Are you tired right now?
For 80 percent of Americans, the answer would be a loud, resounding “yes.” (Or, more accurately, a deflated sigh of agreement, a sip of coffee, or a stifled yawn.) According to the Better Sleep Council, eight out of 10 Americans say they would feel better and be more prepared for the day if only they had an extra hour of sleep.
Why one hour? Health experts and the media are quick to praise the benefits of snoozing 60 minutes more: At least anecdotally, advantages of an additional hour of shut-eye include increased happiness, better memory and lower stress.
But here’s the problem with this advice: In an era when 70 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, an extra hour means different things to different people. And even if an hour could fix America’s sleep problem, where would it come from? Should we be skipping our morning workouts, or ordering takeout instead of preparing healthy meals, to carve out more quality time in between the sheets?
As our lives become busier, as we’re bombarded by more apps, and as doctors increase their emphasis on other healthy habits like exercising regularly, it’s tempting to believe that an extra 60 minutes in the sack could make all the difference. But could it? We partnered with Sleep Number to find out.
Staying Up All Night: How Terrible Is It?
Let’s get one thing straight. Sleep deprivation is a serious problem. Short sleepers -- or people who get less than six hours of sleep per night -- have an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Sleep-deprived bodies often experience bloodshot eyes, increased blood pressure and fuller waistlines. Equally alarming are the negative impacts on the brain, like lost memories, cerebral shrinkage, false memories and even brain damage. If that isn’t concerning enough for you, sleep deprivation has been proven to be fatal for lab rats.
Despite all of this information, Americans are going to bed later and later. Research reveals that the number of hours an average person sleeps each night has been declining steadily over the past 10 years, especially during the workweek, alluding to a dangerous trend in the years to come. What’s scarier than that is, duration of sleep doesn’t equal quality sleep -- so we could be sleeping even less than we realize.
Dr. Scott Kutscher, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in sleep medicine, blames this deficiency on electronics and social pressure -- that we’re always supposed to be available for our jobs or for other people.
“One of the basic foundations of sleep is that it’s a time to unplug, restore and regenerate,” Kutscher says. This always-available mindset distracts us from what we really need.
“The problem is that we try to fit sleep to our lives, rather than our lives to our sleep -- and often end up with very ill-fitting patterns,” says Colin Espie, a professor in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Espie likens many Americans’ approach to sleep (skimp during the week and catch up on the weekends) to footwear: “Imagine wearing shoes that are really a size too small one week, then two sizes too large on the weekend!”
For the millions of people who are underestimating their sleep needs and trying to make do with insufficient amounts (the National Institutes of Health recommends adults log between seven and eight hours), Espie advises getting more of it -- and more quality sleep, while they’re at it.
Exactly how much more, though, is up for debate.
Why ‘The Extra Hour’ Alone Is A Bogus Prescription
Prescribing an “extra hour” of sleep isn’t the magic answer to fixing the sleep crisis, according to Hawley Montgomery-Downs, an associate professor at West Virginia University who focuses her research on sleep and sleep disorders.
“To say that everyone needs one hour of sleep more than they’re getting is just too general,” Montgomery-Downs says. “An extra hour to someone who logs six hours per night means something completely different to someone who’s already getting eight hours and is most likely sleeping enough already.”
Another factor is that an extra hour doesn’t solve any problems if that time isn’t dedicated to better quality of sleep, Espie says. For some people, sleep isn’t as refreshing or rewarding as it could be.
“It’s not just about getting another hour, or more sleep,” Espie says. “It’s about getting better sleep, and taking stock of what you’re doing that’s reducing your sleep quality.”
The best way to gauge whether or not you’re sleeping sufficiently -- besides falling asleep at your laptop -- is needing an alarm to wake up, Montgomery-Downs advises. Needing to nap and sleeping 12 hours over weekend nights are other indicators.
“People who sleep enough wake up before [their alarm clocks],” she said. “If you’re sleeping through an alarm, it’s your body’s way of saying you need more [sleep].” If you rely on your smartphone to wake you up in the morning, don’t expect to make up the time over the weekend.
