We often hear about the real dangers of getting too little sleep, but on the other end of the spectrum, sleeping too much also appears to have some risks.
Sleep is a rapidly growing field of research, and we are learning more all the time about how rest affects the body and mind. It’s known that sleep is a time when the body repairs and restores itself, and getting too little rest can lead to a whole host of health problems.
So, more sleep must be better right? Not so fast, say some researchers.
More evidence is showing that spending an excess amount of time in bed is also linked with health hazards. In some ways, oversleeping itself appears to directly influence certain risk factors, and in other cases, it may be a symptom of other medical conditions.
Read on to learn about the effects of oversleeping, what to look out for and how to work towards getting healthy, quality slumber.
Are You Sleeping Too Much?
First, let’s address what oversleeping means. The gold standard of normal has long been considered eight hours, and it’s a good median benchmark. Recent reviews of current research from the experts at the National Sleep Foundation broaden the spectrum a little. They say that somewhere in the range of seven to nine hours is normal and healthy for most adults between 18 and 64 years of age.
Some say closer to seven hours could be even better, such as Arizona State University professor Shawn Youngstedt, who told the Wall Street Journal, “The lowest mortality and morbidity is with seven hours.” Other researchers have also linked seven hours of rest with things like longevity and better brain health.
The “right” amount of sleep proves somewhat individual as some people will feel great on seven hours and others may need a little longer. However, in most studies and for most experts, over nine hours is considered an excessive or long amount of sleep for adults.
If you sleep in a little sometimes on the weekends, it’s likely no big deal. If you regularly sleep more than nine hours each night or don’t feel well-rested on less than that, then it may be worth taking a closer look. It’s estimated that about 2% of the population are naturally long sleepers (typically since childhood), but long sleep can also coincide with health issues and other treatable factors.
The Health Impact of Oversleeping
Seeking to find the sleep “sweet spot” for optimal health, researchers have been busy recently looking at how different habits connect with physical and mental well-being. Several trends have emerged linking oversleeping with higher rates of mortality and disease as well as things like depression.
- Cognitive impairment
- Increased inflammation
- Increased pain
- Impaired fertility
- Higher risk of obesity
- Higher risk of diabetes
- Higher risk of heart disease
- Higher risk of stroke
- Higher all-cause mortality
Impaired Brain Functioning and Mental Health
Sleep plays an important role in the brain, as the brain clears out waste byproducts, balances neurotransmitters and processes memories at rest. At both short and long extremes, rest may have an effect on mood and mental health.
Using data from the Lumosity brain-training platform, researchers found that cognitive performance on three different games all peaked when people slept around seven hours, worsening with more or less rest. Other studies have also found memory impairments and decreased cognitive function with longer sleep.
Other research indicates that getting too little or too much sleep may be tied to increased Alzheimer’s disease risk factors and a large Spanish study found that long sleepers may be at increased risk of developing dementia.
Depression and Mental Health
Oversleeping is considered a potential symptom of depression. While many people with depression report insomnia, about 15% tend to oversleep.
People with long sleep durations are also more likely to have persistent depression or anxiety symptoms compared to normal sleepers. A recent twin study also found that sleeping too little or too much seemed to increase genetic heritability of depressive symptoms compared to normal sleepers.
A study of older adults also found that those who slept more than 10 hours reported worse overall mental health over the past month compared to normal sleepers.
Some research shows that irregularities in the body’s sleep clock may play a role in depressive symptoms, and returning sleep to a healthy pattern is often a focus of treatment.
Increased Inflammation Factors
Chronic inflammation in the body is tied with increased risk of everything from diabetes to heart disease to Alzheimer’s disease. Certain lifestyle factors like smoking, being obese, and prolonged infections can contribute to inflammation, and getting too little or too much sleep may also play a role.
Inflammation in the body is measured by levels of cytokines (also called C-reactive proteins, or CRP). One study compared CRP levels and sleep durations in a large group of adults, finding that male and female long sleepers had elevated levels.
Some differences were seen among races in the study though, suggesting sleep duration may not be one-size-fits-all. Elevated CRP was seen in:
- Whites sleeping less than five and more than nine hours.
- Hispanics/latinos sleeping more than nine hours.
