Is 5 Hours of Sleep Enough?
Most of us have at some point in our lives come accross or heard about people who state they’re perfectly fine with just a few hours of sleep per night. Seems like there’s quite a bunch of people out there who are able to enjoy a lot more waking hours, and thus utilize their potential to a much fuller extent, than the rest of us.
The only hickup is that according to studies the amount of people who manage with six hours of sleep or less makes up mere prosents of the total population and in some studies even rounds to zero. Sounds more like there’s quite a bunch of people out there with their pants on fire, doesn’t it? And when you think about it, it’s actually not even the only hickup. Not getting enough sleep is one thing but can you really talk about enjoyment or utilization when one of your basic needs gets systematically unfulfilled?
Even though we in fact already seem to have answered our very own headline with a research-based no, hold on just a moment. Aren’t you even a little bit curious of why this is?
Won’t a person who sleeps 4 hours a day get 4 hour’s worth of things done while a person who sleeps 8 hours is still snoring?’ Not necessarily, and we’ll come back to this. But first, the problem with this idea is that it oversimplifies and effectively overlooks the true function of sleep.
Resting in general, and sleep especially, is needed to allow both the body and mind to recover and develop. Sleep in fact repairs and fortifies practically every system in our body. As we explained in one of our previous articles our body and mind stay highly active even (or especially) during sleep.
This of course does not mean it’s all the same to stare a screen or go for a jog instead. These processes specifically need for us to ‘step aside’ and let them do their thing. The huge amount of these different functions and processes in turn require a relatively large amount of time, i.e. sleep.
A newborn baby needs 14 to 17 hours of sleep per day and, even though from this point forward the required amount of sleep slowly lessens, even elderly people still need 7 to 8 hours of sleep. To most adults and young adults the optimal amount varies between 7-9 hours. Check out the average sleep needs in more detail here.
Don’t take out loan you can’t pay back
Often unawereness or nochalance towards the importance of sufficient sleep time links to an irremediably old-fashioned notion of sleep being something you can piece together.
You’ve probably heard about the term sleep debt. It’s based on the idea that a poorly slept night or a period of nights leaves you in debt to yourself that can be paid back by sleeping equally longer periods afterwards. Based on this logic, a person whose ‘normal’ sleep duration is 7 hours, can complement 5-hour nights with 2-hour naps, or a week’s worth of short nights with abundance of shuteye during the weekend. This has a hint of truth in it but in reality the debt forms in quite a different way.
You see, every waking moment our brain accumulates a chemical called adenosine which creates an effect called sleep drive or sleep pressure. Therefore, the more time goes by without sleep, the more the need for sleep increases. This process takes place in tandem with another independent system called circadian rhythm. It’s our 24-hour sleep-wake cycle that is basically tuned to Earth’s rotation but is unique to us all. When a high accumulation of adenosine and a starting point of a sleep phase in the circadian rhythm allign, we are in an optimal setting for falling asleep. But what does this have to do with sleep debt?
One of the functions of sleep is not only the maintenance of our brain but also cleaning it up. This means getting rid of actual chemical substances that form in the brain during waking hours, such as (you guessed it) adenosine. By limiting your sleep time you also limit the ability of your brain to clean itself up.
This way the actual debt doesn’t really consist of hours you’re owed but overraccumulation of a sleeping agent you need to get rid of. Waking up before adenosine is naturally eradicated results in the sort of croggy feeling that almost makes you hop back in bed. As this keeps happening, so does the build-up of adenosine as well as other disruptive effects of the lack of sleep, and at some point the result is a chronic sleep deprivation.
Have you been in the army, kept fire in turns on a camping trip or otherwise slept in rotating shifts? If so, you probably know that even if you manage to put together 7 or 8 hours of sleep, the feeling afterwards is nowhere near the one after the same amount that was slept continuously.
Sleeping more during the coming nights or patching things up with daytime napping helps the situation especially from the adenosine point of view but unfortunately does not completely put our body or mind out of harm’s way. Cutting your sleep time down (or in pieces) not only does the same to your capability to recover and develop but in addition causes severe health problems. More on this at the end of this article.
What drives us to sleep 5 hours or less?
So that we don’t give an overly harsh impression, and as we implied in the beginning, there really exist people who manage with 5 hours of sleep or less. And by managing we mean being able to function completely unhindered and without medical repercussions. It also needs to be stated that not all who sleep too little do it on purpose or even unwittingly. Setting the so called real short sleeper cases, as well as insomnia or other underlying medical conditions, aside, there are practically two main causes for systematically limited sleep time.
Most of us experience phases in our lives when it seems like there’s constantly something preventing us from hitting the sack in time, or needing for us to get up in the middle of the night or way too early in the morning. These obligations can be personal such as small children, or work-related such as paperwork that needs to be prepared overtime. The common nominator in these kinds of cases is that the sleep limiting effect is somewhat not dependent on us.
