Is Your Obsession With Sleep Sabotaging You?
Sleep is important, but obsessing over getting enough can be unhealthy. Here’s what you need to know.
Sweeney has always been on #TeamSleep. In college, she used to nap before going out with her friends, being careful not to smudge her mascara on her pillows. “People used to judge me for it. They’d call me Rachy Baby,” she says. “But I had to listen to my body.”
When she opened a boutique, Indie Twenty, in Buffalo, New York, almost two years ago, she noticed that other business owners would glorify staying up until 3 a.m. to get all their work done. She did not relate. “There was just no way I was going to fit that mold,” she says. “I like my bed too much.”
Her favorite feeling is waking up fully recharged and well-rested, she says. “I’m more sharp, more creative. I can see the difference in the mirror, and feel it in my energy levels.”
In the last few years, though, she noticed something. She stopped hearing so many people brag about their all-nighters. Instead, her friends were gushing about heading to bed well before midnight. People were scheduling dinner for 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. She was also seeing more memes about canceling plans to stay home and rest. Sweeney felt vindicated.
Sure, this could be a product of getting older — Sweeney’s peers were trading late nights for early mornings at work or to hang out with their kids. But it’s also possible that her experience points to a cultural shift in how people are thinking about shuteye. “Getting enough sleep and being more aware of its health benefits does seem to be trendier now,” says Seema Khosla, MD, the medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep. “There was a time when staying up all night was a badge of honor.” These days, by 10 p.m., we all want to be between our lavender-scented sheets, with our silk eye mask in place, and our stomach full of valerian-spiked tea. It’s the new Insta-brag.
Sleep has always been important, but in the last few years scientists and CEOs have been ringing the alarm bells about its importance. In 2016, Arianna Huffington, the founder of Thrive Global and co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Huffington Post, put out her book, The Sleep Revolution. In it, she attempted to “rekindle our romance with sleep.” The serial entrepreneur asked us to prioritize rest because she believes it’s essential for productivity. She’s not the only one preaching about the benefits — companies like Google boast about their high-tech, in-office “nap pods.” In 2019, the wellness industry dubbed “sleep optimization” a major trend, with searches for the term rising by 116%, according to Pinterest.
So sleeping is both trendy and healthy. But there’s a caveat. Our increased interest in sleep can quickly turn into increased stressing about sleep — which can quickly turn into not being able to fall asleep. Are we getting enough? Is what we’re getting high enough quality? Is the blue light from our phones ruining our rest — not to mention our eyes and our skin? We’re being sold sleep trackers to help us gauge the “quality” of our shuteye. We’re being sold little beds to literally tuck our phones into before we hit the hay.
Our obsession with shuteye has gotten so out of control that it’s spawned a new term: orthosomnia, coined in a case report led by Kelly Glazer Baron, PhD, to describe an unhealthy fixation on sleep that can actually keep you awake. Baron’s research followed the cases of multiple patients using wearable sleep trackers, which lead them to seek treatment for self-diagnosed “insomnia.” They were taking the data from their trackers a little too seriously — to the point that their interest in their sleep reports would become “a perfectionistic quest for the ideal sleep in order to optimize daytime function.” In other words, it became an obsession. And Baron believes this may be a problem for a growing number of people.
Most people who track their shuteye can do it with no repercussions. But some end up so fixated that their stress keeps them awake. Or they sleep fine but become so distressed if their monitor shows a poor reading the next day that their mood and productivity suffers. “It can be unhealthy to track anything too meticulously, be it food or sleep,” Baron says. (For the record, companies that market these products have disputed this theory, and say the case report was “overblown.”)
And it’s likely not just the trackers reinforcing orthosomnia for that obsessive group. Products could also end up adding pressure: the bedtime teas, the essential oil blends, the weighted blankets — we’re tormented by our quest to create the perfect nighttime routine, and it makes us more anxious about our sleep in the long run
What makes all this worry even more absurd is that there’s evidence that there isn’t a sleep shortage at all. Take this 2016 study from the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, which compared sleep data from studies spanning the last five decades. The results were surprising: Year over year, there’s been no significant dip in the number of hours people snooze each night. “The results are consistent with recent reviews of subjective data, which have challenged the notion of a modern epidemic of insufficient sleep,” the study authors wrote. Apparently, 50 years ago people were just as worried about their sleep — they just blamed different things for disrupting it than we do now.
“It has been hypothesized that industrialization, urbanization, and technological advances have caused us to ignore or override our natural tendency to sleep more,” the researchers wrote in Sleep Medicine Reviews. “However, historical accounts belie the myth that people slept longer or better centuries ago when sleep was compromised by pestilence, fear of night marauders, and poorer ability to control the ambient temperature or treat illnesses.”
