We are constantly told that we are not sleeping enough. It appears to be warranted, nearly half of Americans say they feel sleepy in the afternoon and 35% of adults say they get less than 7 hours of sleep a night.
Clearly many people could be doing better when it comes to sleep. Books like Why We Sleep and The Circadian Code cite some terrifying consequences we can experience due to the lack of sleep.
What I have come to realize is that saying “sleep more” is not particularly helpful. In most cases that I see, if someone could sleep more they probably would. It is a big ask for someone to just “sleep more”.
Because it often involves completely shifting their schedule and perhaps sacrificing other enjoyments in life. Most people’s schedules are jam packed to the brim with things to do. If they take 2 hours at night to sit down with their partner and watch TV, instead of going right to bed, that might be their only chance during the day when they can actually connect with the one they love. Now you are asking them to sleep more and take that away? That’s a hard sell.
Instead of yelling at someone to “sleep more” let’s first see if we can change other parts of their lifestyle to make their sleep more efficient. Maybe they get less than 7 hours of sleep a night, but can we make the sleep they do get as impactful as possible?
Here are some suggestions from Dr. Andrew Huberman that can do just that. Trying to tackle a few of these at a time can really help improve sleep efficiency and get the most out of the sleep you are currently getting.
What happens though if you optimize your sleep the best you can and you still feel like your sleep is hindering you?
At that point it might be worth considering actually getting more sleep.
Of course now we come back to the problem of how to actually achieve that. At the end of the day you have two options, going to bed earlier or sleeping later. For most people, they are already sleeping as late as they possibly can so I think most people are going to need to go to bed earlier. This probably means having to adjust your schedule and finding the time elsewhere in your day that you can use to shift your schedule around so your pre-bed activities (ie connecting with your partner) remain intact. Again that is not easy at all and I can appreciate that.
You might be wondering though if getting more sleep actually helps? We have lots of studies and information about what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, but it’s rare to hear anything about the effects, positive or negative, of trying to get more sleep.
There was a recent study that looked at the effects of sleep restriction and sleep extension when compared to normal sleep in 9 triathletes. The participants were in the lab for 7 nights. The first 2 nights were used to establish baseline sleep habits for the participants then the next 5 nights they followed a sleep restriction, sleep extension, or normal sleep protocol. The sleep restriction protocol had participants spend 30% less time in bed than normal and the sleep extension protocol had participants spend 30% more time in bed.
During the normal sleep condition participants spent an average of 7 hours in bed, in the sleep extension group participants spent 8.2-8.6 hours in bed, and in the sleep restriction group participants spent 4.7-4.9 hours in bed.
Sleep quality between conditions did not differ. There were some differences in sleep efficiency in the sleep extension condition. This is probably because participants in the sleep extension condition probably spent more time lying awake in bed. Whether this was a negative of sleep extension or whether it was due to participants needing more time to habituate to the new sleep schedule is hard to say. It is a fair criticism to say that maybe even if they did habituate to the new sleep schedule they were awake more because they didn’t actually need more sleep.
Since these were athletes, participants were asked to perform a time trial under each sleep condition. There were no significant changes across the time trials performed during the normal sleep or sleep extension protocols. As expected though time trial performance got progressively worse in the sleep restriction condition.
In addition to time trial performance, researchers also tracked mood states and psychomotor vigilance. Mood states and psychomotor vigilance tended to be negatively affected in the sleep restriction and normal sleep conditions. Again, it’s not surprising this would happen in the sleep restriction condition, we all get cranky when we don’t sleep. It is kind of surprising that this would happen in the normal sleep condition though. One possible explanation for this might be that the increased stress and physical activity due to the study was taking a toll on participants, and they could have used more sleep to buffer these additional stressors, but that is just me guessing.
In contrast, the sleep extension condition saw no decrease in mood state or psychomotor vigilance across the study. It appears the extra sleep could have helped them buffer the extra stressors.
In another study done analyzing sleep duration and cognitive frailty they found that older adults who slept more than 9 hours a night had a greater degree of cognitive frailty. While participants who got less than 6 hours a night or normal sleep between 6-8 hours a night did not show any cognitive frailty. This is more evidence that perhaps more sleep is not going to be better for everyone. This study was done in older Chinese individuals, so its not to say that other populations would not benefit from more sleep at times.
Getting more sleep can be a tricky thing to do. It’s simple for someone to suggest you get more sleep in a social media post or in a book, applying that advice can be quite challenging for a lot of people. Instead we should look at how we can optimize the sleep we get as best we can and do things that we know will at least help us to get the most out of our time in bed. If after doing all those things you are still experiencing the effects of poor sleep then it might be time to look at getting more of it.
Adding more hours in bed will probably help most people, especially if they are overly stressed or need to perform physically on consecutive days. However, I would not say it’s a universal rule that more is better in all cases. If you spend more time in bed and after several weeks you find yourself laying in bed awake all the time, is that really the best thing? In my opinion probably not because you are not teaching your body to associate your bed with being awake, and that is not good.
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- (2021, November 12). Sleep Statistics – Facts and Data About Sleep 2022 | Sleep Foundation. Retrieved January 5, 2022, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/sleep-facts-statistics ↑
- (n.d.). Extended Sleep Maintains Endurance Performance Better than …. Retrieved January 6, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31246714/ ↑
- (n.d.). Long sleep duration is associated with cognitive frailty among older …. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8555015/ ↑