The importance of getting enough sleep is undisputed among experts. But research also suggests that too much shut-eye may do just as much harm as too little. When it comes to the right amount of rest for good health, a perfect balance, it seems, is not easy to strike.
The vast majority of adults doesn’t get enough slumber on most days, based on surveys. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation has become so widespread, experts call it a “public health problem.” It is also considered to be a cause for a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and mental health issues like depression and cognitive dysfunction. Other known effects are weakening of the immune system and hormonal imbalances. In addition, people who are fatigued from sleeplessness are found to be more accident-prone and to have one of the highest risks of death from all causes, according to studies.
But serious health concerns can also arise from getting too much sleep. One study found that sleeping for too long can be almost as dangerous as other detrimental behaviors like smoking or alcohol abuse. More than nine hours of rest on average could lead to a substantially increased risk of premature death, the study report states.
Of course, what should count as too little or too much sleep depends much on the individual. But it appears that any significant deviation from a normal sleep pattern of seven to nine hours per night for adults is likely to upset the body’s rhythm of wakefulness and rest, research at Harvard University suggests.
The consensus among most experts on the subject seems that people who sleep on average less than four hours and their counterparts who do so for longer than nine hours per night face similar health threats, in particular coronary heart disease, as a large-scale research project from Taiwan determined.
The symptoms of under- and oversleeping can be quite similar. Both can result in persistent fatigue and, in the long run, physical and mental exhaustion, warns Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, a physiologist and sleep and stress management specialist, and author of “Tired But Wired, How to Overcome Sleep Problems: The Essential Sleep Toolkit.”
The perceived need for more sleep often comes from feeling worn out because of other physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual deficits in people’s lives, she says. All those needs must be addressed in appropriate ways, including through a health-promoting diet, regular exercise, and proper sleep routine.
Part of good sleep hygiene is strict stress management. Our oftentimes overwhelmingly hectic lives make it hard to withdraw from the world around us. But that is precisely what is required from time to time, Dr. Ramlakhan advises. Separating ourselves periodically from outside influences like work, other people, media, or everyday concerns can be the platform from which real rest and rejuvenation can be derived. When those elements are put in place, we can trust the body to find the right balance all by itself.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian, health counselor, newspaper columnist, and blogger. She’s the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.”