Rethinking Sleep – How to Need Less of It

By on October 15, 2018

Since researching and trying out intermittent fasting, I no longer trust anything. Something we have long taken for granted – that we should eat three meals a day – has proven to be baseless.

So what else should we question?

Need less sleep

I’ve lately been questioning everything. What if you can train your healing by consistently causing tiny injuries? That probably wouldn’t work… but who knows? What if taking hot showers can increase vasodilation and blood flow to the brain? Again, who knows. So many possibilities!

After all, my beliefs about diet haven’t been the only ones overturned by research. I’ve similarly recently learned that icing a wound may actually slow healing. Several years back I was surprised (but vindicated) to learn that stretching prior to a workout increases your chances of injury!

But sleep is the one I’m really interested in questioning. And I’m not alone. In particular, that 8 hours thing. Seems a little rigid don’t you think?

I’m about to become a Father, meaning that 8 hours of sleep is going to be a thing of the past. How can I fortify myself against that reality? How can I make it so that I need less sleep?

How to Need Less Sleep – Do You Really Need 8 Hours?

If you believe most health bloggers, lifehackers, and health professionals, then getting 8 hours of sleep per night is absolutely essential. Failure to do so will result in reductions in attention, mood, reflexes, and just about every other measure of physical and mental performance.

But then you have individuals that seem to disprove this rule. Margaret Thatcher famously who is said to have thrived on just four horus of sleep. And Arnie who advises that you ‘sleep faster’. Dwayne The Rock Johnson surely can’t get all that much sleep, beginning training every day at 4am as he does.

The Rock Time

If you’re keen to sample The Rock’s sleep schedule, there’s actually an app for that!

It seems almost to me that these figures have managed to ‘will themselves’ to be spry on less sleep. They are so high-energy that they simple need less recovery time than the rest of us. It’s certainly true that being stressed about a lack of sleep can actually exacerbate the symptoms of deprivation.

But maybe there’s more going on here. Maybe we actually need less sleep?

We know that some people have a specific mutation that allows them to thrive on 6 hours of sleep. But what if this is a gene that we can all activate with training? What if we only need eight hours because we’ve convinced ourselves we do, and trained our bodies to?

There’s some research to back this up. In particular, researchers have looked at tribes of indigenous people such as the Piraha who sleep comparatively very little. The Piraha in fact believe that sleeping for  more than 20-30 minutes at a time (which is not enough to go through a full cycle) is very bad for you and that when you wake up, you won’t be ‘you’ any more. If a Piraha should sleep for longer than this, they actually change their name upon waking (reference).

Arnie Sleep

It’s easy to imagine the evolutionary forces that might have encouraged this behaviour. Especially when you consider that their way of saying goodnight actually translates to ‘Don’t sleep! There are snakes about!’

Researchers found that three tribes that similarly sleep only five, six, and seven hours a night (the Hadza of Northern Tanzania, San of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, and the Chimane of Bolivia), actually demonstrate no sign that it is doing them any harm (reference). Contrary to popular assumption, they don’t fall asleep as soon as it gets dark.

If we follow the current line of thinking – that what’s natural must be healthy – then should we actually be sleeping less, not more? Maybe we actually need less sleep than we think?

Quality, Not Quantity

So how could it be that people actually need less sleep than we thought? Again, keep in mind this is all speculation.

One obvious assumption might be that quality trumps quantity. Perhaps these tribes can sleep less because their sleep is deeper and less disturbed. Located as it is away from light pollution and sounds of traffic.

This is possible. Though the data suggests that light and noise may not be the most important factors.

Sleep quality brain

According to the research conducted by Jerry Siegel, the one thing that all groups studied had in common was that their sleep was dictated by temperature. Specifically, they go to sleep as the temperature starts to fall, and they wake up once it stops falling – once it reaches its coldest point.

So, while I still maintain that my daylight lamp is doing me some good, maybe I’d be better off simulating the outdoor temperature? Maybe opening a window should be the number one sleep hack?

Maybe in future we could even rig our temperature control to alter temperature based on the time we want to wake up? Maybe doing this would help us to need less sleep, by ensuring we get more quality rejuvenation, and by helping us to wake more refreshed with less sleep inertia?

More Possibilities

There are other very interesting methods being used to improve the quality of sleep too. One that I find very compelling is the use of clicking and whooshing (pink noise) sounds that seem to help encourage greater slow wave sleep. This is certainly something that we could use to need less sleep in future.

Specifically, researchers have used carefully timed noises that sync directly with subjects’ brainwaves during Stage 4 sleep in order to enhance the strange of those oscillations and thereby enhance sleep quality. This was shown in younger subjects, and then more recently in older participants who it was also found would see benefits in their memory recall (study).

