We live in cultures that glorify a lack of sleep. Society seems to imply that time spent resting is wasteful, whereas you should do something worthwhile instead. On top of this, a handful of successful entrepreneurs and CEOs claim to need just several hours per night.
You also may know a few people in your life, and you could be one of them, however rare, that always seem cheerful despite burning the candle on both ends. They often stay out late and rise early. These types tend toward living ambitiously, so you may desire to emulate them.
You may wonder then, why willingly let this thief steal, on average, about a third or more of your life?
Because you require sleep. This gets camouflaged though in today’s world. Stimulation, especially in the form of artificial light, stress, and caffeine, shrouds our need for it.
Many rank sleep as less important compared with exercise and nutrition. Advanced athletes, those that come to rely on small incremental improvements, are the ones that most likely know its true value. Those engaged in creative tasks understand its worth too.
A lack of sleep may explain why you keep lifting the same weights, and with the same body, for months or even years on end. It shares a connection with obesity, perhaps by disrupting the ideal balance of your hormones. Beyond training, it casts a fog upon your thoughts by negatively changing your whole outlook.
In modern times, some researchers have tried to confirm that we need less sleep than the traditional 8 hours. The recommendations from their studies seem to match what most adults get today at 6-7 hours. For some people, this range is correct. For most though, it is very harmful.
The largest study to sway prevailing opinion came about in 2002. This alone has led to a revolution but for worse, discarding plenty of evidence in favor of those 8 hours each night.
Before we address this study though, let’s go over some basic assumptions.
- Sleep debt exists.
Common sense should confirm this truth. Sleep debt is mysterious in one way though, in that no one really knows how high it can reach, but it does accumulate.
You need some deficit to fall asleep at night, and this accrues during your waking hours. Without it, sleep is impossible. This casts doubt upon the idea of getting too much sleep.
Think of sleep debt as a weight that you have to hold while awake. As it grows larger, your grip falters and you need to set it down, or nod off. You have two partners that assist you: your biological clock and stimulation.
Your internal clock balances sleep and wakefulness closely around a 24 hour day. It establishes through signals that set it. It is the stronger companion, keeping you up in the absence of a large sleep debt.
Stimulation includes factors that help to fix the clock but can also keep you awake under their own power. These include light, noise, exercise, heat, social interaction, stress, and other cues that tell your brain to remain alert.
The tired state that most of us feel comes when our sleep debt is not too high. Your internal clock and stimulation keep you awake. Think of it as your two partners feeling great while you just try to keep up.
Most of the basis for this concept emanates from Dr. Dement, a pioneer in the field of sleep research.
- Each person has a unique sleep need.
Expecting someone to conform to a set amount of sleep is like asking them to wear a different shoe size.
The average is 8 hours, with most falling somewhere between 7-9 hours. It may change slightly when feeling sick or recovering from an injury or exercise.
This does not account for the sleep debt though, which adds more time to this average in the short run, which can still be for months on end.
It also fails to account for sleep latency, or the period it takes to fall asleep. In well-rested people, this can last up to 20 minutes or a tad longer.
Some people do possess the right combination of genes so that they require far less sleep, perhaps as low as 4-6 hours. They are lucky. Unfortunately, just as most people cannot achieve a world-class physique without the right genetics and drugs, so will those that try to will themselves to feel great on less sleep fall short.
It is always best to assume you do not rank among the exceptions. If you are one, you already know this by now.
- Most people feel tired today.
Many people grabbing 6-7 hours per night will grow to feel very tired.
You may notice them dozing off in meetings. They close their eyes when the lights shut off. They often stare off into the distance. They continue to grab cups of coffee well into the afternoon. They make more mistakes. They sometimes act irrationally and angrily for no good reason. They do all of this with dark circles and large bags under their eyes.
If you feel a great urge to sleep during something that you find boring, it comes not from the task itself, but your lack of sleep.
These facts may seem disheartening but describe how it really is.
Like most goals in life though, you can tweak many variables to sleep better and recover from your debt. Traits like self-discipline play a larger role with any complex task done over a long period of time. Just like with exercise, your resolve can make a tremendous difference.
Before we discuss some ways to improve, let’s analyze some science.
2002 Sleep Research from the Cancer Prevention Study II Records
I’ve always figured out that there 24 hours a day. You sleep six hours and have 18 hours left. Now, I know there are some of you out there that say well, wait a minute, I sleep eight hours or nine hours. Well, then, just sleep faster, I would recommend.
– Arnold Schwarzenegger
The information for this study drew upon past medical records from the Cancer Prevention Study II (CPS-II). This data was collected from a diverse group of over a million Americans. A follow-up was then conducted six years later.
The sleep study itself used a statistical technique called the Cox model. This let them examine the relationship between the survival of a patient and possible factors.
