Why Am I Always So Tired?

by Tina Blue
August 4, 2002

In "America's Sleep Deficit" I explain why adequate sleep is as important to life as food and water.  The research backs me up on this, as insufficient or irregular sleep has been implicated in heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, overeating, drug and alcohol abuse, and depression.  Sleep deprivation also compromises the immune system, leaving one more susceptible to illnesses of all kinds, from colds to cancer.

In both "America's Sleep Deficit" and "Slow Down--You're Moving Too Fast" I explore the unfortunate fact that most Americans consider sleep a luxury, and berate anyone who sleeps "too much" or "too late," although what constitutes "too much" sleep is an arbitrary standard that ignores the variability of people's sleep requirements.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most Americans averaged 9 to 9 ½ hours of sleep per night.  Today the average is 7 hours, which means that many Americans suffer from chronic sleep deprivation.

Mary, a young woman I know who is graduating from college this summer, was complaining to me recently that she sleeps way too much.  Even her roommates call her lazy and tease her about always needing naps, even after a "full night's sleep."

I asked her about her sleep regimen.  Four years ago when this same young woman had described frequently sleeping 16 hours at a stretch and still feeling exhausted, I had pressed her to get tested for mono.

Back then, as it happens, she had mono.

This time, though, the sleep pattern she described consisted of sleeping from midnight to 8:00 a.m. every day.  She went to bed at the same time and got up at the same time quite regularly. 

And yet, she lamented, she still had to have a nap when she got home from class each day.

"Has it occurred to you," I asked, "that you might be one of the many people who need more than 8 hours of sleep a night?"

"But that can't be normal!" she exclaimed.

But it is normal.  I, for example, need 9 ½ hours of sleep per night.  I can manage on less, and usually I am forced to get by on much less.  But if I want to pop out of bed well-rested and ready to face the day with a full charge of energy, I need those 9 ½ hours. 

I suspect one reason I need extra sleep is that my allergies cause my sleep to be less solid than it would be if I could breathe more comfortably while sleeping.  A lot of people have their sleep quality undermined by breathing problems caused by allergies and, more seriously, sleep apnea.  Whatever the reason, though, anything less than 9 ½ hours leaves me tired and in need of a double jolt of caffeine to help me get started in the morning.

After I told her that I need 9 ½ hours of sleep, Mary told me that 9-10 hours is what she requires, too, and she had always felt guilty about being so "lazy"--a feeling that has been reinforced by all the people who tease her about being lazy because she sleeps "too much."  She was actually relieved when I told her she probably wasn't sleeping enough!

Some people do very well on 8 hours of sleep a night.  Some lucky folks need only 7, and there have been documented cases of people whose sleep requirement was a mere 5 hours.

But the 8-hour standard that most people put such faith in is actually an average, which means that some people need more sleep than that, some less.  And whatever your body's natural sleep requirement is, it is non-negotiable.

Every hour of sleep debt you accumulate must be paid off.  A certain amount of sleep debt is necessary: after all, we must be awake part of the day in order to be able to sleep at all at night.  But excess sleep debt, accumulated sleep debt that is not paid off, will drag you down, and the more of it you accumulate, the worse you will feel--and the less optimally you will perform on any task.

If you need, say, 9 hours a night but only permit yourself  8, then after a 5-day work week you will have accumulated 5 hours of excess sleep debt that you will have to repay.  People usually do this by sleeping 2 or 3 hours late on Saturday and Sunday--that is, if they allow themselves to catch up on sleep at all.

If they don't, then their sleep debt will continue to accumulate, until at some point they simply crash and sleep for 12, 17, 20, or more hours at a stretch.  We all know people who do this from time to time.  Heck, most of us do this from time to time.

How much sleep do you need to wake up easily, without an alarm clock (or two or three, or four, as many of us require!), and eager to get up and face the day?

Most Americans actually don't even know their own body's sleep requirement, because for as long as they can remember, they have been dragging themselves out of bed before they are "slept out."  Whether it is the pressure of school or a job, or whether they just can't stop playing video games, surfing the net, or watching TV, most Americans normally do not get enough sleep.

In order to find out how much sleep you need, you would have to allow yourself to sleep until you awaken naturally for several weeks.  The first week or two, you would sleep a lot of extra hours, because you would be working off your sleep debt.

Then you'd need one or two weeks of normal sleep, to allow your body to find its natural sleeping pattern.

I never got to do this until I was 39 years old!  That's when I found out that with 9 ½ hours of sleep I am a turbocharged dynamo.  How wonderful it felt to leap out of bed without regret each morning and go about my work with all the energy I needed to get it done.  For a while I even gave up my morning coffee.

The set of circumstances that allowed me to sleep as much as I needed for several months was an aberration in my life.  It happened for the first time when I was 39, and it has not happened again in the 13 years since. 

These days, even when I could sleep enough (as I could have during 5 weeks of last summer), I never do.  Why?  For the same reason no one else does, even when they can: because there are too many things I want to do, and I hate to "waste" my free time sleeping.

Usually I stay up late reading or writing.  Different people have different fixations.  But most of us have something we love to do and wish we had more time for, so when we do get free time, we are more likely to spend it on what we love to do than on paying off our sleep debt.

My 22-year-old son complains all week about how exhausted he is from his summer math class, his 40-hour work week, and his fairly demanding workout schedule. 

But then on weekends, instead of sleeping, he parties with his friends until the wee hours of the morning.

Maybe if we were less chained to our jobs, if we had more prime time available for our own pursuits, we wouldn't have to stay up all night to fit our fun into our lives.  But then again, it is soooo hard to put down that book, log off from the internet, or leave the party.  The fact that we can stay up all night, thanks to artificial light, means that we probably will, even though our bodies beg us for sleep.

But as I explain in "America's Sleep Deficit," chronic sleep deprivation has very serious consequences.  We would do well to listen to our bodies and make it a habit to get a good night's sleep.

And that's just what I meant to do this evening--before I let myself get caught up in writing and posting this essay.

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