Sleep is one of the most important functions of our daily lives. It contributes to our mental health and physical well-being. Not getting enough sleep is problematic. But it turns out that long sleepers need to be careful too. Longer sleep doesn’t necessarily mean fewer health problems.
What happens if we are sleeping too much?
This is an uncommon question, but a good one to ask nonetheless.
The statement “too much sleep” may sound like an oxymoron, but it can happen. Too much sleep can be a sign of health problems, and it’s something you need to watch out for. Those who oversleep face increased risks of heart disease, impaired mental health, and other detrimental medical conditions.
Just like Goldilocks, you need to get to just the right amount in order to achieve optimal wellness.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the wonderful world of sleep: why you need it, how to get quality sleep, and how to develop healthy sleep habits to get the right amount every night.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP
As everyone knows, even a single night of poor sleep can ruin a day’s worth of productivity or enjoyment. A major review conducted at Bradley University by Drs. Pilcher and Huffcutt found that sleep-deprived subjects across 143 studies performed, on average, many times worse than those with normal sleep routines.
In fact, sleep-deprived patients performed at the 9th percentile of non-sleep-deprived subjects in all functions tested, which included the full spectrum of motor, cognitive (simple and complex), and mood-related tasks.
A night or two of bad sleep is unpleasant and may cause fleeting side effects like irritability, fatigue, nausea, a lower pain tolerance, and an all-around bad day. But chronic lack of sleep gets serious. Consistently failing to get enough sleep yields the following symptoms:
- Weight gain
- Long-term memory impairment
- Lowered cognitive function
- Higher risk of coronary heart disease
The running theories on why we sleep, as outlined in this article from Harvard University, include:
Based on the idea of evolution and survival of the fittest, the theory holds that organisms were made to be inactive and sleepy during the nighttime to keep them out of harm’s way when their environments were unsafe. By staying put during the dark parts of a day, humans were protected from predators and physical injury.
Energy Conservation Theory
Nowadays, we have more than enough to eat, but for most of human history, lack of calories was a major limiting factor to survival. Those that used their calories efficiently, and could find food faster than others, did not starve and survived to reproduce. During sleep, the human metabolism decreases by 15 percent, and as such, you save yourself a lot of calories while snoozing. The theory goes that sleep helped conserve calories, and thus was adaptive for our busy ancestors.
This theory is one of the most popular and well-known. The idea behind this theory is that sleep serves restorative functions, during which the body repairs damage and rejuvenates itself.
There is some evidence of this in animal studies. Animals forced to stay awake will lose all immune function and die in a matter of weeks. There are no studies like this on humans for ethical reasons, but some anecdotal evidence does exist.
For example, a Chinese man who stayed up 11 days with no sleep to watch a soccer series in 2012 died after his no-sleep marathon. Many important bodily functions, such as muscle growth, tissue repair, and protein and growth hormone synthesis occur mostly, if not exclusively, during sleep.
The brain also takes time during sleep to clear a molecule which builds up in the brain during wakefulness called adenosine. Scientists think that this molecule leads to the perception of tiredness and its breakdown is why you feel better when you wake up.
Brain Plasticity Theory
Scientists have found that the brain’s structure and organization change during sleep. This is the theory behind the critical role that sleep plays in young children and babies, who sleep between 13 to 14 hours a day. The important role sleep plays in reorganizing the brain is also becoming clearer in adults.
These are all good theories, and the truth might be a combination of all four. But the final point is that sleep is important, and even more importantly, that lack of sleep is extremely detrimental. So, that brings us to our next question: What is the right amount of quality sleep?
HOW MUCH SLEEP DO WE NEED?
The amount of sleep you need depends on a few factors and can be rather individually specific. Some very successful and seemingly healthy individuals seem to require less sleep than the average person. For example, Marissa Mayer, who was a CEO of Yahoo, is said to require only between four and six hours of sleep. But if you are not in this small no-sleep-required elite, the amount of sleep you need will depend more on your age.
Here is a quick summary of the correlation between sleep and age from the National Sleep Foundation:
For adults, it seems that between seven and nine hours of sleep is the sweet spot. We’ve already listed the problems you’ll face if you get less than that.
But what if you are overshooting by getting 10, 11, 12, or more hours of sleep?
Professor Francesco Cappuccio conducted a study over 10 years looking at how sleep patterns affected the mortality rates of over 10,000 subjects. He found the following:
- Those that slept for five to seven hours or less faced a 1.7 times increased mortality rate compared to those who slept seven hours a day
- Those that slept for eight hours or more each night were more than two times more likely to die as those who slept seven hours a day
Does this mean that your eight to 10 hour a day sleeping habit is leading you to an untimely early death? Not quite.
