“Sleep is for squares.” - Henry Rollins
Conventional wisdom says 8 hours of sleep a day. But in 2015, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society did a meta analysis of data and concluded “at least 7” vs. the former 8-8.5. So we just lost an hour we supposedly needed . . . can we live with even less? Some say no way. Some say absolutely.
One thing is for sure. A lot of us have jacked up sleep. The CDC says 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep problems costing an estimated $15.9 billion in health care. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving claims more than 1,500 lives each year.
But there are some people, dubbed mini-sleepers, who have gene variation that allows them to sleep approximately 4 hours a night and wake up rested. Unfortunately they estimate that this gene variation exists in less than 1% of the population.
But is getting less than 7 hours really THAT bad? Interestingly, enough, maybe not.
This six-year study from The University of California, San Diego, looked at data from more than one million adults ages 30 to 102 and found that people who get only 6 to 7 hours a night have a lower death rate. Individuals who sleep 8 hours or more, or less than 4 hours a night, were shown to have a significantly increased death rate compared to those who averaged 6 to 7 hours.
In fact, even if you don’t have the magical gene variation, some experts still think we can all live on less sleep and even specialize in sleep optimization training -- the idea that if you treat your bed like a recharging station, you can cut down on the time spent rejuvenating.
At Men’s Journal, in the article How to Sleep Less and Function Better, author Ben Brashares spoke to Arthur Spielman, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the City College of New York about how sleep optimization works.
Spielman makes it sound simple, "If you reduce your time in bed, you shorten your Stage 1 sleep and lengthen your Stage 4. You become a more efficient sleeper. That's just logic."
In fact, optimizing sleep seemed logical enough to the military that they began experiments in “banking” sleep before missions and found that soldiers could, in fact, stock up to function better during times of deprivation.
So, if we have the power to modify our sleep and maybe even optimize it, what’s the best way to go about it?
Neil Stanley, an independent sleep consultant, says you have to set a consistent wake up time and not vary it. Once that is established, and your body settles into that familiar rhythm of Stage 1-4 sleep, a person can slowly cut hours off their sleep time to influence moving faster through short wave or REM sleep. Stanley says that when your body gets used to the time it needs to wake up, it can use the time it has to sleep as efficiently as possible.
Some of us are so messed up, we might not even know how to begin such a process. To those folks, the experts recommend the “vacation method” of determining sleep needs. Best done when not working, the person goes to bed at a reasonable hour and wakes when they want. By about day 4 or 5, they will begin to see their natural sleep pattern emerge. From there, they see the amount they need, set a wake up time and start optimizing for more long wave, restorative sleep.
Sound too good to be true? Maybe it is. Maybe it’s all just a dream to think we can sleep less than 7 hours. But wouldn’t we live so much more if we could sleep so much less? Or as Warren Zevon famously put it, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”