What’s going on here? Presumably it has something to do with brainwave entrainment. Unfortunately, because some kind of ECG was used to monitor brainwaves and sync them directly, this isn’t something that we can try ourselves at home until a product is produced to do it for us.

It might be that the lower amount of sleep in the elderly population is more of a symptom rather than a cause of any age-related cognitive decline

But it does suggest that maybe using white noise in general might be beneficial? The natural substitute for artificial white noise would surely be the rustling of trees in the wind, a babbling brook, or a gushing waterfall?

Likewise, we can look at the motives of the study a little more closely. The reason that researchers were keen to try this technique on older participants aged between 60-84, is that the amount of slow wave sleep we experience as we age decreases significantly – and no one is really sure why.

But I have a theory. Because generally we learn less as we age – while we might still read and watch TV, we are faced with fewer large learning challenges like driving for the first time, raising children, or taking on big work projects. Seeing as slow wave sleep is associated with memory formation, my hypothesis is that the less you learn, the less slow wave sleep you need. Learning more may therefore lead to deeper sleep, but it might be that the lower amount of sleep in the elderly population is more of a symptom rather than a cause of any age-related cognitive decline.

Likewise, we could point out that the older population is generally less physically active and spends less time in the sun. Both these things could result in shallower sleep.

Stress – Why We Need More Sleep

Another factor that may contribute to a lack of quality deep sleep is stress.

Here’s what I realised myself: sometimes I need less sleep. Sometimes I choose to stay up playing video games for an hour before bed while my wife sleeps on, and I wake up the same time next day no worse off.

Other times, I absolutely need my sleep. Right now, I feel the effects of getting less sleep acutely. And I’ve realised: it’s because I’m stressed. I have far more responsibilities now that I’m about to be a Dad, I’m working much harder, and with my wife being heavily pregnant, I’ve taken on more responsibilities around the home.

My levels of physical activity have probably actually decreased compared to a few months ago. But the fact that I am now so stressed before bed means that I’m not getting the full benefits of rejuvenating sleep.

Cortisol is a wakefulness hormone. It tells our bodies that something is wrong, and that we need to respond by staying awake and alert.

And when I look at the research, it seems that I’m on to something.

One systematic review looked at the effects of ‘psychosocial stress’ on sleep, and found that across 63 studies, there was definite evidence of reduction in REM sleep, and sleep efficiency, along with an increase in sleep awakenings (study).

This makes sense, seeing as stress/cortisol are anathemas to melatonin. Cortisol is a wakefulness hormone. It tells our bodies that something is wrong, and that we need to respond by staying awake and alert.

Meanwhile, it appears that we may actually require more slow wave sleep following social stress (study). This is another reason that older individuals may need less once they retire and once they spend less time in complex social structures.

This is where I think a lot of biohacks have it wrong. Will blue light increase your cortisol? Sure. But that’s nothing compared with the effect of chronic stress that comes from being overworked, in debt etc.

Will blue light increase your cortisol? Sure. But that’s nothing compared with the effect of chronic stress that comes from being overworked

To this end then, one of the very best things that you can do for your own sleep is to meditate. Many successful practitioners of meditation find that they need less sleep as they progress. This makes sense, seeing as meditation can reduce stress, increase DHEA, and hep us to cope better with the rigors of the day.

And perhaps there is another way to override that stress and thus need less sleep. Maybe simply viewing problems as challenges, and maybe being highly energised and motivated by the work that you do, can help you to react to stress in a more positive way.

I’ve talked in the past about how you can use CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to combat insomnia (video below). But this could also work on a broader scale – simply choosing to view challenges in a different light, such that you don’t let them impair your sleep and performance.

Maybe this explains why someone like Arnie is able to get by on less sleep? Maybe it also has to do with steroids.


The purpose of this post is not to provide solid recommendations or hacks. Rather, my aim has been to just some explore some alternative options and points of view when it comes to your sleep.

Maybe – just maybe – we don’t always need 8 hours of sleep. Maybe the amount of sleep is more directly related to the kind of day you’ve had and your mindset. Maybe getting ‘less SWS’ isn’t necessarily the sign of

Maybe stressing about not getting 8 hours is doing far more harm than good?

Meditation Need Less Sleep

I’m hopefully receiving an Oura Ring soon, which I will be using to conduct some sleep experiments of my own. And this will tie in nicely to the upcoming months of broken sleep that await me.

In the meantime, here are some things that you can try to start needing less sleep:

  • Open the window slightly
  • Meditate and reduce stress
  • Listen to pink noise
  • Stop assuming that 8 hours is required, or even necessarily optimum

I’d love to know how you get on with this, and if you have any other tips that help you need less sleep. Shout out in the comments down below!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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