The end of sleep: 'sleep debt' versus biological adaptation of human sleep to waking needs

Biol Psychol. 2011 Apr;87(1):1-14. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.10.004. Epub 2010 Oct 16.


It is argued that the latter part of usual human sleep is phenotypically adaptable (without 'sleep debt') to habitual shortening or lengthening, according to environmental influences of light, safety, food availability and socio-economic factors, but without increasing daytime sleepiness. Pluripotent brain mechanisms linking sleep, hunger, foraging, locomotion and alertness, facilitate this time management, with REM acting as a 'buffer' between wakefulness and nonREM ('true') sleep. The adaptive sleep range is approximately 6-9h, although, a timely short (<20 min) nap can equate to 1h 'extra' nighttime sleep. Appraisal of recent epidemiological findings linking habitual sleep duration to mortality and morbidity points to nominal causal effects of sleep within this range. Statistical significance, here, may not equate to real clinical significance. Sleep durations outside 6-9h are usually surrogates of common underlying causes, with sleep associations taking years to develop. Manipulation of sleep, alone, is unlikely to overcome these health effects, and there are effective, rapid, non-sleep, behavioural countermeasures. Sleep can be taken for pleasure, with minimal sleepiness; such 'sleepability' is 'unmasked' by sleep-conducive situations. Sleep is not the only anodyne to sleepiness, but so is wakefulness, inasmuch that some sleepiness disappears when wakefulness becomes more challenging and eventful. A more ecological approach to sleep and sleepiness is advocated.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological / physiology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / complications
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / complications
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Metabolic Diseases / complications
  • Obesity / complications
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Stages / physiology
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / etiology
  • Time Factors
  • Wakefulness / physiology*