Turns out, I shouldn’t be too pleased with myself for sleeping a lot—instead, I should be keeping my body vertical and my eyes open. Recent studies have indicated sleeping too much is at the root of many serious medical problems, including heart disease and diabetes, and can even lead to a shortened life span.
Too Much of a Good Thing …
The amount of sleep people need varies widely, depending on their age, overall health, work schedule, and stress and activity levels. But on average, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that seven to nine hours per night are ideal. Chronic oversleeping—not just catching up on sleep after a hard week once in a while, but regularly clocking marathon pillow time—is actually a medical condition known as hypersomnia. No matter how much people who suffer from this disorder sleep, neither napping during the day nor slumbering for many hours at night can relieve them of their exhaustion. In addition, according to WebMD, hypersomniacs are sometimes plagued by anxiety, low energy, and memory problems as a result of their fatigue.
However, scientists are quick to point out that not all individuals who sleep too much classify as hypersomniacs, since numerous unrelated factors can contribute significantly to excessive sleep habits as well. Depression, use of alcohol and certain prescription medications, and obstructive sleep apnea—a condition that disrupts breathing during sleep and thus prevents people from achieving normal sleep cycles—are all potential hindrances.
The Snowball Effect
Hypersomnia is crippling in and of itself, but that’s not the half of it—several large-scale studies have indicated that the condition can trigger a wide range of even more debilitating symptoms.
Coronary Heart Disease
In a survey of almost seventy-two thousand women, nurses at Brigham and Women Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, identified a 38 percent greater likelihood of developing coronary heart disease among women who slept nine to eleven hours per night, compared with women who got eight hours of sleep.
A study of almost nine thousand Americans pointed to a connection between sleep and a heightened risk of diabetes, WebMD notes. While the researchers did not establish a direct link, they did discover that people who got more than nine hours of sleep per night were 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than people who slept seven hours. This discrepancy suggests that while oversleeping might not cause diabetes on its own, it could reflect underlying medical issues that lead to individuals’ susceptibility to the disease.
According to another study, people who slept nine to ten hours nightly had a 21 percent greater chance of becoming obese over the course of six years than people who slept seven to eight hours—even when the subjects’ food consumption and exercise habits were similar across the board.
Shortened Life Span
Perhaps the most alarming study of all illustrates the possibility that oversleeping leads to earlier death. In 2002, scientists from the American Cancer Society conducted the largest study to date on sleep patterns and mortality—polling 1.1 million Americans ages thirty and up over a six-year span—and found that people who slept eight hours each night were 12 percent more likely to die over the course of the study than their counterparts who slept for seven hours were; furthermore, even people who got only five hours of sleep had a longer life span than those who got eight hours or more. Based on these results, University of California, San Diego, psychiatry professor Daniel Kripke told the Independent that “individuals who now average 6.5 hours of sleep a night can be reassured that this is a safe amount of sleep. From a health standpoint, there is no reason to sleep longer.”
Learn to Self-Regulate
If you’re finding that seven or eight hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep always leave you craving more, consult a physician who can help you pinpoint the causes of your oversleeping. And if you suspect that your fatigue stems from the fact that you can’t seem to establish a regular nocturnal routine, the following checklist, as outlined by Yale–New Haven Hospital, is a good jumping-off point from which to cultivate healthy sleeping habits.
- Wake up at roughly the same time every day, including Saturdays and Sundays.
- Exercise regularly, and do your most intense workouts no later than five hours before bedtime.
- Limit your caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine consumption, particularly later in the day.
- Don’t eat big meals right before you go to bed.
- Make sure you’re sleeping on a comfortable, supportive mattress.
- Begin to wind down thirty to sixty minutes before you want to be asleep. Turn down the lights, quiet your mind, and listen to soothing music or read a good book in your bed.
Everything in Moderation
The National Sleep Foundation is a comprehensive resource for people who have questions about appropriate sleep quantities, how sleep works, and “sleeping smart,” among other topics. One of this organization’s primary messages is that while sleeping is a highly individualistic habit, it represents a “U-shaped curve” on which sleeping too much and sleeping too little can be equally risky—so the key, as with most lifestyle choices, is striking a balance that’s just right for your body. I, for one, am trying to limit myself to seven hours of shut-eye each night. But I have to admit that it’s not easy, considering that I’ve been a glutton for pillowtop mattresses all my life. I just have to remind myself that more hours of wakefulness enhance my overall health, and that I could even be missing out on living longer by snoozing for as many hours as I’m accustomed to. I’m determined to train myself to need less sleep—even if I have to force my eyes to stay open by inserting toothpicks under the upper lids, the way Tom the cat did in that “Sleepy-Time Tom” episode of Tom and Jerry.
Updated January 20, 2011