How much sleep is too much?

Part 1 of A Time to Sleep addressed the question, “How much sleep is enough?”

After all the talk of the need of sleep and urging us to get enough sleep, some of us may be tempted to say, “Well, you can’t get too much sleep.” So it is only fair to ask, “Can we sleep too much?”

Apparently, the answer is, “Yes.” Just type that question or a similar one into a search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo Search), and you will find several pages that not only say, “Yes,” but tell you how much sleep is too much. They also say why, outlining the adverse effects of too much sleep. Sleep research is balancing the picture, showing us where the “happy medium” of sleep lies.

Oversleeping and Health

In Oversleeping: The Effects & Health Risks of Sleeping Too Much, an article on Early Bird, the Amerisleep blog (this article was reposted by Huffington Post), Rosie Osmun summarizes the results of research on this topic. Appended to the article are statements by three health professionals – Dr.  Nerina Ramlakhan, Nancy H. Rothstein, and Dr. Robert Rosenberg – which include steps to avoid oversleeping.

Two other online articles on oversleeping are Physical Side Effects of Oversleeping on WebMD, and 6 Bad Things That Happen When You Sleep Too Much on Prevention. There are several more.

Simply put, the research links oversleeping with certain health risks. That is not to say that too much sleep is always the cause.

Health risks associated or accompanied by longer than normal sleep are: depression, impaired thinking and memory, an increase in pain, inflammation and infertility, and higher risks of diabetes, obesity, strokes, heart disease, and all causes of death (Osmun). It can also cause headaches (WebMD).

Visit a nursing home repeatedly, and you will notice that residents with dementia tend to sleep more often or seem to be sleepy when awake. The same is true for persons with low blood circulation. Since it reduces the flow of blood to the brain, reactions are slower and it is harder to remain alert. COPD and emphysema also reduce the supply of oxygen to the brain.

On the other hand, if someone stays in bed just because they are bored, or do not want to face something, or any other reason than actually needed the extra sleep, they are putting themselves at risk by not being physically active. Getting up and moving around improves blood circulation, simulates deeper breathing, and exercises the muscles.

If for some reason you should stay in bed for physical reasons, keeping the brain exercised helps you to keep yourself alert. Ways to activate yourself mentally are reading, games, meaningful conversation, working out word or math problems, solving puzzles, singing, creative activity, etc.

Some of the risks of inflammation related to oversleep and to under sleep are correlated with both lifestyle and race (Osmun). The reasons for this may be genetic, or cultural, or both.

What Causes Oversleep and Excessive Sleepiness?

Oversleep is most often caused by poor sleep. A person rolls over and sleeps longer because they did not get enough rest (Prevention). There are several causes of this poor sleep. Some of the most common are sleep apnea, snoring, fibromyalgia, back pain, neck pain, poor mattress posture, and digestive disorders.

Sleep management

If sleeping in too long is a problem, first do your part to try to get enough sleep in the first place. Several tips for getting enough sleep are covered in A Time to Sleep – Part 1. Here is a quick summary:

Keep a regular sleep schedule
Prepare to sleep with relaxing activities
Don’t go to bed on a too full or too empty stomach
Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime
Make the room comfortable for sleeping
Have physical activity and outdoor time during the day
Control stress

Health conditions

Too be fair, let’s acknowledge that sleeping longer than normal may be the effect of an underlying condition. This is usually chronic fatigue. Contributing factors include electrolyte deficiency, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, and iron anemia. It may also be associated with too many toxins (metabolic end products) which may indicate problems with the kidneys or other glands. Some medications may also result in oversleeping.

If you have a problem oversleeping, it is to your best interest to find out why. Bring this up with your physician to see if it indicates a serious health problem. Not being able to sleep long enough, then getting tired during the day may also indicate an underlying problem.

The bed

If your mattress or bed is uncomfortable, it can either keep you awake or disturb your sleep to keep you from fully resting. Look for the best mattress for your weight and body size, usual sleeping position, and health conditions. This is not a one-for-all prescription, because we all differ in these areas.

Most persons sleep better on foam mattresses without  metal coils. Beginning in 1971, waterbeds became popular because, if they were not filled too full (too stiff), they relieved pressure. There were some early polyurethane foam mattresses and foam rubber mattresses, but they did not gain much market share until after the introduction of memory foam.

In 1991, the first memory foam mattress went on the market in Sweden, where it became a hit. The next year, the Tempur-Pedic mattress came to North America, and in a few years memory foam mattresses surpassed sales of waterbeds.

Since then, there have been many improvements in making foam mattresses, especially memory foam and latex foam.

The standard for memory foam is now open-cell structure, which make the mattress more breathable. Three-layer construction of the mattress, pioneered by Dr. Swartzburg with the Tri-Pedic, combines a more quickly responsive top with deep conformity just underneath.

Many memory foam varieties are now infused with gel for cooling and a more fluid support feel. Ventilation of the foam with vertical pores cools it more effectively, with or without the gel. Some models add horizontal airflow beneath the memory foam for more effective ventilation. An example of this is the Airflow Transfer System.

The Talalay process for latex foam provides more even support. Vertical ventilation of latex is now the standard, which makes it breathable and cool.

Innerspring mattresses have come a long way, from barely conforming Bonnell coils to highly conforming wrapped pocket coils. Now several mattress models have very small microcoils between foam layers near the top of the mattress. And most innerspring mattresses have foam cushioning layers, such as memory foam or latex, above the coils.

Mattresses have also been designed to address special needs of users with sleep disorders and physical conditions. Several manufacturers have models engineered for bariatric sleepers. Selectabed makes and sells mattresses for fibromyalgia (the Fibro-Pedic), for side sleepers (Soft-Pedic), and for back pain (Taluxe).

Also available today are adjustable air beds (Air-Pedic, Sleep Number, ComfortAire, and others). With air beds, as with waterbeds, the problem has been distributing the air pressure for better spinal support.

Putting the mattress on an adjustable bed can help with certain conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnea, acid reflux, sinus drainage, neck and upper back problems, etc.

The key here is to find a mattress and bed that address your needs, whether underlying health issues or general comfort. The goal is to sleep well enough in bed that you will not be sleepy throughout the day.