the case for wakefulness

At about 6:30 this morning I got an email from my brother asking what I thought about an article on sleep aids by Dr. Mercola. Getting an article like that, at a time like that (which is, for the record, nearly an hour before the sun is even up in our city, much less the people), and it’s not hard to tell things aren’t all well on the home front. A status update from from my sister-in-law put it more winsomely:

“Does anybody want to take three adorable girls off our hands? They sing, they giggle, they laugh and generally want to eat between midnight and 7am. #jetlagging mama wants some sleep.”

The article included all the common admonitions, some of which I took and implemented from another blog I read earlier this year. Around the time I was wondering if my complacent insomnia was doing damage to my long-term health, after a friend staged a mini-intervention that lasted as long as the sentence, “You don’t sleep enough, and you don’t eat enough!” I brought the question up during a coaching session, where my side of the conversation went, basically,

“I think I would sleep more if I valued sleep more . . It’s not that I don’t value sleep . . . I just value so many other things more . . . Actually, almost everything . . . Maybe not TV.”

Less Is More

So I set about increasing my value for sleep, to hopefully increase the time that I made for it. But in all my late nights reading of some very sleep-inducing books, one thing kept puzzling me. While all the friendly advice suggested 8 to 9, and sometimes the downright-slothful 10 (!!?) hours of sleep a night was optimum, all of the actual research suggested otherwise.

Take this interview in TIME, for example,

“Studies show that people who sleep between 6.5 hr. and 7.5 hr. a night, as they report, live the longest . . .  There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short. The big surprise is that long sleep seems to start at 8 hr. Sleeping 8.5 hr. might really be a little worse than sleeping 5 hr.”

A little startling, isn’t it? I found this same, seemingly crucial, information buried in books between chapters on circadian rhythm and Vitamin D storage. It seems most, if not all, of the recent studies have shown the same.

Now, Before You Freak Out

Yeah, freak out. That’s kind of the reaction I get when I bring this up in casual conversation. How often have you heard asserted, “But I NEED a solid 9 hours of sleep every night, or I’m just EXHAUSTED”? And yet, on the occasions I dared to press people on this, they usually admitted that they felt exhausted a lot of the time anyway, and would sleep more than those 8-9 hours if given the chance. More is better, right? Maybe not.

I started to make a mental checklist: the most theoretically “well-rested” people I know are also the most droopy, sluggish, sleep-till-2-on-a-Saturday people I know. And the most energetic, productive, will-never-drift-off-during-a-conversation ones, are the ones who regularly get around, well . . . 6 to 7 hours of sleep. I thought they were some form of sleepless elite, but maybe they’re just the ones who cast aside traditional wisdom and chanced upon what science is tells us is the actual optimum.

Rumi on Sleep


Alright, I’m trying to save my skin here. People like their beauty sleep, and as I may have slightly, unkindly, suggested, it’s the ones who are getting it who can be grumpy about these things. So let me just add that there are other factors involved. One that Mercola mentioned, which I haven’t seen nearly enough articles on, is that sleep during regular hours is better than sleep during odd hours.

In other words, if you sleep from 10pm to 6am on weekdays but 1am to 10am on weekends, it’s only the 5 hours between 1 and 6, when you are regularly asleep, that your sleep is quality. During the other hours, when your body is used to being awake, it doesn’t fully power-down, so to speak. Many other things can affect the quality of even regular sleep, such as light and noise in your sleep environment, and chemicals in your body (including caffeine, obviously).

Other factors like age, gender and life stage also affect how much sleep you need. People in a growth spurt or learning a new language need more. Which is why that 10 hour suggestion may not be outlandish if you’re 2 years old (though, based on the fact that you’re reading this blog, you may be advanced for your age, little one). The standard 8 is still good for teens in puberty or people in a new culture/setting where they’re acquiring new skills at a rapid pace. And 7 – 7.5 might be good for women, who do better with a half hour more sleep than their male counterparts, on average (hey, I’m just citing the research).

Taking these things into consideration, maybe you’ll give the less-is-more theory of sleep a shot? Because, as far as I’ve read (and except for the afore-mentioned mitigating factors), the idea that sleep requirements differ from person-to-person is also just hearsay.


when I’m awake

There are a lot of good reasons to start a blog. Insomnia isn’t one of them.

I have a rule: at 3 am I can give up trying to go to sleep. At that point I can get up and eat breakfast, get online, exercise, or whatever else I want to do with the two hours before my alarm goes off. But after two weeks of perpetual jet lag one runs out of productive things to do that aren’t being accomplished during daylight hours. Um, and also don’t require a lot of presence of mind; slicing an apple and anything that I have a recent scar from is off limits.

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It’s amazing what sleep deprivation does to me. Last week I made myself bleed five times in a 6 hour period (that was when the apple rule was created). But you know what I’ve recently discovered is evening more amazing? What actually sleeping does to me. I remember people’s names. And where I put my keys. And why I just came into the room I’m in. I retain my ability to do basic calculus, and think critically, and speed read. I eat less, and yet have more energy. I even create better and create more.

What I mean by actually sleeping is sleeping well, at the right time, and for the right amount of time.

Don’t Sleep Recklessly

Food is good for you, right? But not in any amount and whenever you feel like it. It’s (kind of) the same with sleep.

I’d been told since I could make my own bed that 9 hours of sleep a night was the optimum amount. Where does that come from? I frequently also come across the idea (published) that sleep before midnight is equal to anywhere between two to four times as much as sleep after midnight. (Wait, so I need to sleep nine hours after midnight, or I just sleep two and a half hours before midnight?)

Studies actually show that, in terms of longevity, anywhere between 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 hours is best. In fact, “There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short. The big surprise is that long sleep seems to start at 8 hr. Sleeping 8.5 hr. might really be a little worse than sleeping 5 hr.” That’s worse for your lifespan, your health and your emotional well-being.

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In terms of when the best time to sleep is, it can differ from person to person. Which is why some of us, despite our best intentions, feel perpetually jet lagged. “During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time—let’s say 9 a.m. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can’t—they’re owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate.” It’s not just conditioning, it’s has to do with how we’re built, and it can change throughout your life. (Ever notice how it always seems to be the very old and the very young who are morning people?)

So there’s something to think about if you’re ever lying awake at night. Or you could read more about the best kind of sleep on the Buffer Blog. Or you could ponder big questions, like:

If you desperately needed energy but had only a very limited amount of time, would you spend it eating or sleeping? (Or…?)