Despite the news reports about our so-called sleep crisis, lack of sleep isn't actually a problem most of us have, says a new study

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
September 10, 2015
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You might have heard: There's a sleep crisis in this country. Between longer work days, fewer vacation days, and nights that look like days (thanks to our abundance of artificial lighting), we're just not catching enough quality z's. One recent headline put it as "America's Sleep Crisis is Making Us Sick, Fat and Stupid." The only problem with this dire story? It isn't true, at least according to a new study analysis in SleepMedicine Reviews which found most of us are actually sleeping a perfectly healthy amount.

Researchers at Arizona State University examined data from studies going back 50 years and found that for the last half century, the average adult has always gotten-and is still getting-around seven hours and 20 minutes of shut-eye per night. That's smack dab in the seven- to eight- hour range that experts say we should be in. (If you're not one of those average people, try some of these Affordable Products for a Better Night's Sleep.)

So why all the hype about sleep-deprived Americans stumbling through life like zombies with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bottle of Ambien in the other? Well, for starters, the recent research linking too little shuteye with a higher risk of depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer is in fact legit. It's just the idea that most of us aren't getting enough sleep that's a myth, says lead author Shawn Youngstedt, Ph.D.

"One of the main points we tried to emphasize in this paper is that our results are actually consistent with several extensive reviews of reported data which also indicate that sleep duration has not changed over the last half-century, nor has the percentage of people who sleep less than six hours a night," he says. "Not all studies have shown this, but the majority have."

Indeed, polls since 1975 consistently show nearly 60 percent of Americans report getting more than six hours of shut-eye a night. (Is It Better to Sleep in or Work Out?)

Youngstedt says this misguided idea stems from confusion about what exactly is optimal slumber. "Just like one can get too much water, sunlight, vitamins, or food, there are dozens of studies which suggest that one can get too much sleep," he explains. "Eight hours of nighttime sleep was traditionally thought to be the ideal amount for health. However, eight or more hours has consistently been shown to be linked with mortality and other health risks. So, from a public health perspective, sleeping longer might be a greater concern." (Plus there's these 11 Ways Your Morning Routine Can Make You Sick.)

Even worse, he adds that all this bedtime brouhaha may actually be making people score even less sleep by giving them one more thing to toss and turn about-bad news considering worries can in turn can trigger anxiety and insomnia. And those sleeping pills aren't doing you any favors either. "Avoid sleeping pills; nightly use of a sleeping pill is as hazardous as smoking at least a pack of cigarettes a day," he says.

Instead, he thinks we should all chill out (yes, that's official Ph.D. speak) about our slumber and pay more attention to what our bodies are telling us.

The ideal number? The fewest health risks have been associated with seven hours of reported snoozing, Youngstedt says. But if you feel good sleeping a little less or a little more then don't sweat it. The key is to get only as much shut-eye as you need to feel happy, alert, and well-rested. "Trying to [force yourself to] sleep more is liable to cause you to sleep worse and could be harmful to health," he says. (The exception? These 4 Times You Need More Sleep.)

One less thing to worry about when it comes to our health? We like the sound of that!