FACETIME- Bodily functions: Ackerman eats, sleeps, dreams

Jennifer Ackerman

Jennifer Ackerman is really into her body. And not just her body– the human body in general. So into it that she considered going to medical school at age 35.

But the night before she planned to give notice to National Geographic, where she worked as a staff writer, she had a dream of diving off a bridge into a beautiful pool of water– that turned into mud. The next day she canceled the med school plan.

"I'm a person who really needs sleep," says Ackerman. "That was gnawing at me." 

So she decided to approach the body as a writer– "That was my training–" and the result is Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body, published in 2007.

"I shied away from science in college," says Ackerman, 49, who majored in literature at Yale. "Now I regret that." 

But in the course of her career as a writer that includes two other books, Ackerman discovered another talent. "I make difficult science accessible to people like me," she explains. "I realized it was something I could do."

The talented non-scientist takes the reader through the day, starting when she wakes up two minutes before the alarm clock, as many do, thanks to circadian rhythms.

If Ackerman was into her shut-eye before researching the book, she's even more so now.

"We live in a country that's sleep deprived," she says. "I try to get seven hours minimum, and my daughters– they're teens– need nine to 10 hours. I'm a dragon on it."

She's also an advocate of naps, even as little as 15 minutes, optimally between 1 and 3pm.

Novelist/husband Karl Ackerman concurs. "I had a bad traffic accident at 1pm," he says in the kitchen of their Woolen Mills farmhouse, where they've lived since 1992. "You're warned about driving late at night, but I think between 1 and 2[pm] is the most dangerous time."

Another change Sex Sleep made in Ackerman's life? Breakfast. 

"I used to skimp on breakfast," she admits. Now it's a hearty meal. "The satiety mechanism doesn't work as well at night," she explains, which is about the time when many people eat their largest meal of the day and are more likely to overeat.

 She also debunks the notion that we're competent multitaskers. "I learned about the hazards of multitasking," she says. "I don't multitask. We're not meant to multitask." The worst example, of course, is talking on the cellphone while driving. "The cause of most accidents is distraction," she says. That means her daughters won't be allowed to listen to music during their first year as drivers.

Unlike many writers who are on their own as far as promoting their books, Ackerman's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, sent her on a national book tour. The book received glowing reviews from O and Real Simple, and the New York Times, for which Ackerman has written. The paperback will be out in the fall, published in 10 languages.

Her next book will be on the common cold, and no doubt Ackerman will intrigue readers with details like the ones in Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, where she notes that lap dancers make more money when they're ovulating. 


Jennifer Ackerman discusses her work at the Virginia Festival of the Book's "Science Writing: Life Cycles" panel at 10am Friday, March 29, in the City Council Chambers.