Imagine if you came to work one day and your boss told you that a new law had declared that work would start one hour earlier every day. If you wanted to keep your job, you had to comply . . . and all workplaces observed the same rules.
Think about that. Maybe you used to come in to work at 9 am every day. On Monday, your boss says that’s all over. Tuesday, you come in to work at 8 am. “This isn’t too bad,’ you think. “I can handle this.” But then you realize that you have to do it again tomorrow. So Wednesday you come in to work at 7 am. Thursday, work starts at 6 am. And you’re starting to feel worn out by Friday when you have to be at work at 5 am.
Thank heavens for the weekend! You catch up on sleep as much as you can before coming in to work bright at early Monday morning . . . at 2 am. What? You lost hours over the weekend, too? Not fair! You have never been able to sleep before 11 pm, so you only got an hour of sleep. And Tuesday work starts at 1 am. This is insane! Your co-workers are adjusting just fine and don’t understand what your problem is. Your boss gets on your case on Thursday when you are supposed to be at work at 11 pm and are barely able to drag yourself in. Friday you have to be at work an hour before your body is ready to sleep. You start falling asleep in the middle of tasks at work.
What if this new policy never stopped? Would you be sleep deprived? Would you start to lose track of what time and day it is? Would you find it hard to keep up your friendships because you are too tired or at work when your friends want to socialize? Would you eventually lose your job due to falling asleep at work too often? Maybe you’d end up in a car crash at some point because you were driving on so little sleep. Surely your overall health would decline.
This is what life is like for people who live with N24 (non-24-hour Sleep-Wake Syndrome.) The parts of the body that regulate sleep and waking are malfunctioning for various reasons and the brain perceives the day as being longer than 24 hours. So trying to fit into a normal life is not much different from the scenario described above.
N24 is chronic and debilitating. It is hard for sufferers to get taken seriously because most industrialized societies have little respect for the body’s need for sleep and most individuals cannot relate to conditions where it is impossible to stay awake or fall asleep at appropriate times. Most people with N24 get lots of useless advice, like suggestions to drink warm milk or “just go to bed earlier.” In a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, prominent sleep researchers said that N24 is “extremely debilitating in that it is incompatible with most social and professional obligations.”
To learn more about N24, read the words of people who live with it. To learn more about the science of N24, read this NORD report on the condition (requires free registration to read.)