- African-Americans sleeping less than five and eight hours.
- Asians sleeping more than nine hours. Interestingly, Asians sleeping five to six hours had the lowest levels, a pattern mimicked in another Taiwanese study.
Two previous studies also found links between inflammation and longer sleep. One showed that female long sleepers had 44% higher CRP levels compared to women sleeping seven hours. Another found that CRP levels increased by 8% for each additional hour of sleep beyond the norm (7-8 hours), adjusting for factors like body mass, age and sleep apnea.
While many times it can seem intuitive to rest more when we’re in pain, research shows that in some cases too much sleep can exacerbate symptoms.
Back pain can worsen from too little activity or spending too much time in bed. Sleeping in an un-ergonomic position or using an old or unsupportive mattress can also worsen back pain. Combined with staying still for a long period of time, these factors mean many people awake with worse back pain especially when spending longer amounts of time in bed.
Oversleeping is also linked with higher rates of headaches. Referred to as a “weekend headache,” sleeping in may trigger migraines and tension headaches. The cause isn’t necessarily sleep itself, though, as some researchers link it with caffeine withdrawal or increased stress.
A study of Korean women undergoing in vitro fertilization therapy found that women who slept seven to eight hours had the best chances of conceiving. The moderate sleepers had the highest pregnancy rates (53%) compared to those sleeping six hours or less (46%) and those sleeping nine to eleven hours (43%). Study authors suggest sleep outside the normal range could be affecting hormones and circadian cycles, impairing fertility.
Impaired Glucose Tolerance
Glucose tolerance refers to the body’s ability to process sugars, and impaired glucose tolerance is a associated with insulin resistance and is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
A Canadian study looked at lifestyle habits of 276 people over six years, finding that people with long and short sleep durations were more likely to develop impaired glucose tolerance and diabetes during the timespan compared to normal sleepers (20% versus 7%). A recent review of diabetes and sleep studies found consistent relationships between increased risks of type 2 diabetes and both short and long sleep as well.
Increased Weight Gain
Using the same data as the previous six-year Canadian study, researchers also found links between weight gain and sleep. Short and long sleepers both gained more weight than normal sleepers over the six year period (1.98 kg and 1.58 kg), and were more likely to experience a significant weight gain. People sleeping over nine hours were 21% more likely than normal sleepers to become obese during the study.
Other studies generally only support trends of higher body weight for short sleepers, but it could be that associated factors like diabetes risk contribute to weight gain for long sleepers.
Higher Heart Disease Risk
Using information from the large National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NAHNES), researchers linked both short and long sleep with higher risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. The study found that people sleeping more than eight hours per night were twice as likely to have angina (chest pain caused by reduced blood flow) and 10% more likely to have coronary heart disease.
Analysis of the data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which involved over 71,000 middle-aged women, also found connections between sleep length and heart health. Compared to normal eight hour sleepers, women sleeping nine to 11 hours per night were 38% more likely to have coronary heart disease.
Higher Stroke Risk
A recent study from University of Cambridge researchers looked at data from around 9700 Europeans over a period of 11 years. People who slept over eight hours were 46% more likely to have had a stroke during the study period after adjusting for comorbid factors. People whose sleep duration had increased during the study had a four times higher risk of stroke than consistent sleepers, suggesting that longer sleep could be an important symptom or warning sign of stroke risk.
Data from older NHANES surveys also found a significant relationship was found between long sleep and stroke risk. People who slept more than eight hours had a 50% higher risk of stroke than people who slept six to eight hours. People who slept over eight hours and who also had daytime drowsiness had a 90% higher stroke risk compared to normal sleepers.
Higher All-Cause Mortality Risk
In addition to (and perhaps as a result of) all of the other associated health issues like obesity, heart disease and stroke, longer-than-normal sleeping is also linked with higher risk of death in general.
In data from the second Nurse’s Health Study, researchers sought to see what types of habits of lifestyle factors showed the strongest relationships between long sleep and increased mortality risk. It’s suggested that several things might contribute to the higher risk of death, but based on their statistical analysis, the strongest influential factors were identified as depression and low socioeconomic status. In the Nurses’ Study data, long sleep was also associated with numerous other conditions from obesity to multiple sclerosis to asthma to depression and antidepressant use.
