Too Much Sleep or Too Little Sleep: Which is Unhealthier?

person sleeping on sofa near the wall

Everybody sleeps. While scientists don’t exactly know the reasons for sleep, it’s agreed that sleep is a period of rest for neurons in the brain that are active all day. It’s a time for our body to basically just let go and rest. We’ve all heard that eight hours is the optimal time for most adults.

Too much sleep?

Hypersomniacs experience excessive daytime sleepiness or nighttime sleep that lasts longer than normal. Sleepiness occurs repeatedly in the middle of the day and is not relieved by resting or naps. Patients often feel disoriented when they awake from sleep and it can also take them longer to transition from a sleep state to an awake state. But not everyone who oversleeps is diagnosed with hypersomnia.

Oversleeping has been linked with a whole host of things: diabetes, heart disease, and an increased risk of death.

Too little sleep?

One of the most common medical complaints, insomnia is a difficulty in going to sleep or remaining asleep all night. Because the body does not get enough sleep, the person may feel tired and sluggish throughout the day. Missing sleep also creates in your body a “sleep debt,” where those hours have to be made up at some point to feel normal again.

Too little sleep can cause memory problems, depression, a weakening of the immune system, and an increased perception of pain. The less sleep you receive, the more apt you are make rash decisions and to be cranky.

What about no sleep at all?

In 1964, Randy Gardner of San Diego, California, decided to experiment and see how long he could go without sleeping and report it in his local science fair. Using no drugs, not even caffeine, Randy had friends who would monitor him, help make sure he wouldn’t doze off and assist in redirecting his focus to something other than sleep. He spent a great deal of this time playing basketball at the behest of his friends.

The time he stayed awake ended up being 11 days (264 hours), which beat the time of the previous recordholder, Tom Rounds of Honolulu, HI. At the end of the 11 days, Randy gave a press conference in which he spoke clearly and there were no signs of slurring or stumbling his words, appearing to be in excellent health.

In the early 1980s, experiments were performed on rats by a researcher at the University of Chicago. After 32 days of total sleep deprivation, the rats had all died. None of the researchers agree on exactly what the cause of death was. They state hypothermia, the lessening of the immune systems causing illness, brain damage or even just extreme amounts of stress.

Scientists have extrapolated this to mean that if humans were to do the same, there would be a good chance of morality with us as well.

Which is better: too much sleep or too little sleep?

A study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry published in February 2002 based on interviews performed by the American Cancer Society in 1982, asked participants about their sleep habits, how long they typically slept as well as their frequency of insomnia. Over 1.1 million men and women participated in this study, their ages ranging from 30 years to 102 years.

The results of the study noted the best survival rate was found in people who slept, on average, about seven hours a night. On either side of this line, both participants who slept in excess of eight hours a night and participants who slept less than six hours experienced a marked increase in mortality hazard. This higher risk increased by 15% for participants who slept more than 8.5 hours a night or less than 3.5 or 4.5 hours.

According to the research studies above, I believe that it is better to try and keep your sleep schedules as regular and as normal as possible. If you sleep more than 10 hours a night and are still sleepy throughout the day, you may want to see your general care practitioner to determine if there’s something that you need to do. We all experience insomnia from time to time; however, if it gets to the point where you are simply not sleeping, again, I would advise that you call your general practitioner. Only they will be able to talk to you and assist you with your specific case.

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