Not many of us ask ourselves this question; indeed, for many American adults and increasingly for children, sleep is like money—there’s never enough and we always want more. The CDC estimates that about one-third of adults don’t get sufficient sleep, and the National Sleep Foundation estimates the number of sleep-deprived kids to be about 25 to 30%.
We’re all aware that many of us aren’t sleeping enough each day. But what about that small proportion of the population—about 5% of adults, according to the American Sleep Association—who sleep too much? For those individuals who sleep long or nap often, how much sleep is is too much sleep? (Or is there such a thing?)
Hypersomnia: Sleeping (and Napping) Too Much
Indeed, there is such a thing as excessive sleep. For some people, the cause is a sleep disorder called hypersomnia (also called hypersomnolence). Hypersomnia is a condition where people experience a very long primary sleep at night, combined with excessive daytime sleepiness that results in frequent, long naps.
As with many other sleep disorders, hypersomnia can be either primary or secondary.
Primary hypersomnia, which is rare and affects less than 1% of the population, has its roots in the nervous system. It is a completely separate sleep disorder of its own, dictated by brain activity. If you have primary hypersomnia, you’ll sleep more than 10 hours per night, and your sleep will be heavy and deep—you’ll be difficult to rouse. During the day, you’ll be chronically exhausted, and the naps you can’t avoid taking won’t seem to help very much; you’ll still be sleepy when you wake.
Primary hypersomnia or hypersomnolence is very rare and easily confused with other causes and conditions that cause daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and excess sleep (such as depression, drug interactions and side effects, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and other sleep disorders). To receive a positive diagnosis of primary hypersomnia, you’ll need to work with a sleep specialist over a period of several months, tracking your sleep and undergoing sleep tests like a polysomnogram and multiple sleep latency test.
Secondary hypersomnia is far more common than primary, and is labeled as “secondary” because it’s triggered by another disease or condition such as sleep apnea, diabetes, MS, or sleep disorders like restless leg syndrome or delayed sleep phase disorder (common in teens).
As with primary hypersomnia, you’ll need to consult with a sleep specialist and undergo sleep testing in order to get at the root of what’s causing your long sleep sessions and daytime fatigue. Other specialists such as your primary physician, a neurologist, or a rheumatologist may also be involved in getting to the bottom of your particular diagnosis.
With secondary hypersomnia, once you effectively treat the primary, underlying health condition, your sleep problems should resolve, allowing you to get a more appropriate amount of sleep.
Why Is Too Much Sleep a Problem?
In today’s busy life, getting too much sleep almost seems too good to be true. Most of us would probably love one weekend day where we could sleep in and get a solid ten or twelve hours of shuteye. But for those with hypersomnia, getting more than the optimal amount of sleep on a regular or recurrent basis can actually be harmful.
First, sleeping more than the recommended amount each day may be a sign of a serious underlying health problem or comorbid condition that requires treatment. If you’re sleeping 10-12 hours or more per day and you’re still exhausted and napping a lot, consider this a warning that something may be wrong. Consulting your doctor can help to determine what that problem is.
Second, the excess sleep itself may be harming your health. Journals like Sleep Health and The Annals of Medicine have reported in the past that long sleepers (those who sleep longer than 10 hours per night on average) may be more likely to also have depression, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and strokes—sometimes, fatally. (Some short sleepers, who sleep less than 6 hours per night every night, are also subject to a higher likelihood of certain illnesses.
These studies have found an association between long sleep and chronic illness and disease, rather than causation. This means scientists know there’s a connection, but they have more to learn about what this connection means. What they do know for sure is that chronic or recurrent hypersomnia is linked in some way to poorer health outcomes. People who sleep an abnormal amount are associated with a higher rate of certain illnesses. If you’re sleeping too much on a regular basis, you may have an increased likelihood of becoming seriously ill at some point.
Third, long sleeps can interfere with relationships and your social life. If you’re asleep when everyone else is awake—and if you’re tired when you are awake—this can take a toll on your job, your family life, and your own emotions as you find yourself with less and less time to stick to commitments or explore hobbies and interests. If you’re taking medications or trying to stick to a diet and exercise plan, these can suffer from your irregular schedule, too. Also, sleeping too much can be isolating, and this can lead to side effects of social isolation like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
How Much Sleep Is the Perfect Amount?
So, returning the title of this blog post: how much sleep is too much sleep? The National Sleep Foundation Sleep Duration Recommendations can help you to determine where your sleep habits fall on the spectrum.
- Teenagers ages 14 to 17 normally sleep from 7 to 11 hours (ideally, 8 to 10 hours).
- Young adults ages 18 to 25 should aim for 6 to 11 hours of sleep per night, with 7 to 9 hours being ideal.
- Adults ages 26 to 64 should sleep between 6 and 10 hours per night, with 7 to 9 hours being ideal.
- Adults over 65 may need a little less sleep (5 to 9 hours).
The National Sleep Foundation website offers a full chart that includes sleep guidelines for all ages, including infants and small children. Though every one of us is different in regards to what’s “normal” as an individual, generally speaking, these guidelines can give you a baseline understanding of what’s typical for a healthy person in your age group.
If you’re sleeping more than the recommended maximum amount each day—and if you are noticing other symptoms that may indicate a problem, such as chronic fatigue—you may want to speak to your doctor to rule out more serious problems, or to get a referral to a sleep specialist who can help you with a diagnosis and treatment.
If you feel like you are sleeping too much feel free to contact Sound Sleep Health in Seattle today at (425) 279-7151. One of our Sleep Medicne experts can address the over 80 sleep disorders.