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Oversleeping: Too Much of a Good Thing

I’ve often written about the need of getting enough sleep at night, but I don’t think I’ve touched on the risk of getting too much sleep. It’s great to think of sleep as being the healing elixir of life – and for the most part, it is – but as with so many things in life, too much of a good thing has its downside.

When it comes to oversleeping, the downside is significant. Oversleeping – considered by most experts to be 9 or more hours per day – has been linked to a host of medical problems, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Increased risk of death
  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Depression

One of the immediate side effects of oversleep is the increased production of cortisol. Cortisol, AKA hydrocortisone, is a steroid produced by the adrenal cortex. In periodic, small amounts, it helps to control inflammation. Unfortunately, chronic presence of cortisol seems to produce just the opposite effect, inflammation. The longer we sleep, the more likely we are to awaken puffy-eyed and feeling unwell.

In addition to cortisol, oversleep disrupts production of the brain’s neurotransmitters, primarily serotonin. Serotonin and melatonin production and release are tightly bound to the day/night cycle, and insufficient daytime light stimulation can be profoundly disruptive to adequate serotonin levels. With inadequate serotonin levels comes inadequate melatonin levels in the night portion of our circadian rhythm. Serotonin and melatonin supplements are available, but are a poor substitute for maintaining a proper circadian rhythm.

The amount of sleep we need varies over the course of our lifetime and is dependent upon the physical and emotional stress we experience at any given time. The general agreement, however, is that we should get no less than 6 and no more than 9 hours of sleep per night.

Alcohol is one substance that tends to disturb the quality of our sleep and, therefore, encourage oversleeping. It’s best to avoid alcohol at all, but especially in the hours immediately before sleeping. As well, try to get regular bed- and waking times. Practising good sleep hygiene will help you improve the overall quality of sleep and help to reduce the tendency toward sleeping more to make up for any lack of quality.

Two of the best ways of improving quality of sleep I’ve found are blackout curtains and a night mask. The combination of the two help keep light bleed to near zero. This is an important part of a good night’s sleep because any stimulation of the hippocampus by light turns off melatonin output. Avoid any use of night lights, and under no circumstances should you hit the fridge for a midnight snack.

It’s important to realize that there’s no such thing as “catching up” on sleep. Once you’ve missed sleep, it’s gone forever. The only true answer, therefore, is to ensure you get the right amount of sleep every day. The ideal bedtime is 8 hours prior to sunrise on the longest day cycle of the year (in summer). Maintain that same sleep/wake time throughout the year, ignoring DST in areas where that is practised. Doing so will give you the optimal balance of day versus night and set you up for sleeping just the right amount each and every night.

Sweet dreams.

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2 Comments
  1. “..you can’t catch up on sleep —– sleep missed is sleep missed..” I must be really really sick. Catch up on 6 hour sleep nights is all i ever do, generally at about 2 in the afternoon from a siesta of 15 to 60 minutes (any more than 15 ill advisable but hey.. sometimes.. ) . Fact is that underslept (every single day except when I’m overslept — and with a right eye the itching size of a tennis ball..) I’m good for zero — can barely stand up —- i do what i can but i need to ‘catch up’ soon as pos and then i’m right as a sandstorm. So from where this big golden theory that slept can’t be caught up on?? (I know sleep cannot be taken in a d v a n c e — is that what you really meant to say — in which case might you alter the text accordingly?

    • Hi.

      It sounds as though you’re facing some challenging times.

      The idea that sleep cannot be caught up is that our wake/sleep cycles are not transactions as if we were going up to an ATM and withdrawing a certain amount of wakefulness or a duration of sleep. Our entire biology is run — in real time — by the circadian rhythm of our diurnal cycle. Our bodies rely on the signals of light and dark to produce various hormones that trigger pretty much every important biological function.

      Everything from cleansing the brain of toxicants to processing short-term memory for either storage or disposal all happen during our sleep cycles. Get too little sleep and the body’s necessary housekeeping doesn’t get handled. While naps during the day are useful, they really don’t make up for the sleep lost during the night. The stuff that goes on during your catnaps during daylight hours is dramatically different than the stuff that goes on in your body during sleep at night.

      It’s worth restating that sleep isn’t a transaction. If you get too little sleep, housekeeping isn’t completed. If you get light-source-interrupted sleep, you lose the output of melatonin, which is one of the body’s most important antioxidant, amine-derived hormones. If you get too much sleep in one go — generally, 9-or-more hours — your body will produce significant amounts of cortisol, which is a hormone that triggers an inflammatory response in the body.

      How much sleep we get and the quality of that sleep is an important component of maintaining good overall health. Unfortunately, modern humanity tends to view sleep as something that can be skipped. Missed sleep is missed. The processes that went undone, such as flushing toxins and toxicants from the brain, leave diminished function in their wake. The damage is cumulative. Because the biological processes differ between day and night (and even between REM and deep sleep), there just isn’t any means of catching up in a real sense. Falling behind on sleep puts additional stress on the body and makes it extremely difficult to get all the housekeeping done during the next normal sleep cycles.

      Keep healing!

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