Dr. Cappuccio points out that while there are clearly mechanisms which correlate lack of sleep with decreased health and mortality, there is currently no explanation which would definitely show that oversleep directly causes death. What is more likely, Dr. Cappuccio argues, is that oversleep is a symptom of an illness or condition which are in turn linked to higher mortality.
Some illnesses which would cause oversleeping include:
- Sleep apnea
These illnesses mess with your circadian rhythm and prevent you from getting quality sleep, which means you’re getting longer sleep, but not the kind you need.
Socioeconomic factors can also cause you to oversleep – for example, if you are chronically unemployed, you may find yourself sleeping more than normal.
It’s important to recognize oversleeping as a sign of deeper problems.
On the other side, sleeping more than the average may not be problematic: it might just be who you are programmed to be by your genes — an average of 2 percent of Americans need longer sleep. Just as some people genetically need little sleep, your genes might come from a family of long sleepers.
THE HEALTH RISKS OF SLEEPING TOO MUCH
If you find yourself unable to get through the day without nine or more hours of sleep, it might be time to go see a health professional and make sure everything is OK.
Longer sleep creates a host of health problems. Those who spend long amounts of time in bed will find that they run health risks such as:
Increased Weight Gain
Oversleeping can cause the same problem of unwanted weight gain as sleeping too little. It turns out both short sleepers and long sleepers gained more weight over a six-year period than those who got normal sleep.
Increased Risk of Heart Disease
Long sleepers face hazards to their heart health. Studies have shown that women who slept nine to 11 hours had a higher risk of coronary heart disease as compared to women who only slept eight hours. Another study found that people who slept more than eight hours a night were more likely to experience chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart (also known as angina).
Increased Sensitivity to Pain
When we get hurt, we’re told to rest up and stay in bed. This is usually good advice. It is important to note though, that too much time in bed can also heighten symptoms of pain. For example, staying still for long periods of time plus sleeping in uncomfortable positions worsens back pain.
Impaired Mental Health
It’s been well-documented that insomnia and depression are intertwined. But oversleeping and depression have a relationship as well. Long sleepers have reported more persistent depression and anxiety as compared to those who sleep normally. Oversleeping, like insomnia, is a disruption of our normal sleep cycle and can be detrimental to our health.
Don’t let these potential health problems freak you out. Once we recognize a disruption to our sleep cycle, we can correct our sleep routine and start getting the quality sleep we deserve.
GET A GOOD NIGHT OF SLEEP, NO MATTER THE DURATION
The keys to getting a good night of sleep every time are good sleep habits and a bedroom environment conducive to sleep. Remember that it’s not necessarily about sleep duration; your sleep needs to pass through the different cycles for you to be well-rested.
Here are few tips to end your sleep problems and create an optimal sleep routine:
- Have a set time to go to sleep — get to bed the same time every day.
- Unwind for at least one hour before shutting down the lights without using electronics. Read a physical book, do some yoga, or have a hot bath.
- Make sure there is no light in your bedroom – light-blocking curtains are a great way to ensure you get a nice, dark room to enjoy your sleep in.
- Avoid caffeine after noon.
- Getting some exercise during the day (but not too close to bed) is a great way to get tired out and ready to hit the hay when bedtime arrives.
- Don’t hit the snooze button. Having the same wake time every day has a big impact on your sleep routine — just like having the same bedtime every night does. This change during your morning helps continue the training your body gets at night.
There are also certain foods that can help you sleep better, as we’ve written about on our blog. Getting quality sleep is more important than the amount of hours we snooze and it isn’t hard — just a few changes to your lifestyle habits can have a big impact on getting some shut-eye.
Finally, managing stress is very important as well. Going into bed feeling centered and calm is much more conducive to sleeping the right amount than going to bed stressed and distracted. Monitor the activity levels of your mind before bed and throughout the day. Using a Spire Stone can help you achieve a healthier state of mind, and ensure that you are going to bed with a very sleep-friendly attitude.
RISE AND SHINE
Oversleeping might make people think you are lazy or might make you feel a bit guilty, but it could be linked to other health issues. If you find yourself sleeping in like it’s the weekend every day, be sure to check in with a health professional for any signs of a deeper medical condition. Chronic oversleeping could be a sign of a sleep disorder and could lead to other wellness problems.
But oversleeping once in a while is very treatable; just practice good sleep hygiene to get yourself back on track to a night of quality sleep. Make time for small changes like managing stress throughout the day and creating an environment of rest so you get the shut-eye you deserve.
That’s really what’s at stake here: getting quality sleep every night, one that allows you to go through all the sleep phases and wake up feeling energized.