I can’t remember when I first fell in love with sleep, but it was sometime around a particularly gothy stretch of junior high when I clocked 12 hours one weekend night. Nothing had felt more fantastic than that cocoon of egregiously long deep sleep. Sleeping 12 to 15 hours regularly is, of course, depression sleep, and I wasn’t going to literally sleep my life away. But I was hooked on good sleep, and as a result, most of my life I’ve made sure I get at least eight to nine sweet hours a night. Even so, I’ve always gotten weird guilt trips, vibes, or outright shit for it. “Wow, you sure do get a lot of sleep,” is the nicest version of it. Translation: You are a lazy, selfish asshole.
That may be, but it’s not because I like to sleep. For starters, seven to nine hours a night is exactly within the recommended range of optimal sleep for an adult, so this is basically like mocking someone for flossing regularly. I’m practicing a well-backed, scientifically approved amount of sleep, but it’s framed over and over again as particularly indulgent. It must mean I’m checked out, they say. Turned off. Could I be depressed, or am I just that self-absorbed? Don’t I want to get up early with the rest of the world and participate, or at least get some shit done before the best part of the day gets away from me?
Uh, not really? I have always admired what the early riser can accomplish; it’s just nothing I can’t do exactly two to four hours later. Once, I stayed over at a boyfriend’s parents’ house for the holiday, and by the time I stumbled into the kitchen at 10 a.m. the next morning, the entire family had been up since 7 a.m., already exercised, had breakfast, cleaned the dishes, and gotten into a project. They looked at me like I was not just lazy, but possibly even inhuman.
I think, on the most surface level, it’s because as a culture we value suffering for the goal. In the same way the impossibly thin deprive themselves of the food most of us require not to pass out, entrepreneurs and CEOs who get less than six hours of sleep are touted as life-hacking geniuses, and have even been called the “Sleepless Elite.” Marissa Mayer, Margaret Thatcher and Donald “Executive Time” Trump are all four hours a night-ers. In a society where “ugh I’m so busy” is a status-seeking faux-humble brag, it’s clear that anyone who actually takes the time to be well rested for the fully recommended amount of time at night simply doesn’t have enough to do — or lacks the ambition to really kill it out there by shaving off a few hours of shut-eye.
MEL editor Josh Schollmeyer tells me he sleeps about four hours a night. This sounds insane to me, if for no other reason than the average person needs somewhere in the ballpark of eight hours. The National Institutes of Health explain that one of the biggest sleep myths is that you can be perfectly fine on just six hours with no ill effects. Most people — and the operative word here is most — need at least six hours to be able to learn, memorize and perform effectively during the day.
Sleep is a major player in our ability to think well, which is why tired people make more mistakes and cause more accidents. Not sleeping enough does more than make you miserable — it wears on your heart and blood pressure, too. The biggest health risk to that guy who broke the record for longest Netflix binge-watching stretch, managing to watch for 94 hours straight? Sleep deprivation, which could have led to cardiac arrest.
But before I smugly plant my flag in Correct Sleep Land, I should return to that note about “most people.” Research has found that while about 90 percent of the population needs that golden stretch of 7 to 9 hours of snoozing a night, some people really just don’t need that much sleep, and really can function well on less sleep. There is a gene that has been identified for these folks, who are referred to as “short sleepers.”
“Natural short sleepers are healthy people that sleep five hours or less per night,” sleep expert Terry Cralle told me by email. “Short sleepers have a gene variant that enables them to get by on very little sleep. Studies have shown that individuals with this gene variant function well on very little sleep. Genetic short sleepers make up only about 3 to 5 percent of the population, while long sleepers (who require 10 to 12 hours) make up roughly the same, 5 percent.”
Cralle goes on to explain that a true short sleeper won’t have any daytime impairment from lack of sleep, nor do they need to sleep any extra on the weekend to try to catch up.
That doesn’t mean everyone who boasts that they don’t need more than a few hours a night is really one of these genetic winners. “Individuals who do not fall into the category of genetic short sleepers may simply be compensating for the lack of sleep by squeezing in a nap here and there — actually getting more sleep than claimed,” she wrote. “Others may rely on caffeine, sugar, or stimulants to get through the day, so that in spite of their claims of getting by on little sleep, they are not really ‘getting by’ — they are compensating.”
The issue is complicated by the fact that many people who don’t get enough sleep don’t realize they’re underperforming. So they may just not realize they are suffering, and may simply ignore the problems with their health or relationships or work because they don’t understand lack of sleep is the cause.
The trouble is, how do you know if you’re actually one of the true short sleepers or just living on borrowed sleep time?
“Individual sleep need is like height,” sleep expert Neil Stanley told the Metro U.K. in a piece about how much sleep we really need. “We are all different and it is to a large degree genetically determined. Anywhere between about four and 11 hours can be considered normal, but getting just one hour less sleep a night than you require can have measurable effects on your physical and mental health.”
That means the million-dollar question is, how are you supposed to know exactly how much sleep you need? Sleep specialist Michael Breus told Insider that you can test this by starting roughly with the 450 minutes idea, or 7.5 hours, to test your best amount of nightly sleep.
Start with the time you wake up every day or need to wake up. Count back 7.5 hours from there. Go to bed at that time every night for 7 to 10 days. If this is the right amount of sleep for you, you should be waking up a few minutes before your alarm clock. If not, you’re supposed to move your bedtime back another half hour, and try another week until you find your optimal night’s sleep — meaning you wake up on your own every morning without the aid of an alarm clock.
Breus says this approach won’t work for everyone, because some 50 percent of us — and I suspect I’m one of them — have an internal sleep clock that simply won’t budge. Meaning, I probably do really “need” eight hours of sleep a night, but I can’t make myself get them starting at 9 p.m. If that’s your problem, he suggests just doing what selfish assholes like me have been doing for years: Fit your life around your sleep, not the other way around. People will definitely hate you, but you’ll be incredibly happy — and well-rested.