Ah, sleep. The cherished time when everything is truly shut down, and our bodies and minds get some real “alone” time. There’s a lot of talk about sleep lately. Celebrities have contributed youthful looks to their healthy sleep habits (hey, JLo!), and we are bombarded with studies about the benefits of sleep. From articles on healthy sleep hygiene to an explosion of sleep-related products and more – all eyes are on the bedroom these days.
So why the fuss? Perhaps the global pandemic’s epic disruption of “regular” routines – including sleep – has given folks more time to ponder their sleep habits. Or, perhaps there is just more research available. Whatever the case, we’ve heard whispers and shouts about the dangers of too little sleep for years. Well, apparently, there’s also a concern and chatter about too much sleep.
Standard Sleep Recommendations
Now sleep is joining the ranks of coffee, red wine, and protein as experts and scientists debate the elusive question of “how much is too much.” In debates like this, it’s sometimes best to cling to the facts first. So what do we know?
The CDC recommends the following amounts of sleep per day, per age group for optimal health benefits:
0–3 months: 14–17 hours
4–12 months: 12–16 hours
1–2 years: 11–14 hours
3–5 years: 10–13 hours
6–12 years: 9–12 hours
13-18 years: 8–10 hours
18–60 years: 7+ hours
61–64 years: 7–9 hours
65 years+: 7–8 hours
Many biological processes happen as we sleep, which are critical to our overall health. We’ll start with the big brain, which reportedly stores new information and eliminates toxic waste during sleep. Additionally, nerve cells communicate and reorganize, which supports healthy brain function. As for the rest – well, the body gets busy repairing cells, restoring energy, and releasing molecules like proteins and hormones, such as human growth hormones (HGH). HGH helps with growth and development in children and contributes to muscle, bone, and tissue repair in people of all ages.
Yes! Sleep is vital to our body’s biological function. Although scientists cannot agree on exactly why1 we need to sleep, they can all agree on the fact that it’s necessary for survival. For example, when deprived of sleep for three or four nights2, you can start to hallucinate, and the immune system becomes compromised3. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive impairments, irritability, delusions, paranoia, and psychosis.
So when we see a headline4 claiming, “Too Much Sleep Can Kill You, Scientists Say, “ our curiosity – and anxiety – was piqued. Fortunately, a review of the article revealed a lack of scientific certainty around the claim. However, we still had questions and a slide down the rabbit hole revealed too much sleep can apparently contribute to some problems, like headaches.
What happens when we sleep too much?
An average adult is expected to sleep from 7-9 hours per night for optimal benefits. However, note the word “average” here – that means that every “body” is a little different. So how do you know if you’re sleeping too much?
To try and answer this question, we’re once again turning to the facts – beginning with what the body does during sleep. Let’s start with serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps maintain circadian rhythm – which is the natural pattern of sleep that your body follows to fall asleep and wake up in a way that rests and refreshes the body.
As we sleep, neurons move serotonin to a series of receptors programmed by our genes to use serotonin for certain goals, like falling asleep and waking up, in a process called a neural pathway. When you oversleep, you’re interrupting this neural pathway. If you keep sleeping even after serotonin has signaled your receptors to wake up, your body is no longer truly resting.
So, now your body thinks it’s awake and wants nourishment like food and water to restore blood flow and brain activity that slowed down during sleep. If you oversleep past this point, your body may feel dehydrated and nutrient-deprived, which can cause headaches or listlessness until your system is replenished with food and water.
We also came across this study5 of 24,671 subjects from 15 to 85 years that concluded “long sleepers” may be associated with psychiatric diseases and higher BMI, but not with other chronic medical diseases often associated with too little sleep.
But can I still sleep in on Sundays?
So, the scientific jury is still out on if and how damaging too much sleep can be to our health. However, there’s very little doubt that too little sleep is hazardous to long-term health. So, we recommend shooting for the CDC-recommended hours of sleep per age group and listening to your body. Sleeping in here and there or napping is normal if it’s what our body needs. However, if your prolonged sleeping habits are causing anxiety, it’s time to seek medical attention to get to the bottom of the cause.
Overall, we’ve come to learn that sleep must not be taken for granted. Our bodies need rest and quality ZZZs to function properly. If your sleep routine is not making you happy, give it more focus. Take a look at your bedtime habits – are you sleep procrastinating? Is your bedroom an oasis for sleep? Sleep deserves priority, so make it one. If you need some help getting there or establishing healthy sleep habits, we have plenty of helpful resources available at https://bettersleep.org.