Get enough sleep

by Philip Brewer on 15 December 2007 13 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

I have a theory about sleep. My theory is this: everyone who routinely uses an alarm clock suffers from chronic sleep deprivation. Using an alarm clock a few times a year (to catch a plane or have a phone call with someone in another time zone) is fine. But routinely getting up before you wake up naturally is sleep deprivation, no matter how much it has become normal in today's world.

There's lots of evidence that sleep deprivation is bad for you. It weakens the immune system. It probably causes both cancer and type-2 diabetes. It almost certainly reduces the survival rates for people who have cancer. It raises blood pressure and probably causes cardiovascular disease. It's associated with all manner of health issues from headaches to hernias.

There's really no doubt about the harmful effects of severe sleep deprivation. Its use as a torture technique has led to a significant body of study. It's quite straightforward to induce psychosis with just a few days of sleep deprivation.

It is the effects of mild sleep deprivation--the sort experienced by most people in the developed world, where waking up with an alarm clock is part of normal life--where there has been some debate. But even there, the evidence is that routine sleep deprivation is bad for you, even if it's mild.

Every year there's an unintentional experiment on the effects of mild sleep deprivation: The spring beginning of daylight savings time, where everyone's weekend is one hour shorter than usual. The following Monday there is a significant increase in traffic accidents.

A really interesting 1995 study of researchers who spent a summer above the arctic circle found that the amount of time they chose to sleep (when there were no external cues from daylight or timepieces) was 10.3 hours per day. That's probably closer to what's normal for humans than the 8 hours that is considered standard or the 7 to 7.5 hours that most Americans actually get.

The internet is full of advice on dealing with sleep deprivation and with sleep disruptions caused by such things as shift work. Ignore it. Coming up with tips and tricks to deal with sleep deprivation is as crazy as coming up with tips and tricks for dealing with putting arsenic in your food. The answer in both cases is simple: don't do that.

If your employment or schooling depends on early rising, go to bed early. In particular, go to bed early enough that you do not need an alarm clock to wake you. If circumstances in your life make that impractical, either change circumstances or change your employer or school. The only good reason to tolerate chronic sleep deprivation is to rear an infant--and then only for the necessary few months, and preferable with the sleep disruptions divided among at least two adults.

If you can't get enough sleep at night, take naps. If you're getting almost enough sleep, a short 20-minute nap can make up the difference. On the other hand, if you're getting less than 8 hours of sleep, you probably need more than a short nap. A nap that lasts a full sleep cycle--long enough to go into deep sleep and then come out of it naturally--will actually provide some of the sleep missed during the night. Like everything else about people, sleep cycles vary from person to person and vary from time to time for one individual, but 90 minutes is a good first guess.

I have enormous sympathy for people who suffer from sleep disorders. If the problems that keep you from getting enough sleep are not external social pressures, but rather are internal physical or mental issues, do whatever it takes to get the problem addressed. Start with your physician or visit a sleep clinic. Basically, if your sleeping life is a shambles, your waking life will be a shambles as well.

I've talked before about how important for being happy it is to find the right work--work that helps people or produces something of value, work that uses your talents and is respected by your peers. Finding the right work is probably the second most important thing in determining whether you're happy or not.

The most important thing is getting enough sleep.

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Guest's picture

In the summer I can wake up earlier with my own body clock and sleep later because my body's getting the sunlight. The days are longer, the nights are shorter so my body sleeps less.

I need more sleep in the winter than I do in the summer, right now when it's dark when I need to wake up, dark when I get back home, all I want is to hit snooze and get more sleep.

The natural seasons play a big part in how much sleep I need and to prevent my body going into hibernation during winter I need to get as much natural light as possible (going outside for lunch, non-cigarette breaks) during the day as well as getting a few extra hours a night.