These are some of the relevant questions or issues that were addressed:
- On the average, how many hours do you sleep each night?
- On the average, how many times a month do you have insomnia?
- Report your past-month use of prescription sleeping pills.
The main researcher and public face behind the study was Dr. Daniel Kripke. The results did seem to support his past beliefs which focus on adjusting behavior. He came into it feeling that most people should spend less time in bed, instead of fretting and worrying while hoping to fall asleep. He seems to believe that the goal of 8 hours is misguided. He insinuates that pharmaceutical companies may support this number in part to justify the use of their drugs.
Beyond this, he gives sound advice on getting more bright light through the sun and with devices if needed. Even if you disagree with him on some points, he comes across as well-intentioned, is very experienced (30+ years), and did not make generalizations from his research. Many secondary sources such as blogs, popular news sites, and even scientific outlets did this for him though.
The research, from his analysis, seems to reveal two important conclusions:
- It found a correlation between using sleeping pills of any kind and mortality.
- It found that those getting 6.5-7.5 hours per night had the lowest mortality rates.
The correlation between sleeping pills and death is not too surprising but still uncertain. The demand for sleeping pills can indicate some serious underlying health concerns. They bring serious side effects. They may treat the effect and not the cause; lifestyle changes such as reducing calories and practicing good sleep hygiene may get ignored by these patients.
In regards to the second conclusion, that 6.5-7.5 hours is ideal, keep in mind these objections:
- The data relied on self-reporting, which may not be accurate. Keep in mind the tendency to wear sleep deprivation like a badge of honor.
- It made some odd conclusions. For example, it showed a better mortality rate for those that got only 3.5 hours versus over 7.5 hours. 3.5 hours is non-sustainable for just about everyone.
- The study is epidemiological and not clinical; it makes general associations. This is still important data for public health but probably less conclusive. People may sleep more due to being unhealthy, not because more sleep leads to poor health. Correlation does not equal causation. The study tried to control for this, but the argument remains.
- Agreement with the first conclusion, which warns against the use of sleeping pills, does make this second conclusion any more valid. Even the first one may sound logical but remains uncertain.
- It did not ask for how much time was spent napping.
In 1992, Dr. Thomas Weir shared the results of a study in which he had participants remain in a dark room for 14 hours. These were ordinary people that were encouraged but not pressured to sleep.
The first week, they slept an average of 11 hours, getting more than 12 on the first night. This gradually declined, and by the fourth week, they settled in on a bit more than 8 hours per night. They spent the rest of the time in the dark room awake, despite staying in an environment conducive to sleep.
Though this study aimed to show how people sleep in two chunks when given the choice, it had some other insights. The subjects felt as awake and alive as ever. When can you last remember feeling the complete absence of tiredness? It also appeared to show that you could not oversleep.
Beyond just this study, if you do some investigation on your own, consider that you can find many studies showing that even just 6 hours per night accumulates a sleep debt that harms performance in any task.
Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.
– Thomas Edison (frequent taker of long naps)
Many studies confirm that needing 6-7 hours of sleep to function well is uncommon. Combine this with other research telling us that most get somewhere in this range, and you see a big problem has formed.
We now have access to potent drugs for both wakefulness and sleep. For those with disorders, this is a godsend. Amphetamines like Adderall can keep even narcoleptics awake. Barbiturates and similar drugs like zolpidem, known best as Ambien, knock you out almost instantly. Even an over-the-counter drug like diphenhydramine will quickly sedate you if not used to it.
Though crucial under the right conditions, these drugs lead to problems. You could stop breathing at night, worsen sleep apnea, develop depression, and increase the probability of suicide. You may poorly consolidate your memories and get less deep sleep for recovery at night. You may do strange things while sleepwalking. Under the right circumstances, you could die.
You tend to reach for more powerful drugs and doses as you build up a tolerance. Something considered innocuous like caffeine, which in fair amounts may have net positive effects, requires more and more to achieve many of the benefits. Throughout this process you often continue to get less and less sleep. You develop a dependency that eventually reaches a critical limit. Finally, consider that sleep has no bad side effects.
More extremists have a voice now with the rise of the internet. Though mostly a good change, some share ideas that can truly harm you, and you must remain skeptical. Near-impossible sleep cycles such as the Ubermen, which has you sleep for only 2-3 hours per day, grow more popular. They may use drugs such as modafinil and ones like it to stay awake. Beyond just the sheer loss of hours, you have to deal with more episodes of sleep latency.
Our bodies have incredible capabilities for adaptation. Some can handle these schedules for quite some time. Without recognizing it though, many take micro-sleeps while thinking they are awake. This can kill you in the wrong setting.
They may have good intentions, but the dangers are still there. In the end, many of them go off the program, often saying that our cultures are ill-suited for it, without admitting the shortcomings to their bodies.