To further get an idea of why people who sleep longer tend to have higher rates of death in long-term studies, clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Dr. Michael Grandner led a literature review that identifies a few potential causes:
- Sleep fragmentation: More time in bed is linked with more frequent wakings after sleep and reduced sleep efficiency (more time spent awake in bed).
- Fatigue: Fatigue and lethargy can cause longer sleep, and sleeping longer can make people feel more lethargic.
- Immune function: Longer sleep can influence expression of cytokines.
- Photoperiodic abnormalities: Spending a long time in the darker rooms could affect the circadian cycle.
- Lack of challenge: Spending a lot of time in bed may give less time for beneficial challenges (such as exercise).
- Underlying disease: Obstructive sleep apnea, depression, coronary disease, and generally failing health.
The Chicken and Egg Dilemma
Looking at the information on the effects of oversleeping, the question of “which came first” is a fairly prominent one for researchers. Does oversleeping itself harm health, or do certain illnesses cause oversleeping?
Whether or not long sleep is the cause or the effect is often not immediately discernible with the data that looks at large groups of people and self-reported habits, however. Some studies indicate getting too much sleep or being overly sedentary may trigger certain problems, while other times the desire for more rest it could a byproduct of co-occurring processes.
Some researchers also highlight that the healthiest people may just need less rest while unhealthy people tend to need more due to known or undiagnosed problems. One way to test the idea of cause and effect for some of the shorter term conditions are controlled studies in which normal sleepers rest for longer hours and changes are observed.
A review of controlled studies on extended sleep finds that when adults sleep longer than normal, they tend to report increased fatigue, irritability and lethargy — possibly triggering the desire to sleep more and perpetuating a cycle. Also reported are lower mood, slower reaction time, poorer math performance and more fragmented sleep, which has several health implications as well.
Other research of young adults showed that spending an additional two hours in bed each night over three weeks resulted in participants feeling more depressed, reporting more soreness and back pain, and they also showed elevated inflammation markers.
Setting the Stage for Healthier Sleep
The field of sleep science is still looking into the cause and effect relationship between oversleeping and health, but some habits and steps that promote better quality sleep and a healthy sleep duration are known.
While a small percentage of people naturally sleep longer, for many long sleepers (especially whose sleep needs have changed), there are certain conditions, behaviors and environmental factors that can increase sleep need or affect sleep quality (making you feel less rested on a normal amount).
To get an idea of how to avoid oversleeping and get healthier Zzz’s, we reached out a few sleep experts for their words of wisdom. Here’s what they had to say:
Dr. Robert Rosenberg
Too much sleep on a regular basis can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and death according to several studies done over the years. Too much is defined as greater than nine hours.
The most common cause is not getting enough sleep the night before, or cumulatively during the week. This is followed by sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, idiopathic hypersomnolence, as well as depression.
- Get enough sleep, seven to nine hours a night.
- Do not oversleep on weekends this throws your circadian rhythms off and makes falling asleep even more difficult when the work week comes along.
- Expose yourself to bright sunlight upon awakening. Consider leaving the drapes or blinds open at night. That morning sunlight will help you to wake up.
- Consider getting a dawn sunlight emitting alarm clock. Many of my patients are using them. You can set the dawn light to start filling your room with light 15 to 30 minutes before the alarm goes off.
- Avoid excessive naps especially after 4PM. These may make it more difficult to fall asleep and result in oversleeping. The same goes for excessive caffeine and blue light exposure close to bedtime.
There are myriad reasons to avoid oversleeping from loss of your job to missing out on mornings with your family. However if you continue to have this problem and struggle to wake up make sure there is not an underlying sleep disorder at fault.
Dr. Robert Rosenberg is a sleep medicine specialist and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day: A Doctor’s Solution to Solving Your Sleep Problems.
Nancy H. Rothstein
If you oversleep frequently, you need to ask yourself WHY. It’s time to take a close look at your sleep and sleep habits. Start keeping a log of what you are doing in the hour before you go to bed.
