Rethinking Sleep: Analyzing Eight-hour Sleep Pattern with Dr. Michael Perlis

Rethinking sleep with Dr Michael Perlis

Eight-hour sleep a misnomer?

While I was reading the opinion article in New York Times titled, ‘Rethinking Sleep’ which analysed the eight-hour long sleep norm for adults, I found my thoughts resonating with that of the author, David K. Randall. However, hard I try I never manage the 8-hour continuous sleep pattern!

The author David K. Randall, opines that,

The idea that we should sleep in eight-hour chunks is relatively recent. The world’s population sleeps in various and surprising ways. Millions of Chinese workers continue to put their heads on their desks for a nap of an hour or so after lunch, for example, and daytime napping is common from India to Spain.

I can vouch for that. I have seen entire households go to sleep after lunch in India! And  I completely agree with the author when he says that,

As we lie in our beds thinking about the sleep we’re not getting, we diminish the chances of enjoying a peaceful night’s rest.

We are programmed to follow the eight-hour sleep pattern as normal and healthy; anything less, immediately psyches us into feeling that we have had little sleep.

To get to the bottom of all the sleep patterns and various examples quoted in the article, I reached out to Dr. MichaelPerlis, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director of UPENN Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program. Dr. Michael Perlis is an expert on sleep in psychiatric disorders and neurocognitive phenomena in insomnia, the cognitive and behavioral mechanisms of action of sedative hypnotics and placebos, and the development of alternative treatments for insomnia.

Dr. Michael Perlis

Dr. Michael Perlis

This is what he had to say to my queries:

Me: Michael, you have worked extensively on sleep…What would you recommend as the optimum sleep time period for adults?

Michael: There is no such thing… no fixed number or even a range.

Attempts to “do what’s normal may end up doing more harm than good”.

To quote Dr. Lichstein at U Alabama.

“Individuals may seek more sleep than they need when idiographic sleep needs are defined by nomothetic goals. Individuals gifted with a short need for sleep may create an insomnia sleep pattern when they strive for the common goal of 7 hours and 30 minutes of sleep, even when less sleep is needed to satisfy their biologic need.”

At the end of the day, each individual’s sleep is governed by “Sleep ability, Sleep need, and Sleep opportunity.” Finding the balance between these things is the key to finding one’s (sorry to use this expression) “Sleep number”… But even here, the number will vary with the individual’s circumstances… growth, intensive learning, illness, pregnancy, etc. all may cause one’s sleep number to change from one point in their life to another, and from one day to another…

Me: The article quotes ancient medical sleep literature that talks about the benefits of napping. Do you think taking short naps would improve brain function?

Michael:  As noted above. One time when sleep need may go up is under the conditions of intensive learning. And it may serve to promote learning to nap under these conditions… but as a life style, particularly in people with low sleep ability, this may serve to initiate chronic problems initiating and maintaining sleep at night. Such a person may be confronted with the conundrum of “To Sleep or to learn, that’s the question”.

Me: What about people suffering from insomnia, would they benefit from short naps?

 Michael: As a rule. No.

But it depends what you have in mind for “benefit”. Napping may serve to help restore function during the day, but the price may be worse sleep at night.

Me: The author of the article talks about first sleep, second sleep, and alternate sleep cycles. During your extensive research, have you found evidence of the brain being the sharpest between sleep cycles?

Michael: The idea re: first and second sleep pertains to what is observed with sleep extension experiments or in non-industrial cultures (esp. those without access to electricity and [more important] devices that generate bright light).

The observation is that when the sleep period is extended to say 12 hours (say dusk to dawn)… sleep ceases to occur in a consolidated way (aka monophasic sleep)… but rather occurs in 2 major bouts (aka polyphasic sleep). So one question is which form of sleep is “better”… Hard to know this answer to this… because we have to reckon with “better in what way”… better for work productivity, interpersonal relations, health, mental health, etc.

Me: Do you believe that the 8-hour optimum sleep pattern for an adult in the modern times is a sham?

Michael: 8 hours is a population norm… Just like having 2.3 children. Further, the population norm is more likely to represent <<Time In Bed>> than <<Total Sleep Time>>. Finally, these norms don’t take into account people’s health and happiness, so, it’s very possible a large subgroup of the “normals” sleep more than they need (because they have the ability and opportunity but not the need) and this may lead to less health and happiness.

So no easy answers… There is no universal law… In the immortal words of Brian (from Life of Brian), “We are all individuals**

As Dr. Perlis says, each one of us is different with different sleep needs and maybe following individual sleep needs would be definitely helpful rather than try to squeeze in and accommodate a popular norm (aka 8-hour sleep) into your schedule and lament when you meet failure!

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