Sleep Is Overrated – Time to End the 8-Hour Sleep Myth!

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“For tens of thousands of years, before the introduction of artificial lighting, most humans thought that what the pushers of sleep meds promise – an uninterrupted night of seven or eight hours’ sleep – was an unnatural and undesirable thing.” Robert Moss, Dream Teacher

by Frederic Patenaude

You’ve heard it before. To be healthy, we need to drink eight glasses of water a day. And get eight hours of sleep per night. Oh, and eight is the lucky number in Chinese. Coincidence?

In the natural health world, sleep is praised for its restorative values. Followers of the 30BananasaDay raw food website are told that they can’t sleep too much. In fact: the more sleep, the better. (Just like they are told that they can’t eat too much fruit, and the more they eat, the better.)

Eight hours is the minimum. People seeking peak performance are told to get 8, 9, 10, or even 12 hours of sleep a night.

People will do anything to catch up on this precious sleep: sleep in on weekends, use the “snooze” button profusely, and sleep 10-12 hours a day while on vacation (while falling asleep in a stupor of rum and coke and margaritas).

My Personal Hell with Sleep

All my life, I’ve never been a good sleeper. In my teens, I simply could not get enough sleep. Forced to wake up early in the morning, I would routinely fall asleep in class in the mid afternoon. It seemed like getting enough sleep wasn’t the problem, but the timing of it was. It seemed like my body was simply not programmed to wake up that early, and that I only felt good when I slept in until 9 or 10 a.m.

In my twenties, as a raw foodist, I felt depressed by sleep. I would sleep 9 or 10 hours a night and simply could not get out of bed in the morning. It seemed like my body wanted to drag me further and further into sleep, and often I would spend mornings navigating one dream after and another, eventually – reluctantly – deciding to wake up. I would spend those days of oversleeping in a daze, almost in a state of mental coma. Eventually, I figured out that I felt much better when I forced myself to wake up in the morning and cut those unnecessary hours of sleep.

Now in my thirties, I have an on and off problem with insomnia. But for most of that time, I persisted in trying to catch up on sleep and getting as much of it as possible.

All of my life, I’ve been described by my partners as a “violent” sleeper. I toss and turn like crazy, and wake up often. It seems like my body never really wanted to sleep in one, continuous block of eight hours.

Sleep is Depressogenic

I first heard from author Dr. John McDougall the concept of sleeping less to cure depression. He refers to medical literature that refers to sleep as “depressogenic,” due to serotonin activity during sleep.

Sleep too much, and you’ll feel depressed. He advised his patients suffering from the “blues” to set up their alarm clock and get only 6 hours of sleep a night, until they feel better. In extreme cases, staying up all night can break the pattern of established depression.

“A common scenario is for an active person to retire from many years of productive employment, and then he finds little else to fill his time except to sleep more often.  Depression soon follows with more hours of nighttime sleep and daily naps.  Then he is off to the doctor to be put on antidepressants, which can cause him to sleep more, thus worsening one of the underlying causes of his depression.  Thus, the despondent elderly are some of the best candidates for ‘wake-therapy.’ Getting them back to their ‘old schedule’ can put them quickly back to their ‘old selves.’

“Elevation in mood by controlling sleep is not limited to people who are severely depressed – studies have reported elevation of mood in “normal” subjects who sleep less. With this in mind, manipulation of sleeping behavior has the potential of freeing most people of antidepressant medications and offering them an emotionally more satisfying life – providing personal control – over their frame of mind.” Dr. McDougall

Creativity and Sleep

I have found that reducing morning snoozing time enhances my energy, productivity, alertness and most importantly, my creativity. I have found, like Dr. McDougall, that if I allow too much time for sleeping in, I may feel well rested, but I’m also sluggish and lack creativity and drive. Fortunately, as you’ll discover in this article, getting enough sleep doesn’t necessarily mean getting one continuous block of eight hours of sleep a night. There are other options.

America is overstimulated by caffeine, and stressed out, not just sleep deprived.

