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New "sleep hacking" trend promises to add an extra day to your week

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Sleep less, do more — but why?

Too much to do, too little time: It's the modern woman's dilemma. Inevitably someone will point out, "We all have the same 24 hours in a day. It's about prioritizing." So in a packed schedule, what can give? Sleep can, according to more and more women following a trend called "sleep hacking" where they only sleep three to five hours a night.

According to several popular books, our bodies can be trained to survive and thrive on far less sleep than we've been told. Some advise breaking up sleep into shorter blocks while others simply recommend going to bed later and waking up earlier — something many of us do anyhow but just feel guilty and tired rather than uber-productive.

It's all about changing this mindset say enthusiasts. And they may be correct. A 2013 study found that "placebo sleep" worked just as well as normal sleep. Participants who were told they'd slept better than they actually had performed better on cognitive tests than people who were told they'd slept worse, even though the amount of sleep was the same. "If you believe you're well rested, then you'll feel well rested," the researchers concluded.

One woman, who sleeps four to five hours a night, explained her sleep hacking decision saying, "This way, I can squeeze an extra day into my week. I have simply learned the art of early rising. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t lengthen their day this way." And it's not just harried moms. Thomas Edison, famous for inventing the light bulb (among a zillion other things), credited his success to sleeping as little as possible.

Yet doctors remain very concerned about the long-term effects. Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist and author of Vigor Diet, The New Science of Feeling Your Best, calls sleep hacking a terrible idea. "Chopping up your sleep cycle increases levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), which can cause all kinds of bad effects in the body," he explains. Not only does it make you feel foggy — missing a night of sleep is equivalent to drinking seven bottles of beer and long-term deprivation can lead to permanent brain damage — and snappish, he adds that it's bad for your waistline as well.

"The cortisol increases appetite, especially for high-sugar 'comfort' foods, later in the day," he says. Even worse, he says studies have shown that weight gain due to elevated cortisol is stored as dangerous belly fat, a known risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. "Getting adequate sleep is every bit as important as proper diet and regular exercise for maintaining your health," Talbott adds.

But I think the real question is why women are feeling the need to "add an extra day" to their week. If our work, family, fitness and other commitments don't give us enough time for a full night's sleep, then maybe we need to cut back on our schedule. There's so much pressure on us to be superwomen — not only doing everything but being good at everything to boot! — and I think sleep hacking is just one more way to keep trying to be "perfect." But perfection is overrated. Adequate sleep has been linked in countless studies with feeling happier and I'd much rather be happy than perfect.

More on sleeping

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