When you get extra sleep matters, too. “Grabbing an extra hour whenever you can doesn’t have the same benefits as having a routine,” Montgomery-Downs says. By sleeping varying amounts on different nights, you’ll mess with your circadian rhythm, which can give you what researchers have [called] ‘social jet lag.’”
… But An Hour Can Still Be Beneficial
Of course, if you aren’t regularly logging eight quality hours of sack time, sleeping an extra hour can be helpful. In fact, an additional hour allows almost a full extra cycle of sleep. This means you’ll get more time in the REM stage of sleep, which promotes memory consolidation. It’s important to remember, though, that getting six hours of sleep as opposed to five still puts you at risk for chronic sleep debt, which can lead to cognitive and physiological impairments, not to mention poor eating habits, says Dr. Charles Samuels, Medical Director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, Alberta. The main thing to remember is getting your full rest.
How Getting Your Full Rest Stacks Up Against Everything Else
Experts are in wide agreement that sleeping is important to our health. But is it the most important thing we can do to benefit our bodies and minds?
When our busy daily lives constantly push us to make choices and compromises, how do other healthful activities compare to good old fashioned sleep? Experts’ advice in head-to-head assessments may be surprising.
Guess which healthy habit overrides the other before clicking on the blue button to find out what experts have to say.
Sleep vs. Exercise
“You should not train or exercise on an unrested body, end of story,” Samuels says. Since the bulk of his research focuses on sleep recovery for elite athletes, we should trust him on this one. Not convinced? Research shows that improving your sleep habits can directly benefit your workout routine.
Sleep vs. A Healthy Diet
Nutrition is important. Yet research proves that chronically tired people are less responsive to their appetite hormones, meaning they’re prone to eating past the point of satiation, Kutscher says. This increases their chances of developing obesity and offsets the benefits of a healthy diet.
That said, what you don’t want to do is make an extreme tradeoff. “Sleep shouldn’t get in the way of a healthy diet -- that doesn’t make sense,” Samuels says. He recommends preparing food the night before if you feel rushed in the morning. By getting your full rest and having decent nutrition, you’ll be more prepared for your day and better at your job.
Sleep vs. Your Love Life
Winner: It's complicated ... but sleep!
When it comes to canoodling with your partner into the late hours, or cutting off bonding time between the sheets to get a full night’s rest, it’s a tough call.
“[Cuddling or having sex] is all about personal health and being relaxed,” Samuels says. “One of the reasons people don’t sleep well is because they’re not calm.”
We’ll second that advice! But unfortunately, there’s a catch: According to researchers at the University of Michigan, women who get more sleep generally have more sex … so that’s something to consider.
Sleep: How To Get More Of It
Getting enough sleep isn’t about filling a quota but resting enough that waking up without an alarm clock is achievable in practice. The big question that remains: How do we log more hours of quality sleep?
“The first thing to do is to make sleep a priority in your life,” Kutscher recommends. “The second is to listen to your body’s natural rhythms that tell you when you’re tired.”
If you find yourself feeling constantly tired or still in need of an alarm to force you out of bed, Kutscher suggests you start with small, attainable amounts of additional sleep. “Start with 30 minutes of extra sleep by waking up 15 minutes later in the morning and going to bed 15 minutes earlier,” Kutscher says. From there, you can decide if you need more.
Samuels’ advice is to ditch your smartphone, which can mess with your sleep quality and cause you to postpone your bedtime, starting at 8 p.m. (or several hours before lights out). “There’s all these stories about how busy everybody is, but the end of the day when you watch their behavior with their phones or iPads, it’s hilarious,” he says. “They’re just wasting time.”
Not only do electronics delay sleep, but exposure to their light can make you feel alert when you want the opposite reaction, says Simon Archer, a molecular biologist and sleep geneticist at Surrey University. He also advises against exercising, eating or working right before bed to prepare yourself mentally for what’s to come.
Archer reminds us that the assumption that anyone is too busy for sleep is misguided. Instead, view sleep as a good, healthy thing -- and the farthest thing from a waste of time.
Just like diet and exercise, sleep is unique to each person and important for optimal health. Sleep Number® beds adjust on each side to your ideal level of firmness, comfort and support -- your Sleep Number® setting -- for your best possible sleep.
Illustrations via Kevin Moran