If you are on tech devices or watching TV, it’s time to set your smartphone down an hour before bed and TURN OFF TECHNOLOGY. Your busy mind and body need to gear down in preparation for bedtime, not to mention the negative impact of blue light from the devices on your natural sleep/wake cycle. Find relaxing and calming things to do, such as reading a book or magazine. But NOT on a tech device! Drinking alcohol or caffeine in the hours before bed can also impact your sleep quality.
Bottom line is that if you are oversleeping regularly your body is SPEAKING TO YOU. Are you listening? Our body clock, also known as circadian rhythm, functions best when we have a consistent sleep and wake time. Sounds possible but how do you enact this?
- Select your optimal number of sleep hours to function at your best.
- Then, determine your WAKE TIME, likely based on your work schedule or family demands.
- GET UP at the SAME TIME EVERY DAY, including weekends.
- Put your alarm clock across the room. When it rings, GET UP. NO snooze button.
- Go to bed at the SAME TIME EVERY NIGHT, within about 1/2 hour range.
- COMMIT to this for at least 2 weeks, with a goal of 4, then reevaluate your sleep and wake times.
If you do improve your sleep habits and after a few weeks are still oversleeping, it’s time to see your physician to assess whether you may have a sleep disorder needing diagnosis and treatment. Sleep is a necessity, both in quality and quantity.
Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan
Oversleeping usually isn’t about needing more sleep – it’s usually about being exhausted because of some other physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual deficit.
- Set an alarm or two.
- Get to bed before midnight – the 90min sleep phase before midnight is very rejuvenating and will help to prevent morning fatigue.
- Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of rising. People who eat breakfast are more likely to wake with energy and habitually eating breakfast increases metabolism (and promotes better sleep at night).
- Drift off to sleep thinking of something – even small – that you’re looking forward to the next day.
- Withdraw consciously from technology to enable your sleep to hit deeper levels so you wake up more refreshed.
- Deal with emotional gremlins which might be causing you to escape into sleep and pull the duvet over your head.
- Address the true sources of your fatigue – do you need to exercise more? Eat more healthily? Get a new job? Leave that toxic relationship?
- Live a meaningful and purposeful life – know what you care about and do it. People who have purpose tend to wake up with energy.
Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan is a physiologist, sleep and stress management expert who helps everyone from stressed-out mums to Premiership footballers and MPs improve the quality of their sleep and energy levels. Nerina runs sleep and wellness programmes at the The Nightingale Hospital and is the author of Tired but Wired.
Sleeping Well: The Most Important Things You Can Do
Based on our experts’ advice and current opinions on healthy sleep hygiene practices, here are the key things you can do to promote good sleep habits and ensure your body gets the ideal amount of rest.
Research links eating a balanced diet with a wide variety of nutrients and adequate calories, carbohydrates and fats with normal sleep durations. In one large study of diet and lifestyle habits using NHANES data, long sleepers tended to eat less variety of foods and less carbohydrates and calories overall. Their diets were also lower than normal sleepers’ on a few nutrients:
- Theobromine – found in chocolate and to a lesser extent in guarana.
- Dodecanoic acid – found in coconuts, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil.
- Choline – found in shrimp, fish, eggs, turkey, soy and some dark leafy greens.
- Selenium – found in brazil nuts, fish, shrimp, turkey, chicken, beef and some whole grains.
- Lycopene – found in guava, watermelon, cooked tomatoes, red cabbage and red peppers.
- Phosphorus – found in pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, eggs, fish, brazil nuts, lean meats, tofu and lentils.
Try to include a diverse range of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, nuts and grains so your body receives the minerals, vitamins and nutrients it needs to function.
Things like watermelon, tomatoes, carrots, leafy greens, walnuts, almonds, chicken, wild salmon, and whole grains like oats, wheat, millet and amaranth all supply sleep-supporting nutrients. Pure water intake is also important — people who had better sleep drank plenty of plain water throughout the day.
But, don’t eat too much too close to bedtime, as heavy, fatty or spicy midnight snacks could backfire and keep you up or affect sleep quality. It’s best to balance intake throughout the day and perhaps have a healthy dinner that includes a carbohydrate. Reach for lighter but satiating things like crackers and natural peanut butter, a banana, a low-sugar yogurt or a piece of toast if you do need a nibble close to bedtime.
