How much sleep do you need?
When you’re scrambling to meet the countless demands of your day, cutting back on sleep might seem like the only answer. Who can afford to spend so much time sleeping, anyway? The truth is you can’t afford not to. Even minimal sleep loss takes a toll on your mood, energy, and ability to handle stress. By understanding your nightly sleep needs and what you can do to bounce back from chronic sleep loss, you can finally get on a healthy sleep schedule.
The power of sleep
Many of us try to sleep as little as possible. There are so many things that seem more interesting or important than getting a few more hours of sleep, but just as exercise and nutrition are essential for optimal health and happiness, so is sleep. The quality of your sleep directly affects the quality of your waking life, including your mental sharpness, productivity, emotional balance, creativity, physical vitality, and even your weight. No other activity delivers so many benefits with so little effort!
Sleep isn’t exactly a time when your body and brain shut off. While you rest, your brain stays busy, overseeing a wide variety of biological maintenance that keeps your body running in top condition, preparing you for the day ahead. Without enough hours of restorative sleep, you won’t be able to work, learn, create, and communicate at a level even close to your true potential. Regularly skimp on “service” and you’re headed for a major mental and physical breakdown.
The good news is that you don't have to choose between health and productivity. As you start getting the sleep you need, your energy and efficiency will go up. In fact, you're likely to find that you actually get more done during the day than when you were skimping on shuteye.
Myths and Facts about Sleep
Myth 1: Getting just one hour less sleep per night won’t affect your daytime functioning. You may not be noticeably sleepy during the day, but losing even one hour of sleep can affect your ability to think properly and respond quickly. It also compromises your cardiovascular health, energy balance, and ability to fight infections.
Myth 2: Your body adjusts quickly to different sleep schedules. Most people can reset their biological clock, but only by appropriately timed cues—and even then, by one–two hours per day at best. Consequently, it can take more than a week to adjust after traveling across several time zones or switching to the night shift.
Myth 3: Extra sleep at night can cure you of problems with excessive daytime fatigue. The quantity of sleep you get is important, sure, but it's the quality of your sleep that you really have to pay attention to. Some people sleep eight or nine hours a night but don’t feel well rested when they wake up because the quality of their sleep is poor.
Myth 4: You can make up for lost sleep during the week by sleeping more on the weekends. Although this sleeping pattern will help relieve part of a sleep debt, it will not completely make up for the lack of sleep. Furthermore, sleeping later on the weekends can affect your sleep-wake cycle so that it is much harder to go to sleep at the right time on Sunday nights and get up early on Monday mornings.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the average adult sleeps less than seven hours per night. In today’s fast-paced society, six or seven hours of sleep may sound pretty good. In reality, though, it’s a recipe for chronic sleep deprivation.
While sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need between seven and a half to nine hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Children and teens need even more. And despite the notion that our sleep needs decrease with age, older people still need at least seven and a half to eight hours of sleep. Since older adults often have trouble sleeping this long at night, daytime naps can help fill in the gap.
Think six hours of sleep is enough?
Think again. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco discovered that some people have a gene that enables them to do well on six hours of sleep a night. This gene, however, is very rare, appearing in less than 3% of the population. For the other 97% of us, six hours doesn’t come close to cutting it.
How sleep deprivation can add to your waistline
Ever noticed how when you’re short on sleep you crave sugary foods that give you a quick energy boost? There’s a good reason for that. Sleep deprivation has a direct link to overeating and weight gain.
There are two hormones in your body that regulate normal feelings of hunger and fullness. Ghrelin stimulates appetite, while leptin sends signals to the brain when you are full. However, when don’t get the sleep you need, your ghrelin levels go up, stimulating your appetite so you want more food than normal, and your leptin levels go down, meaning you don’t feel satisfied and want to keep eating. So, the more sleep you lose, the more food your body will crave.
Quality sleep and your internal clock
Your internal 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, otherwise known as your biological clock or circadian rhythm, is regulated by processes in the brain that respond to how long you’ve been awake and the changes between light and dark. At night, your body responds to the loss of daylight by producing melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. During the day, sunlight triggers the brain to inhibit melatonin production so you feel awake and alert.
Your internal clock can be disrupted by factors such as nightshift work, traveling across time zones, or irregular sleeping patterns—leaving you feeling groggy, disoriented, and sleepy at inconvenient times. The production of melatonin can also be thrown off when you're deprived of sunlight during the day or exposed to too much artificial light at night—especially the light from electronic devices, including TVs, computers, tables, and mobile phones.
Having a hard time getting up when your alarm goes off?
Even if you’ve enjoyed a full night’s sleep, getting out of bed can be difficult if your alarm goes off when you’re in the middle of deep sleep. If you want to make mornings less painful—or if you know you only have a limited time for sleep—try setting a wake-up time that’s a multiple of 90 minutes, the length of the average sleep cycle. For example, if you go to bed at 10 p.m., set your alarm for 5:30 (a total of 7 ½ hours of sleep) instead of 6:00 or 6:30. You may feel more refreshed at 5:30 than with another 30 to 60 minutes of sleep because you’re getting up at the end of a sleep cycle when your body and brain are already close to wakefulness.
Tips for getting and staying out of sleep debt
While you can’t pay off sleep debt in a night or even a weekend, with a little effort and planning, you can get back on track.
Aim for at least seven and a half hours of sleep every night. Make sure you don’t fall farther in debt by blocking off enough time for sleep each night. Consistency is the key.
Take a sleep vacation to pay off a long-term sleep debt. Pick a two-week period when you have a flexible schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night and allow yourself to sleep until you wake up naturally. No alarm clocks! If you continue to keep the same bedtime and wake up naturally, you’ll eventually dig your way out of debt and arrive at the sleep schedule that’s ideal for you.
Make sleep a priority. Just as you schedule time for work and other commitments, you should schedule enough time for sleep. Instead of cutting back on sleep in order to tackle the rest of your daily tasks, put sleep at the top of your to-do list.