Sleep—Too Much of a Good Thing?

January 08, 2010

I realize that everyone is talking this month about the need to get more sleep. With the
holiday season over and busy work days back upon us, we are flooded with messages
urging us to get sleep despite the numerous time constraints of our daily lives. And I
have even written in the past to sleep better.

It is true that too little sleep is bad for your health – it can cause a heart attack, it can
make you gain weight, as well as increase your risk for cancer and even make you die
prematurely. But what about the flip slide – is it possible to get too much sleep? And
what counts as “too much”?

A recent article in the Journal of Sleep Research looked at the association between the
number of hours we sleep and the possible health risks. After looking at the results from
over 20 other research studies, researchers discovered that adults who sleep on average
more than 9 hours per night experienced more health problems such as obesity and stroke
than those who got a restful 7-8 hours. Some scientists believe that too much sleep is
actually more dangerous to our health than too little sleep.

Now I’m not talking about those of us try to “catch up” on sleep on the weekends, trying
to make up for the nights we sleep too little. (And I might point out there’s no such thing
as “catching up on sleep.”!) The exact mechanism for the increased health problems is
not known but some think longer sleep leads to less exposure to daylight, as well as lower
levels of beneficial stress. That’s right…some stress can be beneficial.

 I often find that when patients come in complaining of too much sleep that there is often
an underlying problem. Often, they are depressed and don’t have an interest in getting
out of bed. Depression is often under-diagnosed and too much sleep can be an early sign.
Luckily there are good therapies – both with and without drugs to fight depression.
Others actually are equating the number of hours in bed with sleep, when in fact they are
getting too little sleep due to restlessness and sometimes chronic pain. And if you are
sleeping during the day, that could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea.

I also want to point out that as we get older, we do not need more sleep. I can’t tell you
how many patients come in with elderly parents and complain they sleep all day. Well,
something is wrong there and should be evaluated. As we get older, the quality of our
sleep decreases but the total amount of sleep should stay the same --- 7-8 hours.

Like many of you, I do like to sleep! One of the reasons I did not go into surgery or
anesthesiology is that I don’t like to get up before 6 am! I do recognize, however, that
developing a good sleep regimen is important for good health. So like many others have
told you, establish a regular sleep time in the evening and wake-up time in the morning
and stick with it every day, including weekends. Sleeping longer on weekends actually
messes up our biologic clocks. It’s only natural that there are going to be days when you

sometimes get more, and sometimes get less. But aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night, and
you will do well! Like a lot of things, too much sleep isn’t good for you!

John J. Whyte, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Expert & Vice President for Continuing Medical Education where he develops, designs and delivers health programming.








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