Avoid Alcohol Use
In the study of NHANES data, long sleepers tended to consume the most alcohol compared to short and normal snoozers.
Another study found that long sleepers were more likely to use alcohol to induce sleep, which could have important implications. Research has found that consuming alcohol within a few hours of bedtime makes sleep more fragment and less restorative.
Alcohol changes sleep cycles, impacting both slow wave and REM sleep as well as various hormones and neurotransmitters. The overall effect of less restorative rest possibly creates the desire to sleep longer hours (and also reduces overall activity, further affecting health).
Engaging in regular activity and moderate exercise helps promote higher quality sleep and a healthy sleep duration. While studies on exercise and sleep largely focus on reducing insomnia, it can help long sleepers, too. Getting higher quality sleep and waking less during the night can help you feel more rested and energized during the day.
Get Consistent Sunlight
Our bodies’ circadian clocks guide the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that tell us when to be awake and when to sleep. It takes its cues from things like behavior patterns, temperature, environment, and particularly, light.
Exposing yourself to direct sunlight early in the morning supports circadian rhythms (and Vitamin D production, which may play a role in sleep hormone melatonin). Sip your morning coffee outside, take an early walk, or park further from your office to catch some rays. Working near a well-lit window can also be helpful. If you have a difficult schedule or live in a climate where getting morning sunlight isn’t possible, light therapy may be beneficial.
Stick to a Regular Bedtime and Wake Time
Another important way to support your body’s internal clock is making your bedtime and wake time more consistent. As explained by Dr. Rosenburg above, irregular hours can throw off rest, making it harder to fall asleep on nights after sleeping in and leading you to be tired the next day.
When bedtimes and wake times are regular, your body’s systems learn when it’s time to initiate drowsiness and when it’s time to be awake.
Time Caffeine Right
We all know caffeine close to bed is a sleep no-no, but drinking coffee and tea even in the afternoon can have an impact on rest quality. Being wired at night can ruin your sleep, leaving you tired and prone to oversleeping the next day.
It can take up to 12 hours for the effects to completely dissipate, so try limiting caffeine to the first few hours you’re awake or at least before lunchtime.
Set Your Bedroom Up For Success
Pay close attention to your sleep space to make sure lights, sounds and temperatures are optimal for rest.
- Darkness. Darkness supports melatonin release, while bright lights from TVs, computers and smartphones keep you up later. Start dimming lights in the hour before bed and switch off electronics at least 30 minutes before you turn in. If you live in a well-lit area, blackout drapes or an eye mask may be a good partner.
- Calm noises. Disruptive sounds can make it hard to fall asleep and can affect sleep during the night. If you prefer complete quiet, earplugs or noise cancelling headphones can help. If you prefer a background noise, try sound conditioner/white noise machines or apps that play white and nature sounds
- Comfort. Your mattress can play a role in sleep, especially when it comes to pain and tossing and turning. Age is important — the average bed is meant to last around eight years, so if your’s is older, it may be lacking support and comfort. Finding the right firmness and comfort level for your sleep position also plays a role. If you’re feeling aching on waking or not sleeping well, take a closer look at your bed.
- Temperature. Cooler temperatures support better sleep. Set your thermostat in the 62 to 70 range, and opt for breathable sheets, blankets and pajamas. Materials like cotton and wool and smart fibers like Celliant help support a balanced body temperature and keep you comfortable throughout the night.
If you’re practicing good sleep hygiene habits and you find you still need an excessive amount of rest, or if your sleep need has changed without an obvious cause, consult your doctor. Increased sleep need can be a symptom of things like hypothyroidism, heart problems, depression (even low-level), and sleep apnea. Your doctor can assess your symptoms and determine the best way to approach improving rest.
As with many other aspects of health, moderation tends to be key when it comes to sleep. Much is said about the dangers of too little sleep, but it seems it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Regularly sleeping in excess of nine hours is linked with lower mental and physical health — making it important to strive for a “normal” amount of sleep and to be aware of changes in your body’s sleep need that may signal other concerns.
Do you tend to oversleep or sleep longer than normal? How do you notice activity level, foods, or things you do before bed affecting your sleep need?