Roughly the same amount of people reported getting less than six hours of sleep in 2006 as they did in 1975, the journal Sleep reported in 2010. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even called insufficient sleep a public health epidemic after putting out a 2014 study on sleep duration, which found sleeping for shorter amounts of time — less than seven hours each night — could lead to health problems. And the National Sleep Foundation declared that their surveys showed that 20% of people in 2009 were sleeping less than six hours on a given day, compared to only 12% in 1998. Why the disconnect?
“There was a time when staying up all night was a badge of honor.”
Seema Khosla, MD
For one, when you’re conducting a sleep survey, you have to make sure you’re asking the right questions, as Jim Horne, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychophysiology at Loughborough University in England and the author of Sleeplessness, explains. “If you ask someone: ‘Would you like to get more sleep?’ the answer is probably yes,” Horne says. “Of course they want more sleep. The better question is how many people would forego what they do when they’re awake to sleep more?” It’s like asking someone if they’d like to live in a bigger house or have more money. The answer is probably sure, why not? But it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with their current house or bank account.
“To judge sleep just by duration says is wrong,” Horne says. “What counts is the quality. The best way to determine whether you got a good night’s rest is to see how you feel throughout the day. If you’re able to function until bedtime, maybe with a dip in the afternoon, you probably got sufficient sleep.”
It’s ultimately about feeling decent during your waking hours. You’ll notice we say decent, not healthy. Although sleep is certainly connected to your health in some ways, getting more Zs in isn’t going to cure you of all your ailments.
“People who are short sleepers, maybe a significant portion of them also have high blood pressure,” Horne says. “But you can’t say they have high blood pressure due to short sleep. Simply by giving those people more shuteye, it won’t necessarily get rid of the high blood pressure.” The high blood pressure could have another underlying cause, such as stress, Horne says.
And saying that sleeping for shorter amounts of time is causing health issues like this can be dangerous, he adds. “If you’re having trouble falling asleep and you’ve read that not sleeping enough is going to cause you to have cardiac problems, become overweight, and become depressed, you’ll lie there worrying even more. And that makes drifting off even harder. It’s a vicious circle.”
Here’s the thing, though: Sleep really is crucial. Even if more studies need to be done to definitely say how sleep affects wellbeing, current research shows that getting enough sleep improves your mood, motivation, judgment, and even your memory, according to the Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep. And most people’s experience backs that up. When we barely sleep, we’re irritable, less productive, and easily distracted.
“We’re in an uncomfortable position because I’ve spent my entire career saying sleep is critical for health,” Baron says.
Sleep is important the way breathing is important: You need it, but if you think about doing it “right” too hard you ultimately make it more difficult to do. “Sleep is an automatic process, and the more you overthink it, the worse it will be for you,” Baron continues. “It’s an important thing to think about and prioritize — just not too much.”
That’s why Horne suggests ignoring those alarmist news articles that talk about your huge sleep debt and paying more attention to how you feel. And if it’s throwing you off, ditching your tracker.
“Most of us are doing fine,” Horne says. “Sleep is certainly important, but one thing we forget about when we talk about ‘sleep need’ is ‘sleep enjoyment.’”
"One thing we forget about when we talk about ‘sleep need’ is ‘sleep enjoyment.’”
Jim Horne, Ph.D.
The best way to think about sleep is as something that’s good for you, but that you also look forward to doing, Horne continues. Like eating avocado toast. It’s healthy and enjoyable.
He suggests only adding things to your sleep routine that feel good and fun. If you’re curious about weighted blankets or white-noise machines or aromatherapy diffusers and want to try them, do it. You can even track your sleep, if nerding out over the data sounds fun. But if you feel obligated to layer on the blanket or to get used to sleeping to rain sounds or to fill your room with some scent you don’t really like, it’s not worth it. It would be like covering your avocado toast with something disgusting (cough-spirulina-cough), ruining a dish you love in a quest to make it “healthier.”
All this is to say: We all need to chill out when it comes to getting our rest. Sweeney has learned this, too, after some trial and error.
Despite her love of sleep, there have been times that she wondered if she’s too fixated on getting enough shuteye — if always opting for more Zs works against her in some ways. “Sometimes I’ll stay in bed for those extra snoozes and end up running late,” she says. “Or I’ll have to move things around in my day because I choose to sleep instead of working out or getting a jump start on a project that needs tackling."
She’s so afraid of burning herself out that she doesn’t burn at all.
But she’s working on becoming balanced. Sometimes, first thing in the morning, she’ll hop out of bed and turn on all the lights so she won’t be tempted to climb back between the sheets. Over the holidays, she decided to stay out until 12:30 a.m. so she could enjoy more quality time with family and friends from out of town. She’s doing her best to value sleep, without letting it take over her life. And if all else fails, she can come back to the tried and true tactic from her college days: Nap and rally.