I love sleeping – who wouldn’t? In fact, all through my life I have slept well, wherever I’ve been. Falling asleep, sleeping in, even travelling from place to place, and sleeping in strange places have never been a problem for me. In recent years, however, I’ve been expecting the “early bird syndrome” many of my friends have experienced with age but no, if possible, I will sleep late even now. I must admit that the sweetest way of falling asleep for me is when I don’t have to set the alarm in the evening, so I can wake up naturally the next morning. Unfortunately, as for most working people, I can only enjoy this luxury at weekends and on holidays.
My natural sleeping rhythm has always required quite a long night’s rest, even 9-10 hours per night, especially in the darkest winter months. I seem to be related to bears, slumbering into a semi-hibernation in winter. Just recently this has started to worry me, though, with new research suggesting that it’s not only sleep deprivation that has a negative effect on your health but apparently also too much sleep can be detrimental. Sleep science is quite new, and there seems to be quite a lot of new research going on in the field. What would then be the ideal amount of sleep for somebody like me? And, more importantly, is there natural, individual variation in people’s sleeping rhythms?
While the recommended amount of sleep for adults, at least here in Finland, has long been about 8 hours a night, recent research suggests that the optimal amount might be one hour less, i.e. 7 hours a night. Some of these findings were reported in the Wall Street Journal in July this year (links to the article are apparently not allowed but you should be able to read it by finding ‘Why Seven Hours of Sleep Might Be Better Than Eight). One sleep expert has found the lowest mortality and morbidity in people who get that 7 hours of sleep each night. Another study suggests that too little sleep, even as little as 20 minutes less than 7 hours, causes impaired memory and cognitive performance. On the other hand, “oversleeping”, i.e. over 8 hours per night, has been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and higher death rates. If this is true, at my age, I should be really concerned! Luckily, the jury is still out on the above-mentioned results. For example, Dr. Morgenthaler from the Mayo Clinic lists factors affecting our sleeping patterns, including age-related shorter spans of sleep or sleep deprivation, both of which may lead to an increased need of sleeping hours. He also refers to cultural and genetic differences between individuals, which sounds reassuring to me.
The plot thickens with research into gender differences. According to experts at Duke University US, women are more susceptible to the adverse effects of lack of sleep, and thus should sleep more than men. This has also been looked into at Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre in Britain, where one expert stated the following:
“The more of your brain you use during the day, the more of it that needs to recover and, consequently, the more sleep you need. Women tend to multi-task — they do lots at once and are flexible — and so they use more of their actual brain than men do.”
Makes sense to me as a teacher, whose working days include a lot of mental exertion and constant interaction with hundreds of people. Yet, I wonder what my husband would say about this! Probably dismiss it as utter sexist nonsense. Naturally, the same also applies to those men who use their brain a lot during the brain but researchers do suggest that, on the whole, women seem to need slightly more sleep than men.
What am I to make of all this then? Should I limit my sleep to only 7 hours a night in an attempt to minimise my risk of diabetes and heart disease? Or, should I take into account my gender and mentally challenging job, and allow myself more sleep? My personal problem is that with a tendency to procrastination in the evenings, I often find myself burning the midnight oil with school work. Consequently, most weeknights I only manage to sleep 6-6.5 hours, which probably is too little for me, judging by my frequent feeling of fatigue. Mind you, the long and dark winter here in the north also takes its toll, and many people would attest to needing more sleep in this season. My gut feeling is that I would feel better if I managed to increase my nightly sleep by at least one hour on weekdays.
Perhaps, the best thing for me to do, during the next school holiday, would be to try the test suggested in the above-mentioned Wall Street Journal article:
Experts say people should be able to figure out their optimal amount of sleep in a trial of three days to a week, ideally while on vacation. Don’t use an alarm clock. Go to sleep when you get tired. Avoid too much caffeine or alcohol. And stay off electronic devices a couple of hours before going to bed. During the trial, track your sleep with a diary or a device that records your actual sleep time. If you feel refreshed and awake during the day, you’ve probably discovered your optimal sleep time.
Tonight, however, it being Saturday, I will be able to sleep without any alarm in the morning – and even gain one extra hour of rest as it’s the end of daylight saving time.
Photo credit: Sweet Dreams by Thomas Heylen on Flickr