On an everyday level, a lack of sleep creates stress, kills motivation, and can ruin relationships. You are more likely to get sick, and the body may even adopt this state at times to make you sleep. The risks for cancer and heart disease likely increase. You may do more work but of a lesser quality. You impress people on the surface, by appearing to always be on the job, but are you doing what it takes to become valuable?
Sleep has a trickle-down effect.
Get enough sleep, and you will make better decisions, gain concentration, hold your attention for longer, and boost your creativity.
Your skin will glow, your hair will shine, and you will display bright eyes, generally looking your best. This in turn helps you to exude confidence, which attracts people to you.
You gain the vigilance to complete the monotonous, often dull work that leads to real success. Feeling well-rested helps you to resist temptations.
Finally, we know that certain genes require sleep to activate, allowing a full restoration of your mind and body.
You may now appreciate the costs of less sleep and the benefits of getting enough. Now you need a plan of action to feel better.
You do need some self-discipline. You may have to delay excitement until the next day. Favoring long-term satisfaction over short-term pleasure in general though will enrich you greatly in time.
It starts with…
- paying off your sleep debt.
- discovering your own unique sleep need.
Assume that you have a large sleep debt built up, and that you need about 8 hours as a baseline, so will need more than this every day for awhile, maybe up to a few months. From here, you begin by catching up however you can. Go to bed early, sleep in, and take naps.
When making up sleep, you may feel sluggish initially. This may happen due to conflict with your internal clock. Perhaps your body snatches an opportunity, whether wrong or right, to try and make you get more sleep. You may just wake up during a deeper stage of sleep here and there. Keep at it though, and you will feel better.
Eventually though, you need to settle into a routine. Your internal clock will start to grow confident as you pay off those hours. An erratic routine will then throw you off, returning a larger sleep debt.
As you start to feel better, finding it harder to sleep in, start waking up at the same time every day. Choose this based on your obligations but also your preference as much as you can. Some research shows that the desire to stay up late or rise early is encoded into our genes.
Most of us are flexible, but if you notice yourself waking up at a certain time most days regardless of when you sleep, pay attention to that. You then go to bed when tired but still keeping in mind how you feel the next day based on the different times to begin to sleep.
90 minute cycles are averages and not sacred. 7 hours and 30 minutes, or 6 hours, with 15 minutes to fall asleep, are widespread goals that you hear often from those that have read some articles online regarding this subject. This may not be enough or precise.
This process should eventually set fairly consistent times for heading to bed and waking.
- Sleep needs and patterns shift depending on your age.
Teenagers and young adults have a drive to stay up later. They also need more sleep, perhaps 9 hours or more every night. Since society poorly supports this, they may need to catch up on weekends and take more and longer naps.
Older adults and the elderly need less but not by much. Unfortunately, as you enter the later phases of your life, you still need close to your same amount but will struggle more so to get it due to hormonal changes. They too may benefit from taking longer naps. A larger period of sleep followed by a long snooze may even be the true way humans are meant to sleep.
- Stay active during the day.
Daily exercise of any intensity, along more stimulation, will help just as much as the dark, cool, and quiet setting that most know they need at night.
On a related note, almost everyone should lose weight. This will help in many ways.
- Stay in bed if restless.
This is one issue that I have to go against the experts. Many say to get up out of bed if not feeling sleepy. What if you watch a movie or browse the internet with a bright screen instead? These signals can overcome your need to sleep, and you will not realize your mistake until the morning.
Instead, pick a time and stick with it. Try relaxation techniques while staying in bed if fretting occurs.
- Get tested.
If you practice good sleep hygiene yet still suffer, meet with an expert. You may have sleep apnea or another disorder that requires their help.
They may suggest sleep deprivation, or purposely getting less than you need and then adding it back, as an answer. This can work under the professional guidance. I suggest against doing it on your own. Know that it works by first having you endure horrible misery.
In Defense of More Sleep
Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.
– Sun Tzu
The fear I have is that sensible people will ignore their own wisdom, and how they feel, under the guise of trusting science and getting less than they need.
As said but worth stating again, a very small percentage of people do have genes which lower their demands for sleep rather dramatically. You also do not know what drugs these people take. They may even have other or even good habits that you may not see, such as taking long naps or waking up at the same time each and every day.
As your sleep improves, you should gain some flexibility. Sleeping in for an hour or even more here and there after a fun night will not reset everything. You may rise at the same time out of habit anyway and then just need a brief nap or go to bed a little earlier. Like getting too fat, a large sleep debt took a long time to build up.
You are the only one that can determine how many hours you need. There also seem to be exceptions to every rule. Some people fall asleep quickly under the haze of late-night television. Some love to sleep to loud music. Who knows for sure how it all works. Once again, listen to yourself but be honest with how you feel.
Do you feel completely awake and great? Almost everyone will answer no. The answer is clear: get more sleep.