We’ve been told by the media that America is in a constant state of sleep deprivation. People are not getting their sleep! Insomnia affects 60% of the population, and the pharmaceutical companies have stepped in to create new forms of drugs to replace the previous generation. New names like Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata are now quasi-common household names. But actual research has shown that these drugs and others are not improving sleep that much. Total sleeping time is only increased by 10 or 20 minutes. “The Drugs may not actually improve sleep. Rather, because of the amnesic effects of these drugs, people think they sleep better under the influence of most sleep medications because they don’t remember being awake.” Dr. Gregg Jacobs, from the book Say Good Night to Insomnia.

“Sadly, the claim that we need eight hours of sleep has contributed to widespread sleeping pill use over the past decade. Many people know they do not need eight hours of sleep and cannot sleep eight hours if they try. Nevertheless, some scientists and the media continue to suggest that everyone needs at least eight hours of sleep per night and that any resulting ‘sleep debt’ may contribute to health problems. A significant amount of new research strongly suggests that this is not the case,” says Dr. Jacobs.

It is my belief that the main problem in America is overstimulation through the use of excessive amounts of caffeine, as well as all forms of stress. This is what is wreaking havoc on the body, not the fact that most people only get 6-7 hours of sleep a night on average, an amount that is perfectly acceptable for most people.

It’s been found that people who sleep 7 hours a night have the lowest risk of death rates over a six-year period than people sleeping 8 or 9 hours. These figures also controlled for factors such as smoking, alcohol use, and physical inactivity.

It’s true that sleep needs vary between individuals. Margaret Thatcher famously only slept 4 hours a night, which put her in the 1% of the population that can get by on this little sleep. Genetic differences can alter the amount of sleep an individual needs.

But the vast majority of adults need between 6.5 to 7.5 hours of sleep a night, with 7 being average, and 6 being very common.

iStock_000026279873XSmallHistorical Evidence for the Mysterious Two-sleep Night

Do you wake up in the middle of the night on a regular basis? If so, you’re like about one- third of American adults.

This type of night awakening is often diagnosed as insomnia and treated with medication, but evidence shows that it may not be abnormal, but part of a natural rhythm that our bodies gravitate toward.

You see, the continuous 8-hour sleep routine that we’ve been told is “natural” is as natural for human beings as driving in automobiles or crossing several time zones in a matter of hours in an airplane. In other words: it’s a pretty recent occurrence in human history.

In a fascinating article titled “Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You,” the authors at Slumberwise describe the sleep patterns before the 1800s.

Researchers have found that humans didn’t always sleep in 8-hour chunks. We used to sleep in two distinct periods a night. The entire night lasted 12 hours (before the invention of artificial lighting), and was separated into two “sleeps.”

- The first sleep lasted 3 or 4 hours.
- In the middle of the night, people woke up for another two or three hours and were active during that time.
- People slept again until morning.

So you may imagine that if sunset was around 6 p.m. and sunrise at 6 a.m., people went to bed at 7 p.m., woke up around 11 p.m. and then went “back” to sleep at 3 a.m. for another 3 hours. In total, they slept between 6 and 8 hours a night.

What did people do in the middle of the night?

Many stayed in bed reading. They had sex. They smoked. And some people visited their neighbors and chatted for hours!

In human experiments with controlled lighting in the early ‘90s, this theory of the two-sleep nights was proven. Fifteen guys spent a month with artificially controlled daylight. They would stay up for 10 hours a day instead of the usual 16, and in the other 14 hours they would be in a closed, dark room. This mimicked the conditions in Europe during the winters (and frankly, where most of us are heading this season!).

Once people caught up on sleep, they began to have two sleeps! In this 12-hour stretch, they would sleep for four hours, wake up for several hours, and then sleep again until morning.

The participants in the experiment described this middle-of-the-night period as very meditative and relaxing. They didn’t stress about falling back to sleep, like many of us do.

Scientists call this the bi-modal sleep pattern.

This historical sleeping pattern may no longer be very practical in the modern world, and it isn’t necessarily better than the current sleep pattern. However, it just shows that there’s not one right way to sleep.

Next time you wake up at 2-3 a.m. and can’t fall back to sleep, you might keep in mind that your ancestors did the same.