Guest's picture


The theory is an excellent one and makes good sense. In reality, however, given all of the obligations and commitments many of us have, setting the alarm a few times a year isn't practical. I've been in the working world for 25 years, 12 of which I spent waking up at 4:30 AM, and am clearly a 'chronic' user of my alarm clock. I set it a few feet from my bed so that I have to stand up to turn it off.

Guest's picture

I confess, I am a deprived sleeper. I typically stay up too late getting kids settled in bed and then farting around on the computer when I should be sleeping! One of my New Year's resolutions is to get more rest, even if it means going to bed when the kids do and then getting up early to write for my blog.

Philip Brewer's picture

I, too, see a huge variation in the amount of sleep I need, depending on the season.

Left to my own, I generally wake up when it gets light out. So, this time of year, I'm generally sleeping until 7:30. In the summer, though, I wake up at 5:30 pretty routinely, and may get up before 5:00 for a few days in late June. Basically, in the summer I need 7-7.5 hours of sleep, while in the winter I seem to need 9-9.5.

I wouldn't know that, though, if I woke up to an alarm 5 days a week. I'd just know that I was miserable all winter but pretty much okay all summer.

Guest's picture

I absolutely agree with this article, but in reality it's impractical to implement. I am in high school and I -have- to get up at 6AM every morning--my father drives me to school, and he has to arrive at work at a certain time. Even if I switched schools--which is also impractical--I'd still have to rise that early; all high schools open at pretty much the same time. Coupled with homework and extracurriculars, it's difficult even to get 8 hours of sleep (6-7 is the average for me).

Guest's picture

I have tried different methods to eliminate my alarm clock, but I seem to function much better with it.

o Sleeping in as long as I like, going to bed when I'm sleepy: After sleeping through my usual time to get up, I drift toward consciousness and think, half awake, "I should get up," but don't actually wake up enough to do so, and then fall back into a poor quality sleep with long, confused dreams, over and over again, until sometime between 11:00 or 1:00. I'm sleepy again in the evening around midnight. A week or so of doing this puts me into a very unwholesome headspace, where I feel worthless and unable to accomplish anything, partly because I'm in a bad psychological state, and partly because I'm only awake for 11-13 hours a day, so how can I actually get very much done? Not to mention that this schedule is totally untenable when I have a fixed schedule due to work.

o Getting up as soon as I first wake up, going to bed when I am sleepy: I attempted a one-month testdrive of this system, which I read about on some blog, somewhere. After a couple of weeks, even though I took a 20-minute afternoon nap (which quickly became necessary, as I was utterly nonfunctional around 3 in the afternoon), and going to bed when I felt sleepy (so that I was sleeping 10 hours, some nights), I was getting progressively more and more tired and cranky, so I terminated the experiment. I have no idea why I naturally wake up sometime between 5:30-6:30 every morning, but it turns out that I'm much better off if I roll over and go back to sleep until my alarm goes off.

What seems to work best for me, getting up a the same time every day and exercising, and reading for a half hour before bedtime and going to sleep at about the same time every night, early enough to get 8 1/2 or 9 hours of sleep. Yes, I need the alarm clock to wake me up, but I'm alert and reasonably energetic throughout the day and evening.

Guest's picture

Hear hear. I could not agree more with what you have written. Just a few short years ago, I would not have thought to comment on this article, but since suffering through a period (2-3 years) of chronic sleep deprivation coupled with severe sleep deprivation periodically, I have changed my tune. I ended up with chronic health problems that *scared* me into making changes. I wasn't choosing not to sleep, but as a full-time student who was also working full-time, I felt I had no choice. But when it became an obvious question of my health, I realized that change was necessary. Sadly, I think it takes this kind of scare for most people to realize the danger and commit to change. And in a "go-go-go" competitive society in which so many people claim to only need 6 or 7 hours of sleep it can make one feel lazy or not as good if one needs 8+ hours of sleep.

One final note: The scariest thing is that I believe my body is permanently different and more susceptible to illness now. Even though that was over a year ago I feel that it aged me beyond my years. In hindsight, I realize it was never worth it. The silver lining is that I have learned a truly valuable lesson.

