Wherever you turn sleep experts repeat the mantra that unless you are that rare person (less than 1% of the population), then you need 8 hours sleep to be able to function properly.
If you don’t get 8 hours sleep then you are destined to drag yourself through your day and are on course for a multitude of illnesses.
If you believe the myth, then you’re set up to fail from the moment you wake up.
Optimizing sleep is something I have been obsessed with for the past 15 years. In 2004 when I was the peak of my career as a high flying attorney, life threw a curveball at me in the form of a call from my doctor who informed me that on the basis of some blood tests he had run, it was clear I had a month to live. I had developed two life threatening autoimmune conditions on the basis of being unwittingly exposed to 3 toxic chemicals
I saw several specialists afterwards who all confirmed the original diagnosis but said I could stay alive if I lived on a cocktail of drugs that had at least 25 possible side effects including Osteoporosis and Diabetes. One of the things I was repeatedly told is that I would need at least 10 hours sleep every day in order to function.
In those days, I was probably typical of many lawyers, burning the candle at both ends, drinking strong coffee into the early hours while preparing for a trial, eating badly and not getting enough exercise. I was tired all the time.
I knew that had to change but there was no way I could spend ten hours in bed every day. I still had big plans and a life to get on with. That was the moment my obsession with optimizing performance and sleep began.
Through continuous experimentation over the past 15 years, and a lot of money spent, I have managed to hack and optimize my sleep so that I can perform optimally on 6.5 hours sleep. Had I not developed the 2 autoimmune conditions, I would almost certainly need less sleep.
My own experiences and that of some of my clients initially caused me to question the 8 hour myth but it is only in recent years that I have come across the scientific evidence that supports and explains these experiences.
Before diving into the science, it’s worth bearing the following in mind:
- One size doesn’t fit all.Different people have differing sleep needs influenced by a number of variables including, genetics, age, health status, lifestyle including but not limited to diet and exercise and sleep quality.
- Perception and belief can impact how you feel. If you believe you need 8 hours in order to function optimally and you didn’t get 8 hours, then you’ll probably feel and perform suboptimally.
The power of belief has long been recognized in the sphere of health and medicine through the placebo effect.
In the field of stress, studies have demonstrated that if you believe the stress you are experiencing is harmful to your health then it probably will be, but if you don’t hold that believe then you are more likely to stay well.
For a deep dive into this topic read Kelly McGonigal’s excellent ‘The Upside of Stress’.
Similarly, in the field of Heart Rate Variability (HRV), research has demonstrated that negative perception can lower your HRV. Your HRV score is an extremely reliable indicator of cardiovascular and autonomic health as well as fitness. Generally speaking low HRV is bad and high HRV is good.
One of the largest sleep studies ever conducted concluded
“The folk belief that we should sleep 8 hours seems to be incorrect. Numerous studies have shown that self-reported sleep longer than 7.5 hours or shorter than 6.5 hours predicts increased mortality risk.
People who sleep five or six hours may be reassured.”
Leading sleep expert Daniel Kripke, co-director of research at the Scripps Clinic Sleep Center has concluded that
“Sleeping 8.5 hr. might really be a little worse than sleeping 5 hrs.”
From a different standpoint, Dr. Satchin Panda PhD, one of the world’s leading experts in circadian rhythm, a professor at the Salk Institute in San Diego and author of the groundbreaking ‘The Circadian Code’ has stated that 6.5 hours sleep is consistent with longevityand that people do not need 8 hours sleep.
Even The National Sleep Foundation acknowledged in 2015 that 6 hours sleep ‘may be appropriate’for adults.
So if Quantity Isn’t the Be All and End all What Else Matters?
Quantity matters. Some people may always need 8 hours sleep e.g. someone with a serious illness or a hard charging athlete. Some people may need 8 hours after a heavy day. Sleep is essential and wonderful. But so is being awake. Why sleep more than you need to when you have a life to live?
The point of this post is not to condemn those who advocate the importance of sleep but to shift the focus from a belief that sleep is purely a numbers game where the target is 8, to an understanding that 8 hours may be unnecessary and counterproductive and that quantity is not the only Q in the equation that’s critical to optimal performance and health.
Quality is Critical
Sleep quality is on the decrease and this inevitably means many people awake unrestored and go through their days feeling tired all of the time. This is largely a condition of the modern day Western lifestyle.
If you don’t attain sufficient deep sleep (slow wave) and REM sleep, no matter how long you sleep for, you will still feel exhausted. If I’ve had 6 hours sleep and that included at least 1 hours deep sleep and 1.5-2 hours REM sleep, then I am in way better shape for my day than if I had 8 hours poor quality sleep.
Achieving Optimal Sleep
When you develop an awareness of your individual sleep needs, circadian rhythm and the factors that detract from the quality of your sleep as well as those that enhance sleep quality, then you’ll be able to sleep less butfeel better.
Advances in sleep science, technology and a select few truly game changing wearables, enable us to understand our specific sleep need, how much REM and deep sleep we achieved, our sleep latency, the number of disruptions as well as the impact of
- The time you go to bed
- Food types and timing of meals
- Bed and bedroom companions
The insights provided by research and a few key wearables enable us to know how to sleep better, to modify our behaviors and create the conditions for optimal sleep.
Over and above nutrition and exercise, Optimal sleep is the most powerful weapon you have at your disposal to dramatically improve your physical, mental and emotional health as well as increase your performance and productivity. Given that you’re going to do it anyway, you may as well do it properly and reap the benefits.