Sleep Patterns of Indigenous People

Years ago, I did a survival retreat with a kind of survivalist expert here in Quebec, with a girlfriend. We learned how to make fire without any technology, how to make a bed out of straws, and how to survive eating wild plants and animals. Thankfully, I never took the “advanced” course where grilling a wild rat is apparently part of the program!

I must say that it’s been years since I took this class and if you tested my fire-making skills right now, there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t pass. However, from all of the things our guide said, the one thing that stuck in my mind the most was about the sleep patterns of native people.

I remember him mentioning that “there’s no native tribe in the world that sleeps 8 hours a night.”

Apparently, fragmented sleep is the way of life for all native people (along with afternoon naps).

For most of our history on this earth, humans have coped with darkness. And since we come from the tropics, this meant 12 hours a day of darkness, a year-round pattern of even hours of sunshine and darkness as you got close to the equator.

But people don’t need 12 hours of sleep a night. So, because they couldn’t be stimulated by artificial lighting, our sleep was broken up into two segments, typically 3-4 hours each.

The Trumai, an indigenous people in Brazil, used to get up in the middle of the night to socialize and flirt by the fireside, smoke or go fishing. That was, of course, before the introduction of electricity.

So it seems that the invention of the electric light bulb, and perhaps coffee houses, changed everything in the world of sleep. It forced us into a “monophasic” type of sleep, going to bed late at night and waking up after 6 to 9 hours, depending on the person.

But is this type of sleep natural? Beyond discussions of what is “natural” or “modern,” I think there real question is, “Are there other patterns of sleep that can work for people, besides the current 8-hour, continuous sleep paradigm?”

Go to your doctor and say that you can’t fall asleep at night, or you wake up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back to sleep for several hours, and you’ll be diagnosed with insomnia, and probably prescribed a sleeping pill.

But as many insomnia researchers have found, the cure to insomnia may actually be found in… less sleep!

People who have trouble falling asleep at night could simply shorten their total sleep time, so they fall asleep more easily.

And if you often wake up in the middle of the night, you can simply understand that this pattern is actually normal and natural. Simply by changing your attitude about sleep, and starting to perceive “interrupted sleep” as natural, you’ll stop stressing about it. You can use that hour in the middle of the night to do anything! And because you’re not seeing it as a problem, you’ll stop creating unnecessary anxiety that is actually preventing sound sleep. You’ll fall back to sleep differently, just by seeing the “problem” in a different way.

“If they perceive interrupted sleep as normal, they experience less distress when they wake at night, and fall back to sleep more easily,” says Dr. Walter Brown, psychiatrist.

The Power of Napping

You may actually need 8 hours of sleep a night, but you may not need 8 continuous hours.

“I’m often asked if a nap during the day will interfere with nocturnal sleep. The answer is a definite no. Unfortunately, many information sources on sleep hygiene encourage people to avoid napping if they’re having trouble sleeping at night. Not only is there not a shred of evidence to support this advice, but much of the data coming out of sleep research demonstrates quite the opposite. In studies across all age ranges, nocturnal sleep duration has been proven to be unaffected by midday napping.” Take a Nap! Change Your Life

Almost all the sleep doctors, my mom, and everyone I know, are telling me that napping is bad for people with insomnia. “You nap during the day, and you won’t be able to fall asleep at night,” they say!

But the truth is that like most people who tend toward polyphasic sleep, even when I DON’T nap I will still tend to wake up during the night and have disturbed sleep.

Our bodies are pretty much programed for biphasic sleep. This could be the ancestral practice of waking up during the night and falling asleep later, but also the long period of sleep during the night combined with a short period during the day: the nap.

If napping is unhealthy and unnatural, why are so many cultures around the world practicing it?

We tend to view the benefits of sleep in a very linear way: deep sleep is great, and if you don’t fall asleep deeply, you don’t get the benefits of sleep.

But this is dead wrong. Sleep is composed of five distinct phases, each of which provides its own benefits.

- Stage 1 lasts only a few minutes, and involves non-linear thoughts and associations, but no eye movement. This stage doesn’t feel like sleeping and you won’t remember it as sleeping.

- Stage 2  is actually the longest phase of sleep. The heart rate slows and body temperature drops. Your brain will be active, but with incoherent thoughts. If you wake up after a stretch of stage 2 sleep, you’ll feel as if you “didn’t fall asleep,” when in fact your body’s physiology had dramatically changed and you were reaping the benefits of sleep — you just didn’t enter the deep phase of sleep yet.

- Stage 3 and 4  are short-wave sleep. The body temperature really cools down and you enter the dark world of unconsciousness. These two stages of sleep promote muscle growth and detox. Stress is no longer wreaking havoc on your body and this is when the body heals itself!

- Stage 5 is REM (rapid eye movement) and the dream state. This is when we integrate a lot of the emotional and learning experiences of the day.

How Long to Nap? (TABLE)

10-20 Minutes: This is a Power Nap. Because you’ll be spending that time in stage 1 and 2 sleeps, you will experience a boost in alertness and energy.

30-40 Minutes: You may have time to enter into deep sleep, depending on your degree of tiredness. Some people experience grogginess after taking a nap of this length. In this case, consider a shorter or longer nap.

60 minutes. You will experience improvements in remembering facts after a nap of this length. This is the perfect nap time to promote physical recovery and healing.

90 minutes: This is a full sleep cycle for most people, and includes all the benefits of sleep, including improved emotional wellbeing and creativity. You also avoid the problems related to sleep inertia since you are not waking up from deep sleep.

You’ve probably heard that you should take a power nap (20 minutes) to avoid feeling the grogginess of sleep inertia. Sleep inertia is a phenomenon that occurs when we wake up in the middle of stage 3 or 4 sleep, leading to feelings of grogginess that can last for hours.

But that really depends on how tired and sleep deprived you are. If you are carrying a big sleep debt, a 30-minute nap will put you quickly in short-wave sleep and waking up after that time may leave you feeling groggy and irritable.

I personally find that 40 minutes is the optimal amount of time to nap for me, with 20 minutes being a good amount as well.

Finding the Sleep Pattern that Works for You

Maybe you experience no sleep problems. Maybe you fall asleep easily, stay asleep the entire night, and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go. If so, congratulations! You’re one of the lucky ones.

But, if you experience less-than-optimal sleep, consider questioning the 8-hour sleep paradigm in which we live.

Granted, some people don’t get enough sleep. How can you tell? If you fall asleep within a couple of minutes of hitting the pillow, you’re probably not getting enough sleep. Drifting off should take about 15 minutes. If it takes longer, then you’re probably getting too much sleep.

If you feel depressed, consider reducing your sleeping time to avoid the depressogenic effects of sleep.

And if the current 8-hour block of sleep per night doesn’t work for you, consider reducing your nighttime sleeping and introducing naps whenever convenient. Above all, don’t stress out if you can’t sleep for 8 hours or if you wake up in the middle of the night!

I’m personally gravitating toward reducing my night-time sleeping and taking a regular nap in the afternoon. I find that my creativity and focus are improved when I don’t sleep in the morning, but an afternoon nap enables me to get back to my game for the rest of the day. Working from home, this is a luxury I can afford. In whatever situation you are, there are still plenty of options beyond the 8-hour sleep paradigm.

This article is not meant to be a definitive answer on sleep, establishing new rules and guidelines that you should follow. It is, instead, my sharing of my own exploration of the mysteries of sleep.

Question of the day: what sleep pattern works best for you?

REFERENCES:
Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11825133
Myth of 8 Hour Sleep BBC — http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16964783
http://slumberwise.com/science/your-ancestors-didnt-sleep-like-you/
http://life.nationalpost.com/2012/07/16/rest-assured-theres-nothing-wrong-with-segmented-sleep/
http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/2013/08/we-want-to-sleep-like-cavemen-not-like-the-dead.html
http://www.marksdailyapple.com/biphasic-sleep/#axzz2j7clyfhp
http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2005nl/oct/051000sleep.htm
http://www.livescience.com/12891-natural-sleep.html
http://www.nealhendrickson.com/mcdougall/2004nl/040300pudepression.htm

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998. He is the author of several books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies.

He was named Best Health Blogger of the year in 2011 by Renegade Health. Frederic has experimented with many diets and specializes in raw food, vegetarian and vegan topics, as well as how to balance a healthy diet in the real world. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

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