Deflating the Bogus Insomnia “Epidemic”

Corporate interests push profitable paranoia.

By Bruno MaddoxFeb 22, 2008 6:00 AM


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To the connoisseur of offbeat news, October of last year started out like any other month. The lower rungs of the bank-robber community continued to include their real names and addresses on the notes they scribbled for tellers. Previously undistinguished pets were dialing 911 in just as timely a fashion as they ever had. It was all very much business as usual.

Then, on the morning of the 16th, something strange was reported about the zebrafish. “Fish might not have eyelids,” Jill Serjeant wrote for Reuters in a decidedly offbeat tidbit published that morning, “but they do sleep, and some suffer from insomnia, scientists reported on Monday.”

The article included some science-y material—something about mutant genes, “hypocretin,” and “neuropeptides.” But you didn’t need a Ph.D. to appreciate the human-interest angle, as it were, of the story. Insomnia’s bad enough when it hits you in a centrally heated apartment with a dozen unwatched episodes of Ghost Hunters softly calling to you from the bowels of the DVR. To confront those same horrors in a cold, black ocean thick with predators, sans eyelids, sans pajamas, sans limbs, sans any access to pills and booze…well, it didn’t bear thinking about. Indeed, before too long I had completely stopped doing so.

But a week and change later I was once again clicking through the day’s roundup of quirky miscellany when: “Naked sleepwalking on the increase at Britain’s hotels.” In a press release, Travelodge, a British budget-hotel chain, reported a 700 percent increase in the number of guests found sleepwalking, 95 percent of them with no clothes on. Travelodge management was so taken by the trend that the company commissioned an independent survey of British sleepwalking habits to put its own figures in perspective. The results were shocking. From 2006 to 2007, the number of U.K. adults sleepwalking more than once a week had sextupled, from half a million to 3 million.

By nightfall the story carpeted the globe; four days later The London Daily Telegraph sounded a full claxon of emergency. “Sleepwalking: A Nation in Meltdown” ran the headline, and how could you disagree? Like the zebrafish, Britons suddenly couldn’t catch a night of quiet repose if it came up to them in handcuffs and leg irons.

I was about to rise from my desk when the other eyelid dropped, so to speak, right there in the pages of the China Daily, the biggest English-language paper in China. According to a sleep-disorders institute in Shanghai, the number of patients showing up for treatment had increased by 350 percent each year for the past four years.

In a panic I surfed over to the world of “proper news” to ascertain if what appeared to be happening—a global pandemic of lost and broken sleep—really was, and if so, how long it would be before the contagion struck U.S. shores. My concern came too late, I learned. Americans were already “among the most sleep-deprived people in the world,” Erin Allday had reported just days earlier in the San Francisco Chronicle, and “getting less sleep all the time.” And with catastrophic consequences. A few quick Googles and I had a sheaf of articles implicating lack of sleep in the following maladies and societal ills: obesity, depression, road rage, acne, weakened immune system, memory loss, diabetes, marital problems, heart disease, “intractable, worsening pain,” high blood pressure, stroke, posttraumatic stress disorder, and, according to an October 13 piece in the Madison Capital Times, a nasty condition known as “shorten[ed] lives.”

It all seemed quite hopeless until, at the bottom of an article titled “Sleepless Nights Make for Grumpier Brains,” I found a gnomic link: “The National Sleep Foundation has more about how sleep works.” I clicked it…and there, against the backdrop of a perfect night sky, three calm white shapes were interfolded to represent the head, arm, and pillow of a gentle soul, sound asleep. “National Sleep Foundation,” said the logo. “Waking America to the Importance of Sleep®.”

Thank you, I mouthed. At least someone was doing something. I vowed right there and then that the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) would not fight this battle on its own. I was going to set fingertips to keyboard and touch-tone and get to the bottom of this insomnia outbreak.

