. The problem of misdiagnosis of sleep disorders is one of the reasons Kryger has written his book – to help readers to identify issues with their sleep and to inform them as to how best to speak to their doctor so as to be understood. He highlights the way in which drugs often prescribed to treat depression, for example, can include side effects which impact on sleep. Be informed is his advice, quiz your doctor – what are you being prescribed and why?

The book is structured in four parts. Part one explores the physiology of sleep and its role at each stage in our lives, from infancy to old age. Part two focuses on sleep disorders and tackles our body clocks. Part three gets to grips with insomnia, while part four describes how to get help for common sleep problems. Therapeutically-speaking, the importance of sleep can’t really be overstated; like eating well and being physically active, sleep is a basic pillar of health, including mental health. But what constitutes a good night’s sleep is unique to each of us. And it’s got less to do with number of hours and more to do with how we feel when we wake up. According to Kryger: “You should not wake up feeling as though you have not slept. You should not feel as though you won’t be able to function until you have had one or more cups of coffee. Struggling to stay awake while driving or falling asleep or feeling uncontrollably fidgety at movies, public meetings, or even in front of the television or computer screen are all signs that you may be sleep deprived. You should not feel as though you are about to fall asleep while reading.”

There’s no doubting Kryger’s experience or his enthusiasm. The tone of the book is that of the most comprehensive leaflet you’ve ever picked up in the surgery, informative but not exactly scintillating. And what’s perhaps a little disappointing is the lack of contemporary context. In the opening pages, Kryger bemoans the political errors made by sleep-deprived presidents. Obama faring poorly against Mitt Romney in the first debate in 2012. Bill Clinton’s wry self-assessment: “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” But there’s no mention of Donald Trump – perhaps to do with when the book was written – glued to his smartphone in the early hours, firing off a tirade of tweets when sleep might do him (and the rest of us) more good. What’s more surprising still is that Kryger doesn’t take issue with the onslaught of technology creeping into our sleeptime routines. Certainly, he advises keeping technology out of the bedroom, but he offers no insight into the current fashion for making the one third of our lives we spend at rest the newest arena in which we can measure, learn, practice and improve our performance. Doesn’t exactly sound restful, does it? And I think I’d probably sleep easier knowing the learned doctor’s thoughts.

Claire Black is a Gestalt therapist, based in Edinburgh

The Mystery of Sleep: Why a Good Night’s Rest is Vital to a Better, Healthier Life is published by Yale University Press, £20