P.S. Always enjoy reading you on wisebread :)

Philip Brewer's picture


I have two thoughts that may be relevant.

First, I've also had those times where I woke up but didn't feel like getting up and ended up dozing for hours. However, I've found that almost never happens when I'm doing work that I have a passion for. When I'm working on some project that I care deeply about, I sleep well and then wake up wanting to jump out of bed and get to work. When I don't have something that excites me enough to get me out of bed in the morning, I get just the results you describe.

Go with whatever works best for you, but I'd humbly suggest that finding work that you have a passion for is a better--more effective and healthier--solution than an alarm clock.

Second, to some extent what you're describing is normal for humans, especially during long, dark nights. It's well documented that, in the days before electric lights, people would sleep for several hours, then awaken for a time. Without good light, there was not be much to be done with this time, but records suggest that there was a period of (often only partial) wakefulness, followed by another period of sleep.

There's a bit more information here:

Guest's picture

@Philip: Well, I guess I *could* dump a career that I find challenging and fulfilling and enjoy very much and seek something else to do with my life on the sole basis that I use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning... :) I mean, your point is well taken, and I've certainly had jobs in the past where I could hardly drag myself out of bed in the morning, but that's not the case now.

If you have a hard time getting up in the morning or you are fatigued during the day, then by all means, think about whether you are sleep deprived. Do you need to go to bed earlier and/or get up later? Do you not sleep well due to stress or your sleep environment? Do you have an undiagnosed sleep disorder, like sleep apnea? I think these are all important issues.

But if you do not have difficulty getting up when your alarm goes off in the morning, and you have enough energy for your daily activities, and you fall asleep easily when you lay down for bed at night, I think it's rather silly to diagnose yourself with sleep deprivation.

I certainly have no quibble with the notion that most people don't get the sleep they need. I've known for a long time that I need more sleep than most people (or at least more than most people *get*) and I have certainly felt the social pressure, especially on young people and those with time-intensive schoolwork or jobs and families, to stay up late and get up early to do all the work and family and leisure activities we need and want to do.

And I agree that in general being able to get up when you want to get up is without an alarm clock a good indicator that you are getting the sleep you need (setting aside my own experience of being able to *get up* easily but paying the consequences later in the day.)

I guess I just disagree with *pathologizing* the need for an alarm clock.

(p.s. Thanks for the link to the article on segmented sleep. I've always been fascinated by the practice of polyphasic sleeping—I wish I had the sort of work schedule that would permit me to try it.)

Guest's picture

I too can't stand alarm clocks - and since I'm a freelance writer/consultant, I typically don't have to use one (except occasionally for travel and early appointments), and I've noticed that the quality of my sleep suffers when I do because I keep waking up every hour or so in anticipation of the alarm.

That said, it's probably not practical for everyone to do away with their alarm clocks - even if you go to bed early and get a good nights sleep, it's nice to have that assurance you'll wake up on time.

Guest's picture

Steve Pavlina ( swears by a hybrid approach. Set an alarm clock for the same time every day, and go to bed when you feel tired. That way you get enough sleep AND establish a consistent sleeping pattern.

Guest's picture

I see so many sick children that I feel could be helped if their parents would guide THEM to get enough sleep at night. My neighbor's children have to get up to catch the bus at 6:45 but I see them up and about lots of nights past 10pm and I don't think 8 hours of sleep is enough for kindergarten age kids!

I used to sleep a lot when the weather was cold! Maybe that's why I why I decided on an artic nursery theme for my baby, thinking that would make her sleep more? FWIW, the baby's room is cute filled with penguins, polar bears and baby seals but the sleep part doesn't seem to be working that great.

Guest's picture

There's a promising new treatment for sleep deprivation based on the hormone orexin. It's still at the animal trial stage, so it will be a while before its available to people. Just think how frugal it would be to quit sleeping, so you could work all the time! (Just kidding.)