Weeks later I am, strange to say, extremely uplifted. Let’s start with Travelodge, the British hotel chain infest­ed with nude sleepwalkers. The thing one needs to appreciate is that Travelodge has sounded the alarm before. A quick scan of its press releases suggests that rarely a month goes by without the announcement of new, terrifying statistics on the growing British sleep crisis. To wit: “28.1 Million British Workers Hit by Sleep Deprivation Epidemic,” “A Bad Night’s Sleep Is Costing Brits £6.7 Billion Annually in Quick Fix Cures,” and—curiously familiar—from February 2006, “Two Million Brits Now Sleep Walk Due to Stress.”

As for the statistics themselves, they don’t really say much about the dangers of insomnia. As we say in science, the statistics amount to a steaming pile of questionability. Travelodge­ likes to commission its surveys from an outfit named OnePoll, whose media-savvy experts, it assures potential clients on its Web site, will “draw up poll questions in a way that will maximise potential story hooks” and “trigger high impact media coverage.”

In one year, the number of sleepwalking adults in the U.K. grew sixfold, to 3 million.

There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, when you’re talking about light-hearted surveys such as the one I myself completed on the site, inquiring into the details of my seduction habits (if I win the £200 cash prize, I’ll give it to charity, possibly). But entrusting OnePoll with serious questions of public health is quite another matter.

Then there’s the National Sleep Foundation. Perhaps it was the name, or the prevalence of quotes and statistics from the group in the mainstream press, or its self-description as an “independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and safety.” Somehow from this I had gotten the impression that “independent” meant it was an organization funded by the government or some philanthropy, as opposed to one with ties to drug companies looking to market their products by alerting the public to the dangers of insomnia.

Of the $2,836,088 in “direct public support” the NSF received in 2005 (the most recent IRS disclosure I could find), it seems that $470,000 came from Pfizer, which in 2005 was primping for the debut of the sleep-aid drug Indiplon, which it has since dropped; $299,000 came from GlaxoSmithKline, makers of Sominex; $152,000 from King Pharmaceuticals (Sonata); $596,670 from Sanofi Aventis (Ambien); $471,800 from Takeda Pharmaceuticals (Rozerem); $133,183 from Sepracor (Lunesta); $100,000 from the hepcats over at Jazz Pharmaceuticals, who make the narcolepsy drug Xyrem; and $100,000 from Cephalon, maker of another drug used for narcolepsy, Provigil. That’s a total of $2,322,653.

Where did the money go? In 2005 the NSF spent $2,043,956 on “public educa­tion”—in other words, on crusades like its current campaign against drowsy driving. It’s a real enough problem, but still... One poster for the campaign features the smiling face of a blonde, athletic, and heartbreakingly beautiful 18-year-old who was killed after falling asleep at the wheel. She “had everything going for her…” the Pfizer- and Glaxo-funded NSF tells you in giant letters—and let’s pause to savor the tasteful drumroll of that ellipsis; oh, wait, here comes another: “…except enough SLEEP.” Whoever dreamed up that poster, I’ll take whatever he’s using to sleep through the night.

Which leaves only those poor insomniac zebrafish, for whom I bear tidings that should have church bells ringing from one end of Zebrafish Land to the other immediately upon their receipt: Apparently, fish don’t just get insomnia.

If you actually read the paper that launched a thousand offbeat tidbits, by one Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University, you discover that those “mutant” zebrafish with the defective genes were engineered to be mutants, in bulk, purely for the purpose of research. Fish were not “found” to have insomnia. Fish were “made” to have insomnia.

Mignot’s work was published in the journal Public Library of Science—Biology. And somehow, within a day of publication, U.S. News & World Report was reporting Mignot’s findings thus: “They may not toss and turn, but even fish can get insomnia, according to new research that could help sleepless humans.”

Contrary to my paranoid suspicions, Mignot’s study was funded not by drug companies but by two upstanding behe­moths of American philanthropy, the Howard Hughes Medical Research Insti­tute and the McKnight Foundation. Yet my paranoia lingers: I can’t help wondering if the agents of Big Sleep didn’t encourage Mignot’s paper to be misinterpreted into an item of quirky news, thereby rubbing the word insomnia across the public’s eyeballs. It bears further investigation.

In the meantime, please, nobody panic. The insomnia “epidemic” really isn’t worth losing sleep over.

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