Even then it’s useful to concider if there’s anything that could be done to ease the situation. There’s of course little you can do except to cater to the needs of your newborn, but other than that, is there really anything more important than your own health?
Shortsleepers by their own choosing?
In addition to external obligations there is another main reason for limiting sleep time: choosing to do so. Even if it might sound astonishing, failing to go to bed in time is so common it has its own medical term, behaviorally induced insufficient sleep syndrome or BIISS. No wonder the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a sleep-loss epidemic throughout industrialized nations. Of course not all of it befalls on BIISS but it, too, plays a part.
However, if the matter is concidered more thorougly, it starts to make more sense. First of all, and as we explained in that aforementioned previous article, us humans are the only animals to deliberately procrastinate on going to sleep. Especially reagrdless of it’s repercussions. When you think about it, isn’t self inflicted sleep time reduction just another bad habit? And aren’t all bad habits in essence just choices? Well, they are until they’re not anymore, and usually at this point they’ve become addictions which are in medical terms diseases.
We’re not stating that staying systematically up too late watching tv is automatically a sickness. However, in some cases a person might be as unable to quit doing so as some other people might be in quitting a substance use.
Behavioral inducement of course often goes hand in hand with external obligations. Or more over they are hard to distinguish from each other. By working so much that the only free time one can get needs to be taken out of night sleep is a slippery slope to moralize.
Also as we pictured in the beginning, for many who sleep too little the decision is based on productivity thinking in the sense of: ‘the more time you spend awake the more you get done’. This unfortunately is at the very least questionable and brings to mind the public discussion on the benefits of shorter work weeks. The effects of insufficient sleep are easy to mix up with stress and this way to be overlooked.
The importance, or really the necessity, of sleep is easily discarded with eloquent phrases such as ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’. Even modern science can’t confirm what happens to us after death but at least with this rule of thumb one gets to establish it sooner. The setting is comparable to the dillemma with fast food. It saves you a lot of time from groceries and cooking but in extensive use it might end up shortening your life span which brings us crashing down to a zero sum situation or even negative result.
Famously bad influence
For some people the reason to limit their visits to slumberland is the harmful example of some of the more famous insomniacs or otherwise abnormal sleepers. Even a cursory Google search reveals a staggering amount of famous peoplewho for some reason or another have historically gotten, or still to this day get, limited amounts of sleep. The list includes many world famous inventors such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, numerous entertainment stars such as Madonna and Jay Leno, and politicians such as quite a handful of U.S. Presidents including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
This way it’s unfortunately easy to draw the conclusion that sleeping little is some sort of key to success or that if you for an unknow reason are a poor sleeper, you are destined for greatness. Don’t get us wrong, you could be a future president for all we know.
But isn’t it possible that people who are driven to succeed are just too impatient to go to bed even though their systems need is as desperately as the next person’s? Couldn’t it be that these people had it in them to succeed in the first place but after getting the taste of it it just became too lucrative and tempting to stay up a bit longer? While a breakthrough in your latest scientific endeavour, finalizing your latest album or completing a winning speech might take place on this specific night it’s arguable if the same would not have been achieved after a solid 8 hours of zs.
Sounds a lot like complete BIISS to us. This assumption have also every once and a while been backed by statements from famous short sleepers who have freely admitted to being temporarily exhausted or in need of extra naps on top of their light night’s sleep. This however does not eliminate the possibility of there being true short sleepers among famous people as well.
What if you don’t sleep enough?
The key thing to understand, is that even if you have managed to go by doing something for extended periods of time without keeling over, it doesn’t make it healthy or even ok. The fact that you haven’t died of sleep deprivation only means you haven’t died yet. In truth this is a slight over exaggeration since it’s truly rare but in actual fact lack of sleep can be fatal.
This doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be paramount to take into account the many ways sleep deprivation can hinder the quality of life and indirectly help many diseases and conditions to end your life prematurely.
Sleep has an essential part in recovery which is based on cellular regeneration. For this reason, cutting down sleep time affects in ways of aging. Concerning both body and mind. Lack of sleep also tends to lower immunal resistance. Overlooking sufficient amount of sleep in fact makes you four times more prone to catching cold.
If this is not enough it should be mentioned that sleeping routinely less than 6-7 hours doubles the risk of getting cancer. In addition short sleeping sets you up on a path toward Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Not to mention it contributes to every majon psychiatric conditions.
If sleep deprivation is a constant struggle, you’ll probably love our new Quieton 3. It is the world’s smallest ANC device that has provided tons of people with better, deeper sleep.
Further on in this series we’ll look more into sleeping and for example ways to improve sleep quality.
Walker, M., ed. (2017) Why We Sleep. 2nd ed. Penguin Books.