How much sleep is too much?

Sleeping isn’t optional but a necessity. It nourishes and rejuvenates us. And while the most common recommendation is to sleep for at least 8 to 10 hours a night, I often wonder why a piece of sophisticated machinery like ours need those many hours to recharge our batteries.

I thought advancement in technology leads to be greater efficiency. Does that not apply to humans? I’m not sure, to be honest. Scientific evidence will have us believe that anything less than six hours will kill you, and the optimal number is somewhere between 8 to 10 hours a night. At least for most people.

And that brings me to another question — how many of those hours are we sleeping deeply? If we were to track the numbers, it would be anywhere between 2 and 5 hours, depending on our body types, physical activity, and lifestyle. The rest of the time, we are sleeping in a superficial state, and if one were to track the “quality” during these hours, one would notice that it’s poor.

Now, all that begs another question — if close to 50% of the time in bed isn’t of high quality, are we deriving the benefits of sleeping that the scientists claim? Health experts might say a “yes” to that, but I’m not too sure. How can we ignore the law of diminishing returns? In this case, we’re losing out on time due to an activity that’s not adding any value.

“But Sunil, we’ve got to recharge our batteries to function efficiently.” I get it, and there’s no denying we have to do that. But, if we give 1/3 of our lifetime recharging batteries, I think we have a manufacturing issue that needs to be addressed. Don’t you think?

How about we make the whole process of sleeping and waking up natural than forced by scientific guidelines? We sleep when we’re feeling sleepy and wake up when our eyes open. Throwing away the notion that you have to sleep for 8 hours can be helpful as it liberates your mind to focus on what comes naturally to you than the consequences claimed by scientists.

Here’s an outline for an experiment you can try for the next couple of weeks:

  1. Accept that you don’t need 8 hours of sleep to stay healthy, active, and alert; it might help to say this to yourself a few times all through the day
  2. Avoid alcohol and fast food as much as you can for the experiment to be successful (you can add a couple of drinks — 60 ml of alcohol x 2 or two cans of beer — in a week after the 14-day experiment, take notes and adjust accordingly)
  3. Go to bed when you’re feeling sleepy and don’t set an alarm clock for the following day; if possible, keep your phone and alarm clock in the other room
  4. Wake up when you open your eyes; get out of the bed without thinking and make coffee or tea or meditate or get on with your usual morning routine
  5. Record how tired you feel before hitting the bed and after waking up; a freshness indicator on a scale of 1 to 6 will be super-helpful (for example, I was 6/6 tired last night before hitting the bed and a 2/6 when I woke up this morning)

What’s the point of this experiment? Know that you don’t need 8 hours of sleep, although you will need to find out the optimum hours for you. For most people, it’s somewhere between 3 and 7 hours.

I sleep on an average of 4 hours and 45 minutes and consistently wake up between 4 and 5:30 am. And the total hours that I sleep often depend on how physically and mentally exhausted I was the previous night, which could be due to work-related stress, physical activity, or a combination thereof.

But that’s my data, and you must know yours to optimise sleeping around your life, not the other way around. Remember, we’re sophisticated machinery, and if we need 1/3 of our lifetime in maintenance mode, something’s wrong — either